During your first walk through Florence’s narrow city streets, you probably noticed all kinds of graffiti: stencils, murals, tags, paper cutouts and more. Graffiti, however, is a modern invention and Florence streets are lined with much older examples of ‘street art’ that take the form of the tabernacle.
If you glance up, it is likely that you will chance upon one of the city’s 1,200 tabernacles, the most in any other city in Europe. Decorated niches in the walls of buildings, most of the tabernacles in Florence contain images of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, the city’s patron saints, in the form of a sculpture, fresco or painting.
One of the earliest examples of western street art, tabernacles are an important testament to the once fervent religious nature and atmosphere of Florence. The use of tabernacles or street shrines dates back to ancient Roman times, where the faithful would go to pray. Since the Middle Ages, the city’s faithful would go to the nearest tabernacle to leave lit candles, flowers, prayers and offerings to the saints depicted.
Tabernacles were not only created for public veneration, they also tell the history of the city’s social strata. Consider Florence’s most famous and grandest demonstration of the tabernacle, Orsammichele, the market-turned-church that once belonged to the guilds of Florence. Outside, large niches containing sculptures by the city’s greatest artists reflect the competitive spirit of the guilds. Inside is Florence’s most important and ornate tabernacle by Andrea Orcagna.
If organized tours are not your thing, meander through the streets and look up: you are bound to stumble upon an interesting street shrine to admire.