The History of Florence in one Square Block— Piazza della Signoria

Not much of a museum buff? No problem. One of Florence’s most beautiful, interesting and richest collections of art and history is completely free to visit, any time of day or night, with absolutely no waiting in lines. Piazza della Signoria is the large, L-shaped square that you can’t miss when heading north from the Ponte Vecchio bridge a couple of blocks past the river, and look to your right.

There is much going on in this piazza, which is clear to even the most casual observer. First of all, there are lots of tourists. But that OK, it’s a large piazza. The first thing you may notice is the grand Palazzo Vecchio (meaning “old palace”) whose tower looms over the piazza. This building, which still serves as Florence’s town hall, was where the leaders of the Florentine Republic lived and conducted business from times dating back before the Medici family seized power in the 16th century. The elected men (“Signoria”) would move in for their 2-month terms and govern from this locale. Florentines would gather in the piazza to hear important news announced by the Signoria.

Even before the mid-16th century, the Medici family had been wielding all the power in Florence. Some of Florence’s most famous artwork exists thanks to de facto Medici ruler Lorenzo the Magnificent, art patron and party thrower extraordinaire. But appearances were kept up and the Signoria remained in place. Finally they simply took over, and Cosimo I de’Medici declared himself Grand Duke of Tuscany. Now the Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio had new meaning as the seat of the monarchy. His bronze likeness on horseback would soon grace the piazza. Cosimo and his heirs would rule from here and from his office next door (now the Uffizi museum, meaning “offices”) for two centuries.

Despite government turmoil, in fact because of it, beautiful and symbolic artwork began to appear in the Piazza della Signoria. Right around the turn of the 16th century, a young, reclusive Michelangelo carved, from a single 17-foot piece of Carrara marble, what is possibly Florence’s most beautiful work of art. David stood proudly in the center of the piazza for centuries, daring gaze pointed toward Rome, as a symbol of the small but fierce Florentine Republic (David, who slays Goliath). It was eventually moved to the safety of the Galleria dell’Accademia museum and a full-sized replica took its place in the piazza.

Another marble beauty, revealed about 30 years following David, was Hercules and Cacus by the sculptor Bandinelli. This work, which shows Hercules triumphant over the defeated and docile Cacus, was met with hostility because of the Medici family’s claim that it symbolized their victory over the Florentine Republic. And by the way, by now the Medici were also claiming David as a symbol of their family’s spiritual strength, despite the statue’s original meaning.

 

Another remarkable work in the piazza is Cellini’s bronze depiction of Perseus with the Head of Medusa. When the piece was revealed to the public, the aforementioned marble statues (and others) were already in place. This new work, commissioned by Cosimo de’Medici, had clear political meaning. With Perseus standing triumphantly atop Medusa’s gruesomely bloody body, severed head in his hand, Cosimo tells us he was no one to be trifled with.

The list of breathtaking works goes on, including Neptune’s fountain, the Rape of the Sabine Women and the original Medici lions. Each piece has a fascinating backstory and represents a time in Florence’s history. Many of these works are housed in the Loggia dei Lanzi, and I use the word “housed” loosely. It is a wide-open air patio in the piazza, bordered by beautiful Corinthian pillars. As I said before, no waiting in lines— just walk up and see for yourself.

To take a stroll through the Piazza della Signoria is to cross through what almost feels like sacred, historical grounds. You can’t miss the feeling that a lot happened here. The Florentines have managed to keep the area relevant to this day. Modern works have been added in recent years, giving the square new life and color. First it was Jeff Koons’ metallic yellow statue and then it was Jan Fabre’s bronze tortoise. Just recently, the Florence International Antiques Biennial chose Swiss-born New York-based artist Urs Fischer to leave his mark on the piazza. While we don’t know yet what he will make, perhaps it will entail a modern twist on something classic, like his melted-wax version of the Rape of the Sabine Women. The unveiling is set for September.

For those of us who appreciate the classics, growing pains may be tough. I may not personally love the bright yellow of Koons’ work, but just think about how people must have reacted to the first gleaming bronze statue added to a collection of soft, pale marble? I’m glad the Florentines continue to push the envelope, and look forward to seeing what they’ll come up with next.