With its massive bulk and unmistakable crenellated tower, Palazzo Vecchio soars over piazza della Signoria. The building was originally called the Palace of the Priors and was built at the end of the 1200s to house the city government that, up until then, used to meet at the homes of Florence’s most powerful families. Thus it was decided to build headquarters more in line with its important functions — and to protect the representatives of the Signoria from the not infrequent pressure from rich Florentines.
The edifice was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, the architect that, between the 13th and 14th centuries, was the great renovator of the city. The palace, square and covered with huge stone blocks, immediately became the model for all Tuscan public buildings that followed and, still today, is one of the most famous civic buildings in Italy.
Its extremely high tower, known as Arnolfo’s Tower, with its 94 meters in height, is second only to the dome of the Cathedral. To be better visible from below, the tower wasn’t placed in the center of the building but was “moved forward”, in line with the facade. Up in the bell room are three bells: the famous “Martinella” that calls the Florentines to gather, the Midday bell and that which chimes the hours, the largest one of all. The tower was also used as a prison: inside, besides the stairs, there is a small room, called “the little hotel”, where Girolamo Savonarola was held prisoner before being hanged and burned at the stake in the middle of the square in 1498.
In medieval Florence, at a time in which the city hall had an importance on a par with the cathedral, palazzo della Signoria, with its solid and austere form, was the perfect symbol of the Comune’s civil aspects. The inscription over the main door which reads “Christ is the king”, was a reference to the republican values of the city: it was a reminder that no mortal could ever hold absolute power. Up above, on the crenellated cornice, are the painted crests of the principal Tuscan cities pertaining to Florentine territory. Among these is the red lily on a white background, taken up by the Guelphs after the Ghibellines were thrown out, and is the emblem of the city of Florence.
In the 16th century, Cosimo I de’ Medici undertook some massive restoration works that turned the Palazzo, symbol of republican virtues, into one of the most luxurious and magnificent ducal residences of the period. Giorgio Vasari, Medici family architect, already busy with the construction of the Uffizi, made the existing rooms more functional and luxurious and enlarged the volume of the entire building, taking over the piazza behind it. The renovated palazzo, with its exceptional look, was the best political propaganda tool the Medici duke could possibly have. Vasari’s most important addition was to the Hall of the Cinquecento, on the first floor of the palace, that Savonarola had had built to host the members of the legislative assembly at the end of the 15th century.
Here, specifically asked for by Cosimo, Vasari raised the ceiling a good 8 meters, creating a hall of astounding dimensions and grandiose proportions. The new, amazingly heavy paneled ceiling, was made with 39 panels, painted by Vasari himself and his workshop, illustrating episodes taken from Cosimo’s life. In the round at the center of the ceiling, the duke is shown, gloriously triumphant. Anywhere you look there are references to his political ability, to his inventiveness and to the glory that the Medici duke assured Florence and its territory. Like in the huge frescoes on the side walls, that show the victorious battles against Pisa and Siena. These paintings, besides being magnificent works of art, were also fabulous advertising for the duke.
On these very same walls, at the beginning of the 1500s, there was one of the most famous artistic battles in history. Pier Soderini, illuminated chief justice of the republic, who took over after the Medicis were run out of town, called the two major Florentine artists of the time to compete with each other: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
The challenge was to fresco the walls of the Hall with two fundamental episodes in the city’s history: the battle of Anghiari against Siena and the one against Pisa. Leonardo was given the first, Michelangelo the second. However, Leonardo, with his Battle of Anghiari, experimented with a new technique that didn’t work out and the artist was forced to interrupt the work. The Battle of Cascina, on the other hand, never even got started. Of that event, a “paint-off” between these two giants of the Renaissance, there remain only the accounts by their contemporaries that show the profound incompatibility of character between the two, not to mention professionally as well. There also exist the preparatory charcoal sketches that are today the sole evidence of these lost masterpieces.
For Prince Francesco, son of Cosimo I, Vasari created a small, private space in the palace: the famous “little study”, a sort of treasure chest of riches that contained all kinds of rare woods, inlay work, gems and precious stones, medals, pharmaceutical drugs and even animal remains with supposedly magical value, like the renowned unicorn’s horn, probably the most particular of the Prince’s objects. The little study was originally next to the prince’s bedroom – now you enter it from a door in the Hall of the Cinquecento.
The decorations on the whole make it one of the most fascinating rooms of the Italian 1500s, where it was used to illustrate and put into order the objects preserved there. On the ceiling, which indeed has the form of a treasure chest, Vasari painted the four elements of Nature - Air, Water, Earth and Fire – that made up the Universe according to ancient concepts. Corresponding to each element are the upper parts of the walls which were decorated with the human activities and gods related to them: for example, on the Water wall, there are images having to do with pearl-fishing and whales, besides precious and curative substances derived from water.
Prince Francesco, who dearly loved alchemical practices, had himself painted into the image of the Alchemists by Vasari. Much of this collection was moved by Francesco I himself, into the Tribune of the Uffizi, constituting the nucleus of what would become one of the most famous museums in the world.
The Palazzo also contains the apartments of certain Medici family members, starting with those of Leo X, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and elected pope in 1513, that you can see by entering from the Hall of the Cinquecento. On the second floor, that you reach thanks to a monumental stairway, designed by Vasari, you can visit the Quarters of the Elements, private apartments of Cosimo I, and the Quarters of Eleonora of Toledo, the duke’s wife. It is from the Green Room of Eleonora’s apartments that you have access to Vasari’s famous corridor, the elevated passageway that still connects Palazzo Vecchio with the Pitti Palace, crossing over the Arno river along Ponte Vecchio.
Down a narrow passage that runs along the inside of the Tower, you reach the Priors’ Chapel, with its splendid frescoes from the 1500s. Here, Girolamo Savonarola said his last prayer before being put to death. And onwards through a series of beautiful rooms: the Audience Hall, used for meetings of the six Priors, the Hall of the Lilies, where the lilies being referred to are present in the paneled ceiling decoration and on the walls, and are given as thanks and as tribute of loyalty to the Angiò, a family that sided with the Guelphs.
This room is famous not only for the marvelous frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio in which you can see the previous, ancient cathedral, together with the bell tower, but also because you will find one of Donatello’s greatest works, Judith and Holofernes, originally exhibited in piazza della Signoria where, today, it is substituted by a copy. The famous “Mappa Mundi” globe, that, when it was made in 1581, was the largest in the world, is exhibited in the Hall of Geographical Maps, where the grand dukes of the Medici family kept their treasures. The 53 maps decorating the cupboard doors are of extraordinary historical interest because they give an idea of the geographical knowledge of the times.
The Palazzo’s rich patrimony includes a precious collection of ancient musical instruments and on the Mezzanine, there is the famous Loeser collection, a donation made to the city of Florence by American art critic Charles Loeser. The collection, whose most important piece is the famous portrait of Laura Battiferri, by Bronzino, represents yet another reason that today, Palazzo Vecchio is a marvelous, unmissable voyage through art and history.