The Twelve Marble Giants of The Cathedral of Florence
Discovering the series of huge statues that adorn the interior of the Cathedral, by the best sculptors of the Florentine Renaissance
Who, visiting our huge Cathedral, has never laid eyes on the much larger than life marble sculptures, depicting apostles and prophets, within impressive aedicules in marble “mischio”?
There are twelve huge statues: four located along the walls of the side aisles and eight around the choir area. In the first group are fifteenth-century masterpieces, the others are exceptional works by the greatest masters of the sixteenth. Altogether, therefore, the history of this series covers almost two centuries and involved many different artists.
The story began on April 24, 1503: after the enormous success of his David, the Consuls of the Wool Guild signed a new contract with Michelangelo Buonarroti and trusted him the task of sculpting the statues of the Twelve Apostles for as many chapels of the presbytery of the Cathedral. The expected delivery times were one year for each marble, but things did not go according to the agreements and, already in 1505, Michelangelo left Florence and the contract was cancelled. The Opera remained in possession of one of the first examples of Michelangelo's unfinished, that is, the splendid Saint Mattew (moved in 1837 in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence), which seems to struggle to emerge frontally from the block of stone that imprisons it.
In the following decade, the Opera resumed the project of the statues of the Twelve Apostles, and chose to entrust it to a team of the best Florentine sculpture masters of that time. Between 1511 and 1514 Saints Jude and Matthias were entrusted to Andrea Sansovino and Saint James the Great to his son Jacopo, who later became one of the giants of 16th century sculpture. However, Andrea did not honor the contract and only the wonderful Saint James was completed in 1517 (it can be admired on the first pillar on the left, at the entrance to the presbytery). In the same years, the statue of Saint Andrew apostle for a wall of the chapel dedicated to this saint, in the northern tribune was commissioned to Andrea Ferrucci from Fiesole, later master builder of the Opera; and the Saint John the evangelist of the southern chapel of the east tribune was entrusted to the refined chisel of Benedetto da Rovezzano. In 1515, through the intercession of Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino, the very young Baccio Bandinelli, who would become a leading figure in Florentine artistic panorama, was commissioned to carve the statue of Saint Peter (east tribune).
After this block of commissions there was an interruption due to the political turmoil that saw the end of the Republic and the advent of the Medici Grand Duchy.
The project was resumed half a century later when, in 1565, on the occasion of the wedding of Giovanna d’ Austria with the future Grand Duke Francesco de 'Medici, it was decided to decorate the aisles of the Cathedral by arranging along the walls the statues of the Apostles so far made but still in the deposits. Ammannati was encharged to display these sculptures, in harmony with the medieval interiors, but also following the taste of the modern style. Starting from 1573 Ammannati created the twelve monumental aedicules in mischio marble that we still admire today. At the same time, an attempt was made to complete the series of the Apostles by giving assignment to two sculptors already engaged in the work of the new marble choir. Vincenzo de’Rossi sculpted the Saint Mattew on the right pillar of the access to the presbytery and the Saint Thomas of the homonymous chapel in the north tribune, while Giovanni "dell’Opera" Bandini delivered the splendid Saint Philip and Saint James Minor of the southern tribune.
These were the last statues created: in 1580 the series was interrupted and in 1589 the fifteenth-century sculptures from the facade demolished only two years before were housed in the aedicules set on the side aisles: the Prophet Isaiah and the King David (1427-1435) by Ciuffagni (1424-1427) and the Joshua (believed a portrait of the Chancellor Poggio Bracciolini) by Bernardo Ciuffagni and Nanni di Bartolo, perhaps with the contribution of Donatello (1415-1421).
Although masterpieces, the stylistic discrepancy between these four statues and the sixteenth-century ones is evident, but it is attenuated by the edicules, which give unity to the series. A curiosity: the first two aedicules from the counter-façade are not in mischio marble, but in plaster and wood, painted to imitate marble. These are the oldest of the series and were made in 1565 as a test and model for the ones in stone!