Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wool and Culture

Another glimpse into Florence's past: the Arte della Lana and the custodians of Dante's legacy 

The Arte della Lana building, formerly tower of the Compiobbesi (13th century) with the Orsanmichele church behind, to which it is linked by a bridge. It stands between via Calimala, via Orsanmichele and via dell'Arte della Lana
From 1308 the Arte della Lana building was the 'headquarters' of one of the richest and most powerful of the seven major guilds of medieval Florence, the Wool Guild. At its height the Arte delle Lana employed one third of the working population of Florence. Its coat of arms is an Agnus Dei, lamb of God, an emblem to be found in various representations within and without the building.

The Wool Guild's importance faded towards the 15th century when the Arte della Seta, the Silk Guild, became preeminent in Florence; from the 16th century the building underwent various architectural and functional changes, the most striking being the final closure of the Guild, when the entire guild system was eliminated and a Chamber of Commerce established under the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold of Hapsburg-Lorraine in 1770. From 1905 the building has belonged to the Società Dantesca Italiana, the Italian Dante Society - not to be confused with the Dante Alighieri Society, a worldwide cultural institute similar to the British Council. The Società Dantesca Italiana was founded to promote the study and dissemination of Dante's work.

plaque on Arte della Lana building depicting Dante showing the Divina Commedia, derived from Domenico di Michelino's piece in Santa Maria del Fiore
But it is with the Guild I wish to begin, also because, without the guilds and the wealth they garnered for Florence, it is debatable whether Dante's talents would have been sustained, his ambition pricked, his gift to the world brought to fruition in quite the way it was.

The building or palagio, as a building cross-between a tower and a palazzo (palace) is called locally, was situated in the commercial heart of medieval Florence in the former market gardens (the Or in Orsanmichele is a contraction of orto, vegetable garden) between the old market area, now Piazza della Repubblica and the governing area of the Signoria, and next door to the grain market loggia (an open-sided, vaulted gallery) of Orsanmichele which was converted into a church only after 1380.
Orsanmichele Church on the left, once the grain market; note the covered bridge linking the church with the Arte della Lana building; nowadays the bridge is less attractive and no longer covered
The Guild building housed offices and archives on the ground floor, the magnificent great hall of the Consuls who met every weekday (in the early 14th century there were eight Consuls in a Council of 48) on the first floor, and a prison on the second floor for Guild members who infringed the Guild's regulations; their trials took place in the council room below. Penalties could include corporal punishment, torture and even maiming.
Sala delle Udienze - Council Hall or Tribunal
These regulations, established since the 12th century, concerned quality but also market control. One of the most stringent was the  ban on practising the trade outside the state of Florence; anyone found doing so was severely punished. The norms  established scrupulous guidelines for every stage of the production cycle including the tools to be used which were periodically checked. It makes one realize that bureaucratic norms and regulations are part of the make-up of this nation. The wool guild also handled the management, funds and charitable works for the Baptistery of San Giovanni, its patron saint. 

copy of bronze statue of San Giovanni by Ghiberti, in Orsanmichele niche

The frescoes in the Council hall, one side showing the Judgement of Brutus or the Allegory of the Correct Exercise of Justice (reminiscent of Lorenzetti in Siena) and the other side the symbols of the Florentine borghi or neighborhoods, with the saints of the four convents of the Arte della Lana, are among the few surviving from the early 1300s.
above: the patron saints of the four Convents of the Wool Guild with their relative emblems and below: Judgement of Brutus or Allegory of the Correct Exercise of Justice
The vaulted ceiling is an elegant deep ultramarine blue studded with red stars and medallions showing the virtues and apostles. Judging from the ceiling alone it is clear that much money was lavished on the building.

the vaulted ceiling with its medallions
the four Apostles
two of the Cardinal Virtues depicted: Prudence and Fortitude
Instead, if you enter the shops on the ground floor of the building you will be treated to more historic decorations on their walls, notably, at via Calimala 16-18 Red,  the remnants of a fresco representing the various stages of wool manufacture.
view of the Society's library
Now that the former Arte della Lana is home to the Società Dantesca, the casual visitor can only gain access to the building through a guided tour (for details see below). A Dante scholar will be your guide to the building, the books and manuscripts, with explanations in Italian.
editions of the Divina Commedia
The library is in a room adjacent to the hall.  It is the perfect library: long walnut tables lit by iron lamps with parchment light shades; volumes donated by Dante scholars at the turn of the century in glass and wooden cases; even an elderly professor immersed in his studies. 

The guide will display reproductions of examples of Carolingian script and Gothic script and even a Welsh translation of Dante.*  The first edition of the Divina Commedia was published in 1502 in Venice by the Aldine press which used as its device the now historic dolphin and anchor. Dante's work was one of the first publications to employ italics.

The Society owns a copy of an unusual Turkish illuminated manuscript with the cantos in Italian: in the Muslim world, the 28th canto, where the prophet Mohammed is punished, is left out of contemporary editions of Dante's major work.
example of Divina Commedia in Caroline or Carolingian minuscule script

Divine Commedia in Gothic script
In a tiny rare book room the guide will present modern publications of Dante illustrated by Botticelli and Zuccaro  and demonstrate some of the problems involved with printing the earliest editions of Dante. Large folio copies of Dante were for reading aloud in the Lecturae Dantis, (a tradition initiated by Giovanni Boccaccio in the nearby Badia Fiorentina in the 1370s and resumed by the Dante Society at the end of the 19th century), while the smaller, slightly later editions were intended for private reading. 
Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), illustration to The Divine Comedy Paradiso VI, after 1480
From the roof of the palagio, not usually visited, are magnificent views of the Duomo with the the tip of the Baptistery peeking above the buildings, Santa Croce and the Palazzo della Signoria.

Access to the former granary of Orsanmichele, the site of the Dante Society's earliest Lecturae Dantis, is via the bridge linking the two buildings. The statues on display are the original ones from the external niches of Orsanmichele (the Saint George is now in the Bargello), removed in the 1980s because of  pollution damage. The most interesting one was the rather elegantly draped Saint John cast in bronze by Ghiberti (1416) for the Wool Guild. 
original bronze Saint John by Ghiberti
The Florentine Republic ordered each guild to commission a statue for a niche of Orsanmichele: fierce competition ensued, each guild trying to outspend and outdo the other.  The Wool Guild chose expensive bronze and Ghiberti, who successfully cast the statue using the lost wax process while his patrons nervously awaited the outcome: lost wax casting on such a scale had not been achieved since Roman times.  The delicate pattern around the edge of his cloak, executed while the bronze was still warm, attests to his versatility as an artist.

Bernardo Daddi Madonna col Bambino in Trono 1347
Downstairs, on the ground floor, Daddi's Madonna and Child, with the Child thrusting a hand towards his mother's face, occupies a corner of the building.  This new painting was commissioned to replace older repaintings of the Madonna that had suffered fire damage after miraculously surviving previous fires. 

It is hard to imagine that this was once a granary
At the time the loggia was open on the south side of the building (towards the Arno) where merchants met and carried out their business. The religious area was also the working area of the granary.  After paying respects to the Madonna, a merchant would carry his staio or bushel container over to a small rectangular opening in one of the pillars and fill it with grain shunted down the chute from above.  A little further along the wall a doorway topped by a staio sculpted in relief led upstairs. A pulley system nearby would have lifted grain to the dry, vermin-free floor above.

This visit is doubly significant: it not only reveals how carefully Dante's inheritance is preserved, studied and promoted today, but also how his creativity was nurtured by a solid, prosperous mercantile and artisan community. When we catch these glimpses of how complex, flourishing and 'advanced'** medieval Florence was, we appreciate better the poet's anguish, expressed so beautifully in the Commedia, at being banished from his beloved city.

these street signs sum up the arts and crafts which from the Middle Ages flourished thanks to the Arte della Lana in Florence: the carders, spinners, launderers, dyers, stretchers and weavers...and doubtless many more

*The Longfellow translation of Dante is currently on display in the Galleria Palatina in the Palazzo Pitti in a show called Una Volta nella Vita.  The show includes various rare manuscripts and incunabula (texts printed before 1501) from the Palazzo Pitti's collections, including a commentary by Galileo on Dante.  See The Florentine for more information. 

**This is not to ignore the violent and brutal aspects of Florentine life, whose repercussions would prompt Dante's exile and stoke the vindictive energy in his major work.

For information about these tours contact Alexandra Lawrence or The Florentine.

The Dante Society holds weekly Lecturae Dantis, one canto per week, during the Spring and Autumn. They will post a schedule soon; general public and students welcome.  The reader of each canto signs a leather-bound guest book; the first signature is that of Queen Margherita of Savoy.

With heartfelt thanks to a roving reporter friend for most of this information, to the Società Dantesca for some of the photos and as ever to the internet for extra material.


  1. Leitha -
    An excellent and informative exposition! Wikipedia notes: "The guildhall, the Palazzo dell' Arte della Lana, was completed in 1308, with an attached fortifiable tower-house. From its interior, where some 14th-century frescoes remain, a gallery designed by Bernardo Buontalenti links the palazzo with the church of Orsanmichele." Can this "gakkery" be visited?
    - Dan Baedeker

  2. The history of the staircase/gallery is complex. Suffice it to say that Buontalenti's staircase was demolished in 1920 according to the wishes of the Dante Society but against the wishes of the city council. Sadly today only a plain open-air passageway links the two buildings.


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