St. Michael’s Tower, Or Torre Di San Michelle

There is not a specimen of architecture in Florence more striking than St Michael’s Tower. It stands in the heart of the city, near the Piazza del Palazzo Vecchio. It is a building conceived by the dark and gloomy spirit of Arnolfo Lapo; of magnificent size, bearing the form of a tower, but with the dimensions of a palace. Its majestic bulk towering above the walls, is an ornament to the city, and forms a characteristic and combining feature with the grand and severe buildings constructed nearly at the same period and by the same architect.

The Tower of St Michael was begun by Arnolfo Lapo in the year 1204, and constructed for a market place, the grain being displayed for sale under the arcade, the forms of which afford perhaps the finest specimen of that beautiful feature in architecture now so universal in Tuscany, the pillared and vaulted Loggia. The figure of the building is a parallelogram, extending 40 braccia, or 80 feet in length, 64 in width, and 160 in height. On the front are seen the arms of the republic and of the Guelfs, which marks the preponderating influence of that faction at the period of the erection of this edifice. The lower floor of the tower stood on vast pillars, the building being supported by high Gothic arches. The chambers above the arcade, which are devoted to public offices of the law, register of rights, &c. are lighted by that description of noble Gothic windows afterwards adopted by Michael Angelo, with their fine arches divided through their height, such as are to be seen in the Palazzo Ricardi and Strozzi. Windows of the same form are repeated in the second and third floors, and the tower is terminated by the heavy, deep, projecting cornice of a flat and terraced roof.

St Michael’s Tower was first built of simple uncut stone by Arnolfo; secondly it was re-built, almost entirely, by Taddo Goddi, and he was, in his turn, succeeded by Orcagna, who employed seven years in completing it. The finest proportions mark the form of the edifice, which, though rude, is noble, deriving magnificence from the vastness of the building, the simplicity of its structure, and the size of the stones composing the pile. This magnificence is to a certain degree like that of the Pyramids of Egypt, and the Palaces of Tentyra. The deep grey tint of the stones, the evident traces of the hammer, the solemn gloom of the structure, its dark square form, the heavy appearance of its towers, and the rude court within, bear marks of the warlike and turbulent times in which it was erected. The whole architecture is marked by the greatest simplicity, excepting only its base, which is very gorgeous. The arches, of an enormous size, are filled in their upper part with beautiful Gothic work in circles; and statues, fourteen in number, stand in deep niches, terminating in pointed cones, and finished with the richest ornaments.

I do not know that I have ever seen statuary unite so well with architecture. The statues are in simple attitudes, and of noble dignified forms; the heads, hands, and drapery, in a grand style, and such as give a high impression of the state of the arts at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century. Fourteen such statues, large as life, of marble and bronze, surrounding the base of a fine edifice, cannot but produce a magnificent effect. We find here the works of Montelupo, Donatello, and Ghiberti.* The statues of St Peter, St Mark, of the incredulity of St Thomas, by Andrea Verocchio, as well as St Luke, by John of Bologna, are noble works.

The interior of this church and its chapels little corresponds with the splendour of the miracles attributed to its saints. The light of day, which is nearly excluded, is but poorly compensated by dim tapers and small lamps, whose sickly dull glimmerings, casting uncertain shadows, seem only to deepen the forms of the moving objects within. It may just be discerned that the place is vaulted, that there are a few melancholy-looking priests clothed in black, while some swarthy peasants are cowering in various corners, or kneeling by the steps

* The Viaggio Pittorico mentions these statues as offering one, among many in-stances, which mark the peculiar nature and disposition of the Florentines, who, however devoted to commerce, still found, in the pursuit and encouragement of the fine arts, a never-ceasing source of interest and delight. These fine works were the result of a decree by the citizens and people, that each trade should bear the expense of furnishing one statue, which should be the protector and supporter of its own profession. St Luke was the work of John of Bologna, at the request of the Jews and the notaries, whom we find upon this occasion coupled together. St Thomas, by Verocchio, for the retail traders. St George, by Donatello, for the cuirass and sword-makers. St Mark, by the same artist, for the carpenters. St John the Baptist, by Ghiberti, for the merchants. St John the Evangelist, by B. di Montelupo, for the manufacturers of silk. St James, by Antonio di Barco, for the tanners. Elijah, by the same, for the handicraft men. St Stefano and St Matthew, by Ghiberti, the first as the protector of the woollen manufactories, the second for the bankers.—Note of the Author.

of the altars, which you can just perceive to be of marble, with paintings on the walls. Among the subjects here pourtrayed are, the story of the great plague; our Saviour disputing in the Temple, by Goddi; our Saviour and St John, by Poppi; as also several pictures by Andrea del Sarto—Prophets and Patriarchs, painted by Credi, enrich the ceilings. We also find the whole history of the Virgin Mary told in basso relievo, her holy life, the nativity, the presentation, the marriage with Joseph, the birth, circumcision, and resurrection, down to the moment in which an angel reaches a palm branch to Mary in token of her approaching dissolution. Among the works deserving of attention is a great Altar by Orcagna, something in the form of a baldican, rather tawdry in its ornaments, but its white marble railing is in good taste. The marble friezes in one of the chapels are curiously delicate, with ornaments cut in fretwork, small spires and pinnacles; also twisted and ingeniously carved pillars, interspersed with fine designs in the pannels. The picture of the death of the Virgin Mary is particularly fine. She is laid on a bier, over which an apostle reaches to kiss her hand, whilst Prudence, represented with two faces, attends with other Virtues. There is likewise a superb altar, by St Gallo, of plain marble, adorned by a group of three figures, St Anne, the Virgin, and the Bambino. The countenance of the Virgin bears no character of holiness, but St Anne is a finely imagined form, a very model for sculptors, betwixt ideal beauty and common nature; a noble figure in the decline of life, conceived full of sorrow, the expression of the countenance mournful and touching, though without beauty. There is much harmony and keeping in the long fine angular limbs, and care-worn face, and the whole is in a noble and simple style.

The impressions excited by St Michael’s Tower are heightened by its situation. Pent up by crowded buildings, you approach it in passing through narrow streets and lanes, and look up with wonder on this ambiguous structure, towering above every surrounding edifice. The eye is fascinated by its antique cast, its grand square form, the heavy cornice above, and the rich statues and ornaments which adorn its base; you see in it the style of times long past, but you can refer it to no regular order of architecture, nor any certain age; you know not whether to pronounce it a tower of strength, a castle, a church, or a prison; but it is rich, grand, and singular. Your imagination is yet more impressed, when, after having visited its antique churches and gloomy chapels, gazed on its dusky aspect, its numerous statues, and paintings of ancient times, you ascend to its summit. To reach this height, you wind along steep and narrow stairs, through a narrow region of suffocating heat; and when, nearly exhausted with fatigue, you at length attain the wide and flat roof of the edifice, and suddenly pass from a dark and close passage into the brightness of day, and the refreshing breeze, which dispenses its renovating influence, you feel restored to life, and sit down to enjoy the beauty of the splendid prospect which is displayed around you. You look down on the busy scene far below, where, in a seemingly little space, you behold all the grandeur of the city, and beyond its walls and gates the varied beauty of the valley in which Florence lies. You see the green hills, with their sunny knolls, spotted with numberless villas, farms, and monasteries, while the blue line of distant mountains seems mingling with the clouds you look on the flat and dusky valley, splendid in rich verdure, where the Arno wanders towards the Mediterranean—you see the extension of the city, the eye rests on its noble and antique grandeur, and may still trace, by the frequent remains of towers, the first circle of walls, in the earlier times of the republic, when great gates closed on the contending and clamorous population of this little city.

Opposite to you stands an antique house, turretted like St Michael’s, and of the earliest times;—not far from this are conspicuous remains of a tower;—and on the next range is beheld all that gives magnificence to Florence,—the Palazzo Vecchio, with its noble tower, the Prison, the Duomo, the Badia, and the superb Cupola, covering the tombs of the Medici, as also the grand square of Santa Trinita, and the roof of the Strozzi Palace; while, in the extreme circle, the walls and turretted gates of Florence, the long protracted arcades and cloisters of Santa Maria Novella, and of Spirito Santo, give splendour to the scene.

It would seem that St Michael’s Tower was destined to be distinguished by great events. In consequence of the expulsion of the Duke d’Atene from Florence, effected in the beginning of the year 1M1, on the day of St Ann, one of the presiding saints of this church, an edict was issued, installing her protectress of the liberties of the people, commanding a chapel adorned with the utmost splendour to be dedicated to her, with an order that this day should be held sacred, and commemorated once every year by a solemn procession, which is observed to the present day. The fate of the individual who (to his own sorrow) was the cause of these ceremonies, was no less eventful in itself than important in the annals of the republic.

The Florentines being engaged in war with the Visconti of Milan and the Pisanese, in a struggle for the possession of Lucca, were, by a succession of defeats, foiled in their objects, and, impelled by a spirit not unusual in republics, their disappointment sought relief in reproaches against their magistrates, and against their leaders in battle, their indignation being more especially directed against their captain, Rimini Malatesta. In this spirit of disaffection they applied to their ally, the King of Naples, who, yielding to their wishes, sent reinforcements, commanded by Gualtiere, Duke d’Atene, a Sicilian Prince. Whether it were to be ascribed to the superior talents of Malatesta’s successor, or to the natural consequence of an accession of fresh forces opposed to wearied soldiers, none paused to consider, the result was brilliant; success attended the new commander, he returned triumphant, and was received by the people with acclamations. To a subtle and designing temper, Gualtiere joined an ambitious spirit; cautious and secret in his resolves, he well knew, with the fairest semblances, like our own Richard, to ” court occasion with enforced smiles,” and fan the flame of public favour. Like him, too, he bore a wicked mind in a forbidding person; he was short, dark visaged, had a scowling eye, and a long scanty beard. But nothing deterred by his uncouth aspect, ” so smooth he daubed his vice with show of virtue,” and so well versed was he in the arts of flattery, that he rose fast in popular favour. By means of an assumed smile, and affable manners, he so excited the enthusiasm of the people, that they resolved to invest him with the chief power, and, contrary to the republican system, to confer on him his high distinction for life. To consolidate the fluctuating mind of popular favour, and insure his aim, he called an immediate assembly of the people in the Palazzo Vecchio, not, he said, that he might be elected, but that they might deliberate on the expediency of the measure. The Signori and Council of Ten, the Anziani, the Gonfalonieri, thrown into amazement and terror by this step, earnestly, but in vain, represented to him that, in striving to obtain permanent power, he only courted his own ruin. Republicans, they told him, submitted gracefully when the act was voluntary, but, unaccustomed to shackles, no sooner should they be galled by enforced submission, than, spurning the yoke, they would shake off their abasing chains, and hurl him to destruction. He listened, like Richard, but the people, he said, willed him to have sovereign power, and he must needs abide by their law. The great day arrived, and the whole people assembled in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, when the magistrates, making one last effort, solemnly proposed his election for one year. But sudden and loud acclamations rent the air, and a vita, a vita !” burst from every quarter. With the same grace as Richard, he yielded to the mighty voice of the people. But so soon, says Machiavel, as he had attained the seat of power, he threw off the mask, and arrogantly triumphing over those who had sought to oppose him, he raised his own followers to the offices of trust, boldly levied taxes, and enforced loans, showing himself equally regardless of private property, and of public morals. The citizens now saw themselves pillaged by legal authority, their wives and daughters insulted in the streets, and they looked with disturbed and gloomy amazement on the monster they had raised to reign over them. Combinations and conspiracies were soon formed against him, but so strange was the infatuation of the tyrant, that on being apprised by an individual of a plot that touched his life, he condemned him to have his tongue cut out, which caused his death. Not deterred by this act of cruelty, another informer warned him of a similar danger, and his life also paid the forfeit. Gualtiere thought to paralyze action by thus exciting terror at the enormity of his crimes. But he warded off peril only for a time. New and more powerful conspiracies speedily threatened his destruction. The impetus suddenly became general, and the people, who ten months before had hailed him ruler for life, assembling in the same spot, with frightful cries and loud menaces, summoned him to abdicate. Mean in adversity, as insolent in power, he now sought by humiliation to appease the people. But his efforts exciting only derision and contempt, the popular fury soon rose almost to frenzy, and scarcely escaping with life, he was driven forth, covered with opprobrium, a dishonoured and childless wanderer. Previous to this final issue, a youth of sixteen, his only son, endeavouring, at his instigation, to soothe the people, had perished in the tumult.

From Arnolfo and his celebrated successors, Giotto, Brunelleschi, Donotello, Orcagna, Mosaccio, &c. &c. to Michael Angelo, gradual changes may be traced in the architecture of Florence, which might not prove uninteresting, but which would hardly suit with the general views and slight sketches to which I have limited myself.