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This structure is located on an important site that represents an interesting example of the conflation of the religious and the civic. The Orsanmichele occupies a place on the Via de' Calzaiuoli about 3/4 of the way from the Piazza de San Giovanni in front of the cathedral, the religious center of Florence, to the Piazza della Signoria, the secular center of the city (Can you locate this rectangular structure in the air photograph of Florence at the top of the Florence-Page Two webpage?). In the mid-fourteenth century this street was widened and thus its connective importance was made more emphatic. Such a new symbolic importance required also that the structures along the way be made more dignified. The site of the oratory of St. Michael (which had been destoyed by fire in 1239) was turned into a grain market by the Sei della Biada, a civic acency resposible for ensuring the city's grain supply through import and storage. The market was covered by an arched arcade built in 1284. At some point an image of the Virgin Mary had been painted on one of the piers of the loggia, and it had been claimed that it performed miracles. Thus a shrine to Mary was established there. In 1304 a fire destroyed the market. In 1336 the present structure was built, though at first the large arches on the ground level were open to the street. An ingenious system for sluicing grain from the uper level storage level to the ground level was devised by having one of the piers in the north end of the structure hollow so grain could be poured down inside it.
From the beginning, a series of niches had decorated the corners and exterior piers of the building and in 1339 several of the city's important guilds were asked to patronize the structure by commissioning sculptors to execute statues of the guilds' patron saints for these niches, and by having paintings done of saints on the piers on the interior. In the 1340's the interior was further decorated by a painting of the Virgin and Child by Bernardo Daddi (1346), and a great marble tabernacle for the image by Andrea Orcagna (1349). The exterior niches came to house some of Florence's best scultptures, including works by Ghiberti (St. Mark), Donatello (St. George), and Nanni di Banco (St. Eligius and the Quattro Coronati-'The Four Crowned Saints').
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