If there is one image that best sums up Florence, it would probably be the most beautiful ‘L’ shaped square – The Piazza Della Signoria.
Surrounded by some of the most buildings in the city, it feels like an outdoor museum, in no part thanks to its famous sculptures strategically placed throughout the square. Any wonder it’s always full of visitors, trying to outdo each other as they smile while clicking photographs for posterity.
It is these sculptures and buildings that have come to symbolise the city’s renaissance past – from Michelangelo’s copy of David and Perseus, Cellini’s masterpiece, to the Uffizi Gallery.
However, each of these sculptures have their own stories, including the buildings and the very square they all sit on.
The ‘L’ shaped square
The square can trace its history as far back as the 13th century, when the area around was owned by the Uberti family – the most powerful in all of Florence. However, in 1266, in a scene straight out a Mafiosi movie, things took a turn for the south for the Uberti family when they were expelled by another powerful family, the Guelphs.
Adding insult to the injury, a few of their properties were also confiscated. Not satisfied, they then proceeded to demolish a few other buildings that the Ubertis owned. The rubble wasn’t cleared for over a decade, until it became the ‘L’ shaped square that we know it today. Subsequently, the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi Gallery were built on the former property of the Uberti Family.
Thankfully, while all that is now history, Piazza della Signoria still maintains itself as the focus of the city, where Florentines and visitors come together.
He must, undoubtedly, be the primary reason why so many visitors make the effort to head to Florence. A chance to gaze at David in all his natural glory, some marveling while others gawk. Originally created in 1504, the original renaissance masterpiece was replaced in 1873 with the copy that now proudly stands in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. The original sits at the Galleria dell’Accademia.
We have all heard the story of the young boy slaying the powerful warrior Goliath. However, what Michelangelo had done was capture for posterity that moment immediately after David had challenged Goliath. We all know what happened after. Armed with a sling and five river stones as ammunition, he sets off to meet his enemy. With the fling of a single stone, he brings down Goliath, grabs his sword and slices off his head. In time, after the death of his benefactors, Saul and his son Jonathan, he became the king of Israel.
Overlooking the Piazza Della Signoria is the Palazzo Vecchio or Old Palace, the town hall of Florence. However, it has a history that goes back all the way to the 13th century.
When the people of Florence decided that a new location for their government was needed, they looked for a site that could best highlight the importance of the city. They chose this site. The first stone was laid in 1299. When the large bell was finally hoisted into the tower 23 years later, marking the end of its completion, it was named as the Palazzo del Popolo, or Palace of the People. It has since undergone a few name changes, including Palazzo dei Priori and Palazzo Ducale. It wasn’t until the powerful Medici Duke moved to the Palazzo Pitti in 1550 across the river that it got its current name.
Perseus with the head of Medusa
This beautiful bronze statue, green with age, is in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria. Inspired by Greek mythology, it depicts Perseus standing naked and triumphant, with the decapitated head of Medusa and her tangle of snakes in his hand, and her body under his feet.
Loggia dei Lanzi
If all of Florence were an open art museum, nothing encapsulates it better than Loggia dei Lanzi. Sitting on the corner of the Piazza della Signoria, this open-air sculpture gallery adjoins the Uffizi Gallery behind it.
The creation of Benci di Cione and Simone Talenti, it was built between 1376 and 1382 and was initially thought of as the venue to house public ceremonies. However, with the rise of the Medici family around the 16th century, they instead preferred to showcase the sculptures. While adding aesthetics to the surrounding, these sculptures were also meant to signify a political message at that time.
The Fountain of Neptune
Right outside of the Palazzo Vecchio is the Fountain of Neptune. It is the creation of Bartolomeo Ammannati and a few of his peers who collaborated with him. It was initially built to commemorate the wedding of Francesco, one of the sons of the influential families of Florence, the Medici family, to the Grand Duchess of Austria in 1565.
However, in 1574, when Francesco was to receive the title of Grand Duke, Ammanati went about creating the largest fountain in all of Florence. While I am sure he thought he had created a masterpiece, the Florentines didn’t share the same thoughts as the great master. Instead, they started referring to it as Il Biancone, or the white giant.
Sadly, for the creator, it doesn’t end there. During the 16th century, the general public had no issues using the fountain to wash their dirty laundry. In fact, through the decades since, it has been vandalised on several occasions, the last time being as recently as 2007.
Today, while the original statue is safely housed in the National Museum, what you see is a copy that was made in 1880.
Immediately behind the Piazza Della Signoria is the Uffizi Gallery. Built in 1559, it was originally called Uffizi Palace and was meant to be offices for government and city magistrates. It was commissioned by Cosimo I, scion of the powerful Medici family and Grand Duke of Tuscany and designed by Vasari.
While it can be said for much of Florence and its many treasures, I doubt if Cosimo I ever imagined that the palace would not only survive, but reinvent itself as Italy’s, and the world’s, premier art galleries. Today, the gallery is home to some of the finest renaissance art that came out then, from masters including Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Giotto, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Raphael. This is in no small measure thanks to the Medici family, who were avid art collectors.
Finally, with the decline of the Medici family, it was up to the last heiress, Anna Maria to decide on how best to put the innumerable art collection, collected over 400 years, to best use. She insisted that the collection must remain in Florence. Her wish was granted, when in 1765, the palace became Uffizi Gallery.
Hercules and Cacus
Art is not art if it doesn’t have a story to it, however political and murky. It is no different with the sculpture of Hercules and Cacus.
The original story goes along these lines. Much before Rome was built, Cacus, a fire-breathing giant, used to terrorise the inhabitants of the Aventine hills. After all, he had a fondness for human flesh, often using their heads as decoration in the cave he lived in.
One day, Hercules, fresh after stealing cattle from Geryon nearby, chose to take a breather. As night fell, Cacus, obviously famished, decided he wanted a change in his dinner, and promptly went off with eight of the cattle. Upon waking up, Hercules followed the tracks which led him to Cacus. Each of them tried to outwit the other, until eventually, Hercules prevailed. Jumping down the cave, Hercules threw Cacus to the ground and grasped him so hard that his eyes popped out, leading to his death.
However, there is another political context to this. The sculpture, commissioned by the Medici family, was the creation of Baccio Bandinelli and was meant to counter Michelangelo’s David, created when the Republicans held sway. The sculpture is meant to show Hercules the victor (the Medici) and Cacus the vanquished (the Republicans). A warning to those who cross the line? Perhaps.
The Equestrian monument of Cosimo I
In front of the north corner of the Palazzo Della Signoria stands the Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I. Commissioned by his son, Ferdinando I, it was an instant masterpiece, and would become the gold standard that other European royal courts would follow. It is the creation of Giambologna and captured a member of the Medici in absolute control.
Giambologna first came to Florence aged 24. He never left the city until his death at the age of 79. While I am sure he had thoughts of seeking greener pastures, better sense would have prevailed, and he would have decided it was better he stays put in Florence. More importantly though, the Medici family never allowed him to leave, fearful that other royal courts in Europe would use his creative genius for their own benefit. Well, Europe’s loss turned out to be Florence’s gain after all.
L’importuno di Michelangelo
Often overlooked by many visitors is one of the city’s secrets. Just right of the doorway to the historic Palazzo Vecchio is a special stone brick, on the corner nearest the Uffizi Gallery. Look for the outline of a face that has been seemingly chiseled on to the stone.
Legend has it that this scratching on the wall is the work of Michelangelo himself. While not proven, it is known as the L’importuno di Michelangelo.
So much to do and so little time
While there are countless other things to see and experience in Florence, one of the banes of group travel is the short amount of time you have at any tourist destination. It was no different this time round too. Besides, I had no intention of soaking in too much culture, lest a bus full of young tourists from around the world choose to leave me behind as they hit the road to another destination in Europe.