Guild Trademarks from the Medieval Period on display across the City of Florence
“Footnotes from Florence” – a personal collection of curious connections between the UK and Florence.
I had the great pleasure recently of sharing a visit to Florence with some Masters of some of the 110 Livery Companies of the UK. They were visiting together with their partners, and they threw me some interesting challenges in respect of introducing them to the many Guilds that were begun in Florence during the second half of the 12th century.
In pursuit of the history of these Guilds, we visited the Chiesa di Orsanmichele, a Church created from a granary by the Guilds after it had become a place of worship when an episode of the plague known as the Black Death began in c 1374 and ladies, in particular, started to come to pray for freedom from the Plague at the feet of a painting of the Madonna and child by Bernando Daddi, which is still a centrepiece of this Church.
We walked around building together to explore the images of Saints around the exterior. Each niche contains statues commissioned by the most important Guilds of Florence from the most prestigious artists of the period.
Need I add that each Guild vyed with the next to produce the most impressive sculptures for their profession’s chosen niche – Verrocchio having to go the extra mile by creating a design for the two bronze figures of St Thomas doubting he was facing the Risen Christ, both squeezed face-to- face inside a niche initially intended for only one Saint!
I find it interesting that these important artists themselves had no Guild to support their activities. Instead, Painters had to become members of the Guild of the Doctors and Apothecaries (Arte dei Medici e Speziali) because they bought their pigments from the apothecaries. They shared an interest in their Patron Saint – St Luke, who was himself both recognised as an Artist and a Doctor but unfortunately they seem to have lost out in the bid to get Gianbologna to sculpt him for their niche, and he is to be found with his hefty Gospel in the Niche of the Magistrates’ Guild!
In the sixteenth century, the Compagnia di San Luca began to meet at SS. Annunziata, and sculptors, who had previously been members of a confraternity dedicated to St. Paul (Compagnia di San Paolo), also joined. This form of the compagnia developed into the Florentine Accademia e Compagnia delle arti del Disegno
All the Sculptors who made these amazing images around this Church had to apply to become members of the Masters of Stone and Wood (Maestri di Pietra e Legname) which incorporated Carpenters, Stone Carvers, Plasterers, and metal-workers. Their crest is shown below – the one with an axe.
All the Florentine Guilds were important patrons of the arts and had access to a wide choice of sculptors in Florence where the best of their trade in the world were already gathered.
Donatello was chosen to depict a Saint loved by both the Florentines and the English – St George is on guard in the niche of the Armourer’s and Sword Makers Guild. It is believed that the original statue would have had an actual sword or spear in his right hand, but this has now been replaced by a copy and the weapon is lost.
The image below shows a selection of the major crests from the original Florentine Guilds – the Arti, or Guilds, and Magistratures. All these key businesses were politically ‘invited’ by Cosimo 1 to move into his Uffizi in the second half of the 16th century. This was in order to enable him, and later his sons, to keep them all together and close at hand.
These crests can still be seen in this large Gothic palace located along Via de’ Tornabuoni which, since the 1930’s, has been home to Salvatore Ferragamo for both manufacture and sales of his famous shoes, and is even, as shown above, featured on their latest collection of scarves.
So, why did all these Guilds develop and why did they begin in Florence?
The answer seems to be that in Medieval times the economy of Florence flourished. This was partly due to the rapid growth in population, even after terrible plagues that killed nearly a third of the poorer people, mainly those who couldn’t escape from the City. At the end of the plague, those who survived were more in demand, and therefore better placed to demand higher wages, so they were able to have better lifestyles with more disposable income.
Secondly, because whilst the Republic was under the unofficial Medici “rule” the territory they won which became deemed to be under Florentine protection also grew, and with it the tax revenue!
Thirdly, this financial growth was able to grow even faster after the establishment of Guilds.
The first Guild to be written about, in about 1150, was the Arte di Calimala, the Cloth-Merchants’ Guild. This was twenty years after the trailblazer London Livery group, the Weavers Group was first mentioned (1130) but because it was only given a Royal Charter of Establishment in 1155 the Florentines still claim to be the Forerunners.
I leave it to the reader to decide who first had the idea of forming a Guild but the main point is that the two Guilds from Florence and the UK were born to collaborate, and the objectives of both groups were to maintain high standards and keep out any un-licenced foreign competition against their lucrative trade in wool and luxury materials.
This “stemma” or Trademark for the Arte di Calimala, the cloth merchants, shows an Eagle standing on a bolt of cloth, and is undeniably Florentine with its background of The Giglio – the floral symbol of the City.
The London Weavers Coat of Arms is equally proud, it features the Red Rose of England, a pair of Dragons and a four friendly looking lions with a shuttle in their mouth. Their motto is Weave Truth with Trust.
The Florentine Guilds, as their numbers grew, became sub-divided in relation to their importance as they became established and their own membership increased.
There were seven Major Guilds (the arti maggiori), five Middle Guilds (arti mediane) and nine minor guilds (arti minori).
It was their concern for rigorous quality control over the end product, as well as the security of the value of the gold Florin. that established Florence as one of the richest cities of late Medieval Europe.
From left to write from the top the guilds in the image shown above are Arte dei Giudici e Notai Judges and Notaries, Arte di Calimala Merchants, Finishers and Dyers of coloured cloth, Arte del Cambio Money Exchange, Arte della Lana Wool.
These were the four areas which began to set the City of Florence apart from the rest of Italy – their enormously successful trade in materials made of wool, mostly British wool, which would be bartered for with merchants to get the best price, as well as Cambio offering the best rate of exchange, and any disputes arising over this trade would be settled by local Notarios or Judges.
The image above shows the original places for the Stemmi on the front of the 14th Century Palazzo di Tribunale de Mercanzia. They have now been moved to protect them from further weather damage and can now be found, tastefully on display, inside the recently renamed Gucci Garden Museum. Examples, in situ, are shown below
Arte di Cambio – Exchange – the all-important exchange of money!
Arte of Lana – Wool Guild
The Wool Guild was responsible for the Cathedral of Florence, and paid for the cupola, the altar frontal and other works,
Guidice e Notai – Judges and Notaries. Notaries were used by every member of society, rich or poor, and irespective of whether they could read or not, they all needed Notaries if they wished to buy Property, sign a Wedding Contract or make a Will.
The Inns of Court would be the London equivalent of this group.
The next row of Florentine Guilds shown below are three more major guilds Arte della Seta Silk, It was Seta who paid for Brunelleschi to design the building for The Ospedale degli Innocenti and Seta who ran this first ever public orphanage. The Stemma for both was developed by Andrea Della Robbia. The images below are examples of the roundels showing the unfortunate babies breaking out of their swaddling binds.
Arte dei Medici e Speziali Medicine, including Herbal Medicine, and as noted, above Artists.
The original Apothecaries crest in Florence showing a Madonna and Child really hasn’t weathered well so I am using the London Livery Company Crest for the Apothecaries for UK comparison. Not confusing enough to have artists included with apothecaries in Florence – in the UK, they seem to suggest in their very fancy crest below that Unicorns, Hippotamus and some sort of Dragon might contribute to the success of some of their potions
Olga Rudnychenko, the delightful Gucci Docent who investigated the names on these Stemmi for us and showed around the new museum explained that the Viaia e Pellicciai Guild had a specific function relating to the furriers who lined cloaks with squirrel skins. The stem of the name Viaia is actually derived from the word for squirrel. This led me back to my earlier Blog about the Arnolfini Marriage painting, which shows the bridegroom proudly showing off his squirrel-fur-lined cloak which was, in that period, a sign of significant wealth. If not as prestigious as Ermine, a squirrel fur lining gave an important message from the painting that this young man was smart and clearly going places. As Arnolfini originally came from Lucca in Tuscany – and his Brides aunt was married to Lorenzo de Medici (the brother of Cosimo il Vecchio – not his grandson) there was a good chance that his cape had been made by the Vaiai in Florence.
Our third row on the header crest includes the makers of the famous tight-tights that left so little of the form of the young Florentine boys to the imagination. The Calzoliai were specifically responsible for stitching the black leather soles onto these tights.on the road between the Calimala and the Cathedral of Florence ( aka The Duomo). A street which still sells socks and stocking through the Calzedonia chain to this day.
Their Crest is a lot more difficult to decifer.
The image below shows a group of Ragazzi attending a wedding in Florence – the procession beginning at the Baptistry.
The Calzoliai were specifically responsible for stitching the black leather soles onto these tights which showed off a shapely leg extremely well as shown in this image of Greek God Paris from the Horne Museum in Florence.
The Guild of the Fabbria included the Blacksmiths, so they were also involved in the important job of shoeing horses and thus making sure that the rich nobles were able to get around the City – or sometimes to leave the City when they upset the Medici and were driven into exile.
The Orsanmichele niche of the Maneschalchi, (Farriers) has a predella which shows Sant’Eligio putting a whole hoof back on a horse – the miracle that made him a Saint. The original sculpture of the saint was sculpted by Nanni di Banco.
Below is the original image of the sign of the Blacksmiths – these pliers, together with three nails are also one of the symbols of the Passion.
Sadly the Florentine Guilds began to be too powerful for the liking of the Florentine nobility and the Albizzi family tried to reduce their influence and decrease the number of lesser Guilds.
Subsequently, all the Florentine guilds, both major and minor, were abolished in 1770,
Emperor Joseph II (as Grand Duke of Tuscany), issued a decree of closure and reassigned their functions to the single Florentine chamber of commerce (Camera di Commercio, Arti e Manifatture),
The Arte dei Giudici e Notai (Judges & Notaries), continued to exist but was also abolished in 1777 by a new decree.So there are no longer active Guilds in Florence.
Happily for London and my visitors there are still 110 City of London Guilds that continue to flourish under The livery companies of the City of London, almost all of which are styled the “Worshipful Company of…” their respective craft, trade or profession.
London’s livery companies still play a significant part in City life, not least by providing charitable-giving and networking opportunities.