With its massive bulk and unmistakeable 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.
It's 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 built 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 on May 23, 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 Communes' 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.