Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Palazzo Vecchio


Palazzo Vecchio day! Woohoo!

The Palazzo Vecchio! Yet another of Florence's treasures that I have been dying to see! Not only is this place the civic and political center of Florence, but it also houses an abundance of Renaissance interior designs! 

A fresco painting from the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio. It shows a view of the Piazza della Signoria during a celebration. You can see the Palazzo Vecchio on the left, the Loggia straight ahead and the Arno, with fireworks above it ,in the background.

To give a brief story...

The palazzo is the political epicenter of Florence: its city hall. It was built during the Middle Ages and changed hands often during the Renaissance -a coveted prize for whoever ruled the city. 

This included:
1. A Republican government La Signoria (the ruling body for which the piazza outside is named)
2. The Medici rule (de facto) of Cosimo il Vecchio, his son Piero, and his grandson, Lorenzo il Magnifico 
(the three were called gran maestros- not unlike mafia 'godfathers' of the city)
3. The Savanarola religious autocracy (when a radical friar overthrew the Medici influence on Florentine culture and returned the city to a republic- a radically religious one)
4. Soderini and the Florentine democracy
5. The return of the Medici to power (the Medici popes)
6. And finally Cosimo il Primo, the first in the line of Medici Grand Dukes

Cosimo il Primo (Cosimo the First) named the Palazzo Vecchio which means the old palace, when he moved his household from the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria to the Palazzo Pitti across the Arno. 

In its republican phases, the palace was the seat of La Signoria- the Florentine government. The name Signoria comes from the Italian signore which mean "lord." This political body consisted of nine members, the Priori who were elected every two months (to keep things fair), along with a Gonfanoliere of Justice (the titular head of the Republic for two months). Remember all the crests of the Bargello and on the city hall in Fiesole? As a result of a healthy fear of conspiracy, coup, or nepotism in judicial rule, outside sheriffs had to be brought in. For a similar reason, officials could only be elected for two months. 

The council was made up of members of the various guilds, who were made up of the various families. Several conditions necessitated inclusion: eligible guild members who were thirty years or older, were not in debt or related to any other elected priors could serve. Names were randomly chosen out of the bags kept in Santa Croce. Among the families who were eligible to rule, were the Medicis. Under Cosimo il Vecchio, his son Piero, and his grandson Lorenzo il Magnifico, the Medicis became de facto rulers. In essence, the Signoria took a backseat to the dealings happening in the Palazzo Medici (Medici-Riccardi today). If they were not ruling in the Signoria themselves, then they controlled it through bribes, alliances, etc. Sneaky as always!

However, Florence didn't like dictators and the Medicis had enemies. As a result, they were ousted and banished several times during the Renaissance, but always managed to turn the tide in their favor and return bigger and stronger than ever. 

One of their most successful enemies was not a rival family, but a Dominican friar from the church of San Marco (the same church that Cosimo il Vecchio helped to found). 

The radical Savanarola helped abolish the 'hedonistic' Renaissance, by banishing the remaining traces of Medici influence in Florence after the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico. He established a kind of religious autocracy and the rise of a Florentine religious republic. Among his more famous deeds was the Bonfire of the Vanities- a ritual mass burning of any profane works within the city. Paintings, fashionable clothing, gaming tables, etc were burned in the Piazza Signoria, including, according to rumor, some of Boticelli's canvases (which he is said to have thrown into the fire himself). Savanarola's rule ended at the Palazzo Vecchio. He was arrested, tortured, excommunicated and executed for his 'heresy' (along with others) in the Piazza della Signoria- just outside of the Palazzo Vecchio walls. 

As an aside, there are rooms where Savanarola lived in San Marco with objects from his life on display. These objects are carefully arranged. Sadly the guards in that part of San Marco were diligent- hence no photos from me, but here is one from Wikipedia!

 Savanorola's cell in San Marco

From our brief visit to his rooms in San Marco and our lectures, I gathered that he is no longer a heretic, but just the opposite. He is being considered for spiritual elevation (perhaps sainthood?) due to his piousness and deeply felt faith.

But back to the Palazzo Vecchio....After Savanorola, Florence briefly returned to a republic that was ruled by the Cinquecento (500 representatives) and the Gonfaloniere a Vita (a lifetime term), Pier Soderini. His secretary? The famous Niccolo Machiavelli! Under his rule, Florence returned to a representative democracy. It is fun to imagine what the Palazzo Vecchio may have been like when the main hall was full of 500 arguing Florentines. The cacophony did not last. It was silenced forever when the Medici returned to power. 

The Medici arose once again under the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, cardinal Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici. With papal permission he attacked Florence several times and finally ended the republican government, becoming the city's unofficial ruler along with his cousin Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici. The overthrow of Lorenzo il Magnifico's influence on Florentine culture by Savanorola (and enemies of the Medici) left a hunger for revenge. So did the assassination of Giulio's father in the Pazzi conspiracy. Both Giovanni and Giulio did what their Medici ancestors only dreamed of one day doing. They gained control of their native city AND the papacy itself. Giovanni became the famous Pope Leo X- the arch enemy of Martin Luther and frivolous dispenser of indulgences (also known as get-out-of-hell passes). Pope Clement VII, his cousin Giulio, became his immediate successor. With the death of the Medici popes, Lorenzo's line of the Medici died out, but Medici power in Florence did not. A new and grander Medici soon came to power.

Cosimo il Primo (Cosimo I) established himself as Grand Duke of Florence and Tuscany in 1537. In addition to making himself king (okay Grand Duke) of the city, he (in a typical act of Medici eminent domain) commandeered the fortified city hall and turned it into a royal residence for himself and his new royal wife, Eleanora of Toledo. Those sneaky Medici and their kleptomaniac ways! If it's a public place or monument in Florence, there's no reason why it can't be theirs... 

It was during this final lineage of the Medici Grand Dukes that the civic hall/royal palace was redecorated by Giorgio Vasari. The elegant and elaborate interior speaks to the clear conversion of a city hall into a pleasure palace. Luckily for the art history tourist (cough, cough) much of the interior decoration remains in tact or has been restored.

Giambologna and Workshop. Equestrian Monument to Cosimo Primo. 1594.
 In the Piazza della Signoria (wall of the Palazzo Vecchio on the right)

Today, the Palazzo Vecchio is rife with tourists, including us! We met in the Piazza della Signoria and waited for our professor to guide us through the richly decorated rooms. I had seen a glimpse of a richly painted ceiling from one of the upper floors, when we left the Uffizzi around midnight the night before. It was crazy beautiful and if I had the chance, I would want to go back and see the Vecchio at night!

From Wikipedia. The Palazzo Vecchio of today in the Piazza della Signoria with tourists.

On the right you can see a part of the Loggia and behind the Loggia and to the right of the Vecchio, the corner and entrance to the Uffizzi!. This piazza, along with the one before the Baptistery and Duomo, are easily the most popular places in Florence for tourists.

The area outside the Palazzo Vecchio draws such massive crowds not only because of the buildings, but because the area around the museum is an open air gallery of art. Just outside the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizzi walls are:

Corner of the Palazzo Vecchio. Bartolomeo Ammannati and Workshop. Neptune Fountain. 1560-1575.
Copy of Michelangelo's David at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio courtyard. 

And now...drum roll please...the interior...


Courtyard at the entrance

The decoration of the interior courtyard is the first thing that dazzles visitors. There is no fee to enter this outer entrance and it is a popular place for people to snap pictures without paying any Euros. The elaborate columns were the works of Michelozzo.


On the occasion of Cosimo il Primo's son getting married to a royal of the Austrian court, Vasari guilded the columns' stucco decoration.

He also lined the courtyard with paintings of the Hapsburg estates in Austria and painted the ceilings and walls with grotesques.

The courtyard also features a fountain, with a very cute sculpture by Andrea del Verrocchio. Putto with Dolphin. c. 1470. Bronze. (This one is a copy of the original which is inside).

And now....what the Palazzo Vecchio is like inside....

Salone dei Cinquecento (Salon of the 500). View away from the dais with wall paintings and ceiling by Vasari and his workshop. Originally this room was designed for the 500 republican representatives. After Cosimo il Primo became Grand Duke, he commissioned Vasari to redecorate the interior where he could receive guests. GRAND Duke indeed! 


Ceiling of the Salone dei Cinquecento with the portrait of Cosimo Primo in the middle (the framed circle)

Giorgio Vasari. The Apotheosis of Cosimo I. 1563-5. Salone dei Cinquecento ceiling. Cosimo is surrounded by angels holding the shields of the Florentine guilds, whose representatives would have made up the council of 500. If anything this painting states, "The Palazzo Vecchio, and all of Florence, belong to me!"


Lining the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento are giant paintings by Vasari and members of his workshop commemorating Florence's victories over her enemy's: such as Defeat of the Pisans at the Tower of San Vincenzo!

The Victory of Cosimo I at Marciano in Val di Chiana

Here are a few more details (you can click on them to make them larger):

1. 2.

3.  4. 

5. 6. 

Details from:
The Taking of Siena (1,2) and Pisa Attacked by Florentine Troops (3,4,5,6)

The dais in the Salone dei Cinquecento with Baccio Bandinelli's sculpture of Pope Leo X in the center.
 Pope Leo X was born Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici (the second son of Lorenzo il Magnifico and the first Medici Pope!). He is famous for building St. Peter's Basilica and for arguing with Martin Luther!


Detail of Pope Leo X and decoration of the niche with Medici Crest above his head.
Detail of the Medici Crest. In terms of advertising and promotion....Medici first, Pope second?

One of many freestanding sculptures in the Salone dei Cinquento: 
Michelangelo's. Genio della Vittoria (The Genius of Victory).

After completing our lecture in the Salone dei Cinquecento, we proceeded as a group to the Grand Duke's private apartments, stopping first to see the Studiolo di Francesco I (the little study of Francis I) which adjoins the giant hall. If you look at the other side of the room, in the far right corner there is a wooden oval that is missing a painting. This was originally the only way to enter the room (from Francesco's bedroom!) The paintings are the doors of cupboards where he kept his collection of treasures.

Continuing throughout the rest of the Palazzo, in contrast to the Salone dei Cinquecento with its depictions of major events in the history of Florence, are the private apartments of Cosimo il Primo and Eleanora. These are decorated with scenes from the history of the Medici family.


These two images are from the apartment of pope Leo X. In the middle of the ceiling you see the central painting which features Cosimo il Vecchio (the grandfather of Lorenzo and Guiliano- il Magnifico)


More details from the apartment of Pope Leo X's ceiling.


Lecture in the room featuring a Lorenzo il Magnifico ceiling. Our group and our Professor Katherine Turrill. I like how the photo of her came out looking like she's wearing some sort of halo.

Sala di Lorenzo il Magnifico. Painted ceiling by Giorgio Vasari. In the center of the ceiling is a painting showing Lorenzo seated (wearing purple) and being honored and presented with gifts, including an African giraffe!

Lorenzo the Magnificent Receives the Homage of the Ambassadors. According to the lecture, there actually was a giraffe that came to live in Florence, but rather sadly it had to be killed when it stuck its head into a balcony railing and could not be removed from it.

Giorgio Vasari. Lorenzo the Magnificent at the diet of Cremona. Palazzo Vecchio, Sala di Lorenzo il Magnifico

Giorgio Vasari. Lorenzo the Magnificent Among Philosophers and Men of Letters. Palazzo Vecchio. Sala di Lorenzo il Magnifico. Tempera on wood.

A few other details! I particularly love the one in the middle! The woman's face is so sweet!

Another Medici Crest!

A fascinating room, because of its original flooring and panoramic monochromatic painting along the lower edge of the walls (you can see this on the left), including everyday scenes around the Palazzo Vecchio.

Detail. Statue of Michelangelo's David in the Piazza della Signoria outside the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio

Also in this room, the depiction of a major celebration outside of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Up the barrel vault staircase to the upper floor.

Beautiful frescoes including another Medici crest.

On the upper stories there are open balconies with gorgeous views of the city. From here, Cosimo and Eleanora could look out at their city.

View across the Arno to the Boboli Gardens

View of San Miniato

Panorama with Santa Croce

View of Santa Croce

View across the Arno

Panorama with a view of the dome of the city's Synagogue

Our group looking at the elaborate Vasari paintings in yet another room upstairs

Details of some of the paintings.

Original ceiling and floor. The floor clearly states "Property of Cosimo Medici" :P

Other decorative features upstairs:


View of Santa Maria del Fiore and her Campanile in the distance and buildings across from the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria

Sala dell' Udienza (Audience Hall) 

Details of wall paintings in the Sala dell' Udienzia

Doorway leading to the Sala dei Gigli with beautiful wooden inlay of Dante Alighieri.



Sala dei Gigli

Decorative arches above the doorway leading into the next room!

Donatello's Judith and Holonofrenes. One of the earliest Renaissance cast freestanding sculptures.

The Geographical Map Room- including this giant globe and inlaid maps of the known world circa the second half of the 16th century.

Ceiling of the Geographical Map room.

Lion near the exit to the Palazzo Vecchio's upper story.

And voila! That is the awesomeness that is the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence!


  1. So so so much to see and take in! To think you only had one day....

  2. Wow! I am reading this due to Dan Brown's inferno. Great job on p. Vecchio!

  3. I live in Verona and am an art history teacher. Love this post. Keep me posted on more!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I hope you get to visit the Palazzo Vecchio and can do so at night. When I was there, Florence had one free night a month when all of the national museums were open until midnight. If I'm ever there in the summer again, I want to see the Vecchio at night and the Uffizzi again. It was magical. :)

  4. Hello,
    Your blog and your pictures are awesome. I have a media ministry and I am an independent documentary filmmaker. I am doing a documentary on the 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. I have very limited funds and cannot do any travels, therefore I wanted to ask request to use your photographs of Pope X. I will be very obliged if you will consider this request.
    My email is from filmindia@AOL.com
    With best regards,

    T N Mohan