The Company of the Bigallo, which is no longer an active force, was one of the benevolent societies of old Florence. But the greatest of these societies, still busy and merciful, is the Misericordia, whose head-quarters are just across the Via Calzaioli, in the piazza, facing the campanile, a company of Florentines pledged at a moment’s notice, no matter on what they may be engaged, to assist in any charitable work of necessity. For the most part they carry ambulances to the scenes of accident and perform the last offices for the dead in the poorer districts. When on duty they wear black robes and hoods. Their headquarters comprise a chapel, with an altar by Andrea della Robbia, and a statue of the patron saint of the Misericordia, S. Sebastian. But their real patron saint is their founder, a common porter named Pietro Borsi. In the thirteenth century it was the custom for the porters and loafers connected with the old market to meet in a shelter here and pass the time away as best they could. Borsi, joining them, was distressed to find how unprofitable were the hours, and he suggested the formation of a society to be of some real use, the money to support it to be obtained by fines in payment for oaths and blasphemies. A litter or two were soon bought and the machinery started. The name was the Company of the Brothers of Mercy. That was in 1240 to 1250. To-day no Florentine is too grand to take his part, and at the head of the porter’s band of brethren is the King.
Passing along the Via Calzaioli we come on the right to a noble square building with statues in its niches—Or San Michele, which stands on the site of the chapel of San Michele in Orto. San Michele in Orto, or more probably in Horreo (meaning either in the garden or in the granary), was once part of a loggia used as a corn market, in which was preserved a picture by Ugolino da Siena representing the Virgin, and this picture had the power of working miracles. Early in the fourteenth century the loggia was burned down but the picture was saved (or quickly replaced), and a new building on a much larger and more splendid scale was made for it, none other than Or San Michele, the chief architect being Taddeo Gaddi, Giotto’s pupil and later the constructor of the Ponte Vecchio. Where the picture then was, I cannot say—whether inside the building or out—but the principal use of the building was to serve as a granary. After 1348, when Florence was visited by that ravaging plague which Boccaccio describes in such gruesome detail at the beginning of the “Decameron” and which sent his gay company of ladies and gentlemen to the Villa Palmieri to take refuge in story telling, and when this sacred picture was more than commonly busy and efficacious, it was decided to apply the enormous sums of money given to the shrine from gratitude in beautifying the church still more, and chiefly in providing a casket worthy of holding such a pictorial treasure. Hence came about the noble edifice of to-day.