Madonna and Child (Arms of the Arte dei Medici e degli Speziali)
Luca della Robbia
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This glazed terracotta roundel is on the exterior of Orsanmichele in Florence, high above the niche belonging to the Arte dei Medici e degli Speziali (guild of the physicians and apothecaries) and serves as a coat of arms for the guild. Orsanmichele performed multiple functions, political, economic, and religious, as the city's grainary, but also as the site holding multiple miraculous images. The guilds (economic and political organizations that essentially formed Florence's republican government) had patronized niches on the exterior and commissioned statues by Donatello, Ghiberti and others to show their devotion and display their wealth and power. This particular guild, that of the physicians and apothecaries, was the one to which painters generally belonged, as colours (paints, but also likely ingredients for glazes) were bought along with medicines at apothecary shops. The image in fact looks less like a coat of arms than like a three-dimensional painting. (Pope Hennesy points to echoes of Domenico Veneziano's paintings of the Madonna.) The statue in the niche below this glazed terracotta roundel is also a Madonna and Child and was installed in 1399, at which point the coat of arms above was likely painted on the building. This roundel is undocumented, and scholars have suggested dates of ca. 1460-65. Gentilini suggests that the roundels for Orsanmichele may be the first glazed terracotta works made to be outdoors, and points to the importance of Renaissance writings about the durability of different materials. While Luca della Robbia is generally known for his white and blue works, this image exemplifies his ability to use a wider range of colours, incluiding yellows, greens, the brownish purple that substitutes for red (unobtainable in a glaze), and even flesh tones. The Madonna is displayed high on the wall on a narrow street, and she and her baby look down on a busy intersection, and so this lively polychromy makes the image visible and tenderly human, despite the distance. Even though they were displayed out of doors for centuries, traces of paint have also been found on the marble statues in the niches below in Orsanmichele, and so the polychromy here would have originally been a part of a larger colouristic effect on the building as a whole. Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.