|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|
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|
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|
|Sala delle Udienze - Council Hall or Tribunal|
|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 with its medallions|
|the four Apostles|
|two of the Cardinal Virtues depicted: Prudence and Fortitude|
|view of the Society's library|
|editions of the Divina Commedia|
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|
|Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), illustration to The Divine Comedy Paradiso VI, after 1480|
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|
|Bernardo Daddi Madonna col Bambino in Trono 1347|
|It is hard to imagine that this was once a granary|
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.