If one had to choose images that best represented Florence, very probably two would come to mind: Brunelleschi’s spectacular dome, a fixture of Florentine iconography, along with that which is considered one of the most beautiful squares in all of Italy: Piazza della Signoria.
The unusual “L-shaped” piazza owes its form to a series of historical events starting from the second half of the 13th century. At that time, two warring factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines were fighting it out all over Florence. And when the Guelphs finally took control, they razed 36 houses and towers of their rivals to the ground: on the so-called “damned” land, it was forbidden to build a single thing and salt was thrown all over the ground so that not even a blade of grass would grow.
Ever since the early times when Florence began building that active and enterprising community that would characterize its long history, Piazza della Signoria has always been the symbol of civic life in the city, as opposed to the religious center which grew up around the cathedral.
This piazza, alternating emblem of both republican government and of the grand dukes, tells glorious stories of Florence through its fascinating architecture and its exceptional works of art. It was the scene of important events and even executions, such as that of the Dominican brother Girolamo Savonarola, hanged and burned right here on May 23, 1498, as a granite slab in the pavement reminds us, almost in the middle of the piazza.
In the 1500s, feasts, shows and tournaments were organized here. At the ringing of the bell over Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentines would gather to listen and approve new laws or, perhaps to run, fully armed, ready to defend city institutions. Judges of the republic, as well as dukes and lords, have contributed over the centuries to the wealth of artwork in this place, transforming it into an exceptional open-air museum.
Over the principal side of the piazza rises the massive Palazzo Vecchio, with its proud, crenellated tower. Built at the end of the 13th century to house the public administration, it is a typical example of civilian architecture that developed in Italian Comunes, where the palace of city government assumes an importance only a little less than that of the cathedral.
Its design is purposely sober and powerful, wanting to convey the values of justice and solidity of the republican government for which it was built, but the Palazzo never stopped being an important symbol even for the various governments that followed.
The collection of statues that crowd the square form a great, unique celebration of the civil and moral virtues aimed at inspiring those who came to govern - and not only in Florence. Every one of the statues, today replaced by identical copies, are witnesses to particular historic moments in the life of the city.
That which Michelangelo created for the republican government is one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance: the David. It was placed in front of the entrance to the Palazzo in 1504 to represent in a monumental way the civil values of its protagonist, perfect symbol of republican virtues, of courage and strength in the service of the State. On the same stairway there are two other statues, even older: the Marzocco and Judith, both by Donatello. The first is a powerful lion that holds the heraldic shield of the city, with its typical fleur-de-lis design. Like Rome’s she-wolf, the lion was the emblem of the Florentine republic: so much so that, in a caged area behind the palace in what is now the Street of the Lions, several live specimens were kept in captivity.
The sculptural group of Judith and Holofernes is connected with the Medici family being thrown out of Florence, after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent at the end of the 15th century. After ransacking the family palace, the crowd brought the statue to the piazza to make it a symbol of victory over tyranny and on it placed the meaningful inscription “Let this be an example to the people”. When the Medicis returned to power, the statue was left where it was out of respect for popular sentiment.
Last in the series, the marble group of Hercules and Cacus by Baccio Bandinelli. The Florentines considered Hercules the founder of their city and he was thus particularly close to the hearts of the people. Unfortunately, due to its poor and clumsy style, the work never even came close to equaling the David and was subjected to severe criticism right from the start.
Halfway through the 1500s, the Grand duke Cosimo I, following the tradition of his illustrious predecessors Cosimo, Piero and above all, Lorenzo the Magnificent – undertook a vast program of public works and restoration, with the aim of propagandizing the greatness of his government. As part of these works, Cosimo transformed the Loggia dei Lanzi, in the right hand corner of the piazza, into a spectacular open-air gallery: inside is a series of important classical statues, besides the works of Giambologna and the famous Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini’s masterpiece.
Reworking the square proceeded with the creation of the monumental fountain of Neptune, designed by Ammannati for the wedding celebrations of Francesco I and Giovanna of Austria. The imposing figure of the god rises from his four-horse chariot and is surrounded by marine divinities and tritons. It was supposed to have symbolized Cosimo I’s seafaring aspirations and his intended investment in naval fleets and ports to his illustrious guests.
It seems that the Neptune’s physique did indeed resemble that of the grand duke. The fountain was finished towards the end of the 1500s and immediately caused great hilarity among the populace who instantaneously baptized poor Neptune as “biancone” or “big white guy”, referring to his ungainly bulk. Probably the best part of the fountain is the pool, populated with elegant sea gods and which was done with the help of another great sculptor, Giambologna. It was this latter who, in the final years of the century, became one of Francesco I’s favorite artists to the point of receiving a considerable monthly salary.
It was Giambologna who designed the piazza’s last great sculpture for the grand duke, the equestrian monument to Cosimo I. A large, celebratory work made expressly for propaganda purposes, it glorified the founder of the grand duchy of Tuscany, comparing him to great soldiers of the ancient past. The reference model for the statue was surely that of Marcus Aurelius on Rome’s Capitol Hill that shortly before then had been the talk of the town thanks to Michelangelo’s restoration efforts. The casting of the huge horse - done all in one piece - required the construction of an entire foundry. The monument’s success was such that the mold was reused for several other statues of the same kind.
The most important urban intervention, however, was without doubt that done a bit south of the Piazza, towards the river; Vasari was hired to build the “Uffizi”, the offices of the principal State magistrates. Today, it holds one of the most important art collections in the world and is also one of the prime tourist stops of the entire city.
Art salon par excellence, Piazza della Signoria is also the place where the history of the city unfolds: the proud, noble figure of David, the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, the treasures of the Loggia dei Lanzi and the elegant architecture of the Uffizi set the rhythm of the glorious story of a city that is unique in all the world.