On Monday I was able to achieve something I had wanted to do for years and years. Turns out it was simple, I only had to wait for the right day. I finally, finally was able to go to the upper floor(s) of the church of Orsanmichele!
Three summers ago when I last lived in Florence I tried to go to the upper floor of Orsanmichele everyday. The upper floor contains the originals of many of the late Medieval/early Renaissance sculptures that are now replaced by copies in the niches on the outside of the structure. I asked at the information desk in the church. I would ask the helpful guards that watched over the Orcagna Tabernacle inside and perpetually reminded visitors “No photo!” I asked and I asked about going to the museum upstairs. But no one seemed to know when it was open, or how to go there, or even at times, what I was talking about. So for that summer I was completely thwarted in my quest to see these sculptures. But not anymore!
In the intervening years I had asked well-informed Florence visitors about the Museum at Orsanmichele. If they had been, how they went, when, etc, etc. I would hear different responses, varying along the lines of, “well, it’s only open one morning a week; one day a month; one hour every other six weeks.” Then when I asked a friend who had spent a couple months this past summer in Florence, she said definitively: “it’s not so hard to get into! It’s open every Tuesday!” (or Monday or Wednesday, I don’t remember what she said precisely). So, now I had a plan. Me and the museum floor at Orsanmichele had a date with destiny.
On my very first day in Florence when walking by Orsanmichele I saw their sign: Chiesa open lots, Museo open Mondays 10-5! That first day, since I was braindead from not sleeping on my flight and the struggle with over 100lbs of luggage on trains from Rome to Florence, I decided I would wait to fulfill my destiny until the following week. So this past Monday, I was there. The first surprise was how easy it was: it was free; you go into the church and to the left there’s a sign indicating the Museum upstairs and a teeny tiny spiral staircase with more steps than I would prefer leading up to the upper floor (what Americans think of as the second floor, but in Italian is the primo piano). As I wound my way up the steps I even said out loud how excited I was, which is pretty exceptional for mumbly me. And upon arrival on the museum floor, I was not disappointed. The originals of these saints are truly beautiful, in all cases notably more refined than their copies below. Two of the most exciting sculptures weren’t present (Ghiberti’s Baptist, and Donatello’s St. Mark) because they are currently part of a Uffizi exhibition on the International Gothic, which I saw yesterday, but the other sculptures were fascinating and finally seeing these originals was well worth it. They’re thoughtfully displayed so that you can see all-the-way around them, which is an impossible view if they were in their original niches, but allows you to see their unfinished backsides . The backs of the four saints in the Nanni di Banco are rough stone, and Verrocchio’s Christ and Thomas are pretty much just half-people, with backs of completely rough and patched bronze. (Photos were very expressly forbidden, even after my dear companion asked quite nicely. So, no pretty pictures of the originals for you).
There was a second surprise: that there’s actually a secondo piano (third floor) to Orsanmichele as well! Upon climbing another set of torturous steps and arriving at the very, very top of this very tall building I was pleasantly surprised (despite it being the hottest, stuffiest, most sweat-inducing place I’ve been thus far) to find this:
A wide open room with huge windows looking out over Florence in all directions. On the walls were pairs of sculptures originally from the exterior that were badly damaged (due apparently to a particularity of the stone not being able to stand up to weather). But these sadly effaced sculptures could not compare to the views out the windows, where you could see things like this:
So I achieved a long-held goal. But it also lead me to think about things: It took me three years to get into this museum. I’ve seen the copies countless times, but now the originals only once. Now, I am an art historian, which means I have an uncommonly high interest in seeing the originals of sculptures and an uncommonly high knowledge of which public sculptures in this city are copies (answer: most of them). Florence is awash in copies. The manifold reasons for this are understandable, with the primary one being: protect the cultural patrimony. Makes total sense. But in this instance, when the cultural patrimony is (or has been), so inaccessible, even to someone who was hotly on its trail for three years!, is it perhaps a little over-protected? And what about all the people who clamor to take photos of Ghiberti’s golden Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry, who don’t even know they’re copies? Many of these people don’t make it into the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where the original Ghiberti sculptures reside, so they aren’t even appreciating the actual cultural patrimony (unless you want to get into a meta-discussion of the roll of copies through time and their status as distinct works of art, which, ok let’s grab a glass of wine and argue that into the evening). I am unusual as an art historian because I generally prefer access to original objects, even to their detriment, in favor of hiding them away for preservation purposes. I think artworks have lifespans and that we should protect them to a certain extent, but not so much that they’re inaccessible, or too removed from their original context. Complicating all of this further is the fact that, while I might spend my time studying these things into the ground, they are not in any way mycultural patrimony. I can’t ever fully understand what it means to have a Donatello as part of my heritage and what notions of access or preservation that intrinsic knowledge might engender. I just like to look at them: