Italian city builders are renowned for effortlessly creating beautiful squares, but it’s an art where the Florentines are generally all thumbs. Only here, in the city’s civic stage, did they achieve a grand, meaningful space, although not by design – in the 13th century the victorious Guelphs knocked down the hated Ghibelline quarter that stood here, and no one wanted to rebuild on land polluted by their memory.
Still, the piazza is an antidote to the stone gullies of the centre, a showcase for the sombre fortress of the Palazzo Vecchio and a lively gathering of some of the best and worst of Florentine sculpture.
Although the Piazza della Signoria currently serves as Great Aunt Florence’s drawing-room-cum-tourist-overflow-tank, in the old days it saw the public assemblies of the republic, which in Florence meant that the square often degenerated into a battleground for its impossibly inscrutable internecine intramural quarrels.
These could be stirred up to mythic levels of violence; in the 14th century a man was eaten by a crowd maddened by a political speech. Such speeches were given from the arringhiera, or oration terrace in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, a word which gave us ‘harangue’, and where the Marzocco, the city's symbol stood for centuries.
It was in the Piazza della Signoria that Savonarola ignited his notorious Bonfire of Vanities in 1497, and here, too, the following year, the disillusioned Florentines ignited Savonarola himself. A small plaque in the pavement marks the exact spot, not far from Ammannati’s fountain.
If, on the other hand, trouble came from without, the Florentines would toll the famous bell in the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio (it was nicknamed the Vacca, or cow, for its low mooing sound) and the square would rapidly fill with the gonfalons of the citizens’ militia and the guilds. ‘We will sound our trumpets!’ threatened the French King Charles VIII, when the Florentines refused to shell out enough florins to make him and his army go away. ‘And we will ring our bell!’ countered the courageous republican Piero Capponi – a threat that worked; Charles had to settle for a smaller sum. When Alessandro de’ Medici was restored as duke of Tuscany three years later, one of his first acts was to smash the bell as too potent a symbol of Florence’s liberty.
In the 1970s and 80s a different kind of battle has been waged here, spiced with good old-fashioned Florentine factionalism. At stake was the future of the Piazza della Signoria itself. In 1974, while searching for signs of the original paving stones, the Soprintendenza ai Beni Archeologici found, much to their surprise, an underground medieval kasbah of narrow lanes, houses and wells – the ruins of Ghibelline Florence, built over the theatre and other portions of Roman Florentia.
During the excavations, the remains of Roman dyeing vats were also found, an indication that Florence was associated with textiles even back then. The comune ordered the excavations filled in; from the city’s point of view, the piazza, essential to the essential tourist trade, was untouchable. In the 1980s, the communal government fell, and the excavations were reopened on the portion of the piazza near the Loggia. There are proposals to excavate the rest of the square, much to the horror of the comune, although it never happened. As of 2014, however, you can visit the Roman theatre and other Roman remains under the Palazzo Vecchio as part of one of its tours.
The first two statues placed in the square (now copies) were carried there by republican enthusiasm. Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes was hauled from the Medici palace and placed here in 1494 as a symbol of the defeat of tyranny. Michelangelo’s David was equally seen as the embodiment of republican triumph (when it was finished in 1504, the Medici were in exile), although it is doubtful whether Michelangelo himself had such symbolism in mind: the statue was originally intended to stand in a niche on the cathedral, only to be shanghaied to the Piazza della Signoria as a message for any would-be Goliath. In 1873, it was replaced by the copy you see today, when the original was relocated (with much pomp, on a specially built train) for safekeeping at the Accademia.
Later Florentine sculptors attempted to rival the David, especially the awful Baccio Bandinelli, who managed to get the commission to create a pendant to the statue and boasted that he could surpass Il Divino himself. The pathetic result, Hercules and Cacus, was completed in 1534; as a reward, Bandinelli had to listen to his arch-rival Cellini insult the statue in front of their patron, Cosimo I. An ‘old sack full of melons’ he called it, bestowing the sculpture’s alternative title.
Another overgrown victim of the chisel stands at the corner of the Palazzo Vecchio. Neptune’s Fountain (1575) was commissioned by Cosimo I to celebrate both the arrival of Florence's first aqueduct and his mastery over the sea and designed by Bandinelli. He died before he could sculpt it, leaving it to his pupi Ammannati. Dubbed Il Biancone (‘Big Whitey’) almost as soon as it was unveiled, Michelangelo pitied the huge block of marble Ammannati ‘ruined’ to produce Neptune, whose features closely resemble those of Cosimo. Wearing a silly crown of anti-pigeon spikes Neptune (again a copy of the original) towers over a low basin, his butt supported by a couple of Mini-mes as he casts baleful glances towards the David. At his feet are four struggling sea steeds, mere hobby-horses compared with Big Whitey himself. Marble and bronze figures, some by Giambologna sprawl around the basin looking troubled by the whole affair. In the old days, scribes used the fountain to rinse out their ink wells, and it was repeatedly vandalized (and restored) ever since.
The last colossus in Piazza della Signoria is the Monument to Cosimo, by Giambologna (1595), the only large-scale equestrian bronze. The scheme on the panels below Cosimo depicts scenes of his brutal conquest of Siena, and of the ‘Florentine Senate’ and the Pope conferring the Grand Dukedom on Cosimo.
Directly behind Cosimo stands the Tribunale di Mercanzia, built in the 14th century as a commercial court for merchants of the guilds and adorned with heraldic arms. To the left of this (no. 7) is a fine, 16th-century contribution, the Palazzo Uguccioni, very much in the spirit of High Renaissance in Rome, and sometimes attributed to a design by Raphael.
Most beautiful of all, however, is the Piazza's Loggia dei Lanzi.
Images by: PD Art