When Goethe made his blitz-tour of Florence, the Palazzo Vecchio (also called the Palazzo della Signoria) helped pull the wool over his eyes. ‘Obviously’, wrote the great poet, ‘the people . . . enjoyed a lucky succession of good governments’ – a remark which, as Mary McCarthy wrote, could make the angels in heaven weep.
But none of Florence’s chronic factionalism mars Arnolfo di Cambio’s temple of civic aspirations, part council hall and part fortress and still Florence's city hall. In many ways, the Palazzo Vecchio is the ideal of stone Florence: rugged and imposing, with a rusticated façade that was to inspire so many of the city’s private palaces, yet designed according to the proportions of the Golden Section of the ancient Greeks. Its dominant feature, the 308ft tower, is a typical piece of Florentine bravado, for long the highest point in the city.
The Palazzo Vecchio occupies the site of the old Roman theatre and the medieval Palazzo dei Priori. In the 13th century this earlier palace was flattened along with the rest of the Ghibelline quarter, and in 1299, the now ascendant Guelphs called upon Arnolfo di Cambio, master builder of the cathedral, to design the most impressive ‘Palazzo del Popolo’ (as the building was originally called) possible, with an eye to upstaging rival cities.
The palace’s unusual trapezoidal shape is often, but rather dubiously, explained as Guelph care not to have any of the building touch land once owned by Ghibellines. One doubts that even in the 13th century real estate realities allowed such delicacy of sentiments; nor does the theory explain why the tower has swallowtail Ghibelline crenellations, as opposed to the square Guelph ones on the palace itself.
Later additions to the rear of the palace have obscured its shape even more, although the façade is essentially as Arnolfo built it, except for the bet-hedging monogram over the door hailing Christ the King of Florence, put up in the nervous days of 1529, when the imperial army of Charles V was on its way to destroy the last Florentine republic (the inscription replaces an earlier one left by Savonarola).
The room at the top of the tower was used as prison for celebrities and dubbed the Alberghettino; inmates of the ‘little hotel’ included Cosimo il Vecchio before his brief exile, and Savonarola, who spent his last months, between torture sessions, enjoying a superb view of the city before his execution in the piazza below.
With few exceptions, the interior decorations date from the time of Cosimo I, when he relocated his Grand Ducal self here from the Medici palace in 1540. To politically ‘correct’ its acres of walls and ceilings in the shortest amount of time, he turned to his court artist Giorgio Vasari, famed more for the speed at which he could execute a commission than for its quality.
On the ground floor of the palazzo, before you buy your ticket, you can take a gander at some of Vasari’s more elaborate handiwork in the Courtyard, redone for the occasion of Francesco I’s unhappy marriage in 1565 to the plain and stupid Habsburg princess Joanna of Austria.
Vasari’s suitably grand staircase ascends to the largest room in the palace, the vast Salone dei Cinquecento. The salone was added at the insistence of Savonarola for meetings of the 500-strong Consiglio Maggiore, the reformed republic’s democratic assembly.
In 1503, art’s two reigning divinities, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, were commissioned to paint the two long walls of the salone in a kind of Battle of the Brushes to which the city eagerly looked forward. Sadly, neither came anywhere near to completing the project; Leonardo managed to fresco a section of the wall, using the experimental techniques that were to prove the undoing of his Last Supper in Milan, while Michelangelo only completed the cartoons before being summoned to Rome by Julius II, who required the sculptor of the David to pander to his own personal megalomania.
In the 1560s Vasari removed what remained of Leonardo’s efforts and refrescoed the entire room as a celebration of Cosimo’s triumphs over Pisa and Siena – inane, big and busy scenes, crowded with men and horses who appear to have all the substance of overcooked pasta – topped by an apotheosis of the Grand Duke on the ceiling.
Or maybe Vasari, who had no end of admiration for Leonardo and Michelangelo, didn't remove Leonardo's efforts, but covered them a new wall and left a tiny clue in the background of the Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, where a soldier bears a banner reading 'CERCA TROVA' ('Seek and you will find').
This is the theory of professor Maurizio Serancini (the same who appears in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code) who made headlines in 2009. (Other art historians believe that Vasari added the CERCA TROVA along with other inscriptions on the Sienese green banners on the orders of Cosimo himself, quoting Dante's Purgatory in his victory over Siena and his Florentine enemies
libertà va cercando, ch'è sì cara, come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta.
He goes in search of freedom, which is so dear, As he who gives his life for it would know. Purgatorio, Canto I, 71–72
In 2012, it was decided to test Dr Serancini's theory. The master art restorers of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure were brought it to make sure the tiny hole drilled in a crack in Vasari's work could be made invisible. Researchers with an edoscope and sampling tool from the University of California in San Diego were brought in. Then mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi was on hand.
And they did find traces behind a 2cm cavity, in a certain spot previously discovered with radar: signs of brush strokes and dark pigment identical to that kind used in the glazes of the Mona Lisa and St John the Baptist in the Louvre. Since then the whole project has ground to halt; Serancini is keen to explore further, while opposing art historians and restorers have petitioned to stop any further damage to Vasari's work (or spending of any more funds on what they regard as a wild goose chase, when other projects in Italy are in dire need). Stay tuned.
The sculptural groups lining the walls of this almost uncomfortably large room (the Italian parliament sat here from 1865 to 1870 when Florence was the capital) are only slightly more stimulating. Even Michelangelo’s Victory, on the wall opposite the entrance, is more virtuosity than vision, yet bitter and poignant: a vacuous young idiot poses with one knee atop a defeated old man half-submerged in stone, said to be Michelangelo’s self-portrait.
The neighbouring, muscle-bound duet, Hercules and Diomedes by Vicenzo de’ Rossi, was probably inevitable in this city obsessed by the possibilities of the male nude.
Beyond the salone, behind a modern glass door, is a much more intriguing room, although it’s not much bigger than a closet. This is the Studiolo of Francesco I, designed by Vasari in 1572 for Cosimo’s melancholic and reclusive son, where he would escape to brood over his real interests in curiosities, chemistry, crystal and gem cutting and alchemy – so much so that at the end of his life he had his ministers meet him here so he could always keep an eye on his experiments (one of which led to an ingenious method for making porcelain as fine as that imported from China – thanks to its Grand Duke, Florence became the first place in Europe to manufacture it).
The little study, windowless and more than a little claustrophobic, has been restored to its original appearance, lined with allegorical paintings by Vasari, Bronzino and Allori, and bronze statuettes by Giambologna and Ammannati; their refined, polished, and erotic mythological subjects are part of a carefully thought-out 16th-century programme on Man and Nature. The lower row of paintings conceals Francesco’s secret cupboards where he kept his most precious pearls and crystals and gold.
After the salone a certain fuzziness begins to take over, in room after room of Medicean puffery provided by Cosimo I’s propaganda machine and Vasari’s fresco factory. The first rooms, known as the Quartiere di Leone X, carry ancestor worship to extremes, each one dedicated to a different Medici.
In the first Cosimo il Vecchio returns from exile amid tumultuous acclaim; in the second Lorenzo il Magnifico receives ambassadors in the company of a dignified giraffe; the third and fourth are dedicated to the Medici popes; while the fifth, naturally, is for Cosimo I, who gets the most elaborate treatment of all.
Upstairs the next series of rooms is known as the Quartiere degli Elementi, with more by Vasari and co, depicting allegories of the elements. In a small room is the original of Verrocchio’s Putto with the Dolphin, from the courtyard fountain.
A balcony across the Salone dei Cinquecento leads to the Quartiere di Eleonora di Toledo, Mrs Cosimo I’s private apartments. Of special note here is her chapel, one of the masterpieces of Bronzino, who seemed to relish the opportunity to paint something besides Medici portraits. The next room, the Sala dell’Udienza, has a quattrocento coffered ceiling by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano, and walls painted with a rather fine romp by Mannerist Francesco Salviati (1550–60).
The last room, the Sala dei Gigli (‘of the lilies’) boasts another fine ceiling by the da Maiano brothers; it hovers over Donatello’s bronze Judith and Holofernes, a late work of 1455; the warning to tyrants inscribed on its base was added when the statue was abducted from the Medici palace. Shown right before Judith strikes, with none of the gore popular at the time, it is one of Donatello’s most naturalistic sculptures; the fact that it was done in eleven different pieces makes some critics wonder if sections, such as Holofernes’ leg, weren’t cast from real models.
Off the Sala dei Gigli are two small rooms of interest: the Guardaroba, a unique ‘wardrobe’ adorned with 57 maps painted by Fra Egnazio Danti in 1563, depicting all the world known at the time. A bust and portrait of Machiavelli are in the Cancelleria, his office from 1498 to 1512, when he served the republic as secretary and diplomat.
On the mezzanine before you exit, the Collezione Loeser is a fine assortment of medieval and Renaissance art left to the city in 1928 by scholar and art lover Charles Loeser, the Macy’s department store heir. This part of the palace was renovated by Michelozzo in the mid 1400s and is the only section of the Palazzo Vecchio to retain its original ceilings.
Highlights of the collection includes a Madonna with Christ and St John by Jacopo del Sellaio, the Portrait of Laura Battiferri, the poet and wife of Bartolomeo Ammannati by Bronzino and a Madonna by Pietro Lorenzetti.
Underneath the Palazzo Vecchio lurks a surprise: Fiorentia's 1st-century BC Roman theatre, which in its day could seat up to 6000 people, with the stage under the actual Via dei Leoni. It was abandoned by the 5th century AD, but still visible into the 10th century, and used as a prison and foundation for various tower houses, until the pavement of Piazza della Signoria was made level. Part of the theatre was used as the foundations for additions built on the Palazzo Vecchio.
It's a long climb up the steps (there's no lift) and not recommended for anyone with a disability, heart condition or asthma, or prone to vertigo or claustrophobia. But if you do have the health and the puff, the views over Florence from the top of Arnolfo di Cambio's tower are pretty spectacular. If it's raining, you can only go as high as the battlements.
The Palazzo Vecchia also houses many of the exhibits formerly housed in the Museo di Firenze com'era on Via dell'Oriuolo, which was closed to make more room for the Biblioteca delle Oblate. Its jewel is the nearly room-sized Pianta della Catena, most beautiful of the early views of Florence and Stefano Bonsignori's bird's eye view of the city in 1584. There are engravings by Giuseppe Zocchi of 18th-century Florence, and panel paintings of Augusto Marrani of the picturesque city that vanished in the 19th century, when architect Giuseppe Poggi redesigned the city as the new capital of Ital: many of his plans are here too.
Other exhibits include Luigi Zumkeller's Panoramic View of Florence from 1936, and photos of 20th-century Florence's darkest moments: the destruction in 1944, and the flood of 1966.
Piazza della Signoria
Hours Museum & Archaeological Site: Oct-Mar Fri-Wed 9am-7pm, Thurs & hols 9am-2pm. Apr-Sept Fri-Wed 9am-11pm; Thurs & hols 9am-2pm. Reservations for hourly tours of the Archaeological site can be made when you enter or by writing in advance, firstname.lastname@example.org. Children under 8 are not allowed.
Collezione Loeser: Fri-Wed 9am-7pm; Thurs & hols 9am-2pm year round
Tower and Battlements: Oct-Mar Fri-Wed 9am-5pm, Thurs & hols 9am-2pm. Apr-Sept Fri-Wed 9am-9pm; Thurs & hols 9am-2pm. No children under 6, and no admission to the tower if it's raining. Ticket office closes 30 minutes before closing time.
Adm €10, €8 reduced (EU citizens and students aged 18-25) for the museum or for the tower.
Museum & tower or Museum & Archaeological Site €14, reduced €12. €4 for just the Archaeological site. €18 for everything, €16 ages 18-25, under 18 free.
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Images by: Zolli, Creative Commons License, Visit Tuscany, travelspot, Pixabay, PD Art