In the first few decades of the 1400s, a new race of marble and bronze men, larger than life, populated the centre of Florence. Orsanmichele was their birthplace, that unique shrine, granary, charity and civic guilds headquarters, all in one: the chief guilds were required by the government of Florence, the Signoria, to provide statues of their patron saints to fill fourteen grand niches marking the four sides of the towering fourteenth-century building. The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was their school, with its governing Opera or board of works determined to fill remaining empty niches in the unfinished cathedral facade and the resplendent bell-tower with apostles and prophets.
Their parents -- ‘genitori’ in Italian -- were a competitive, co-operative, bickering, brilliant generation of rival sculptors of genius probably unmatched at any other time in history: Donatello (to my mind the greatest of them all), Ghiberti (in his spare time while making the momentous bronze doors for the Baptistery), Nanni di Banco (unluckily short-lived), probably Brunelleschi too (before applying his cantankerous talent to constructing the miraculous cupola completing the cathedral).
Now, however, this great bronze giant of the renaissance is being painstakingly cleaned in preparation for a starring part in the forthcoming exhibition ‘La primavera del Rinascimento’, springtime of the renaissance, at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (23 March to 18 August, 2013) and then the Louvre in Paris (23 September to 6 January). The exhibition will focus on that ‘season of giants’, sculpture of the early renaissance in Florence. We hope Saint Louis may be re-united with others of his own generation, however temporarily..... to be spared, perhaps, from the inaccessible Museum of Orsanmichele and from the cathedral’s Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore preparing gradually for its own much-anticipated expansion and renovation. (From Orsanmichele, Ghiberti’s Saint John the Baptist and Saint Peter attributed to Brunelleschi can still be seen together with other splendid works in the Uffizi exhibition ‘Bagliori Dorati’ until November 4.)
In the meantime, however, visitors to Florence can see Donatello’s Saint Louis undressed, so to speak, in disabille, somewhat embarassingly though dignified as always, as he is cleaned by his acolytes -- with due respect to his episcopal stature -- in full view at the Santa Croce museum. See them here !!
And, yes, take the opportunity to visit or re-visit as well that ‘piccolo grande’ museum of Santa Croce entered from the peaceful green cloister of adjacent to the Pazzi Chapel.