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  • Writer's pictureClementine de la Poer Beresford, MA

A Brief History of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

What is Palazzo Vecchio?

Palazzo Vecchio is a towering 13th-century palace that once served as the centre of government and was originally called the Palazzo della Signoria.

Palazzo Vecchio

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Palazzo Vecchio History

The Palazzo Vecchio (or Old Palace), designed by Arnolfo di Cambio for the city government in the late 13th century, was built to one side of the Piazza della Signoria for good reason. 13th-century Florence was in the midst of political turmoil, with two political factions, the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, vying for political control. The Ghibellines were labelled as heretics by contemporaries including Dante Alighieri, and when the Guelphs regained control of Florence in 1266, they destroyed every building that had belonged to the Ghibellines’ leader, largely concentrated in what would become the Piazza della Signoria. The medieval Italian chronicler Giovanni Villani noted that once demolished, the Guelphs decreed that no building should ever be built in the square. Therefore, when Arnolfo de Cambio began the Palazzo Vecchio in the 1290s, he positioned it to the side of the square rather than in the centre.

The fortified tower of the Palazzio Vecchio, soaring 95 metres into the air, became a symbol of Florence and the Guelphs’ victory. It was here that the nine consuls of the republic spent their two months in office (every two months new consuls were picked at random by the city’s guild members). Crenellations were added in the 15th century, as were glorious interiors designed to exude Florence’s wealth and independence. The building’s enormous Salone dei Cinquecento (or Hall of the 500) was conceived by Simone del Pollaiolo in 1494 and commissioned by the Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola to be the seat of the Grand Council after the expulsion of the Medici family, the former rulers of Florence.

In 1540, when the Medici had regained power and Cosimo I de’ Medici made the Palazzo Vecchio his ducal residence, he commissioned Giorgio Vasari to renovate and decorate the interior to his own tastes. In the process, Vasari removed a number of unfinished works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci in the great hall. According to one legend, Vasari sought to preserve da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari and so had a false wall constructed over the original painting; attempts to find da Vinci’s lost work have, however, so far been inconclusive. Vasari’s designs for the Hall of the 500 included large and expansive frescoes that depicted Cosimo I’s victorious battles over Pisa and Siena. Cosimo himself was incorporated into the frescoes, portrayed as a god in the centre of the exquisite panelled ceiling, which he had also commissioned Vasari to raise seven metres in height. The mesmerising effect of the raised panelled ceiling took Vasari just two years to complete.

Another marvellous room in the Palazzo Vecchio is the Guardaroba, which features more than 50 walnut panels, each beautifully painted by Egnazio Danti with maps of the known world, based on the work of ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy. Behind a map of Armenia is the entrance to a secret passageway leading to the dressing room of Duchess Bianca Capello, Francesco I de’ Medici’s second wife. However, this is not the only notable passageway within the palazzo: in the apartments of Eleonora of Toledo, the first wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, there is a small door marking the entrance to the Vasari Corridor. Built for Cosimo I, this passageway connects the building to the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace. Cosimo I wished to move from palace to government office freely without fear of being disturbed. The passageway crosses the River Arno above the Ponte Vecchio, and to avoid the smell of the meat market on the bridge reaching the corridor above, the market was moved and replaced by goldsmith shops which continue to occupy it today.

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