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  • Writer's pictureJoe Nickols, MA

A Brief History of Piazza della Signoria in Florence

What is Piazza della Signoria?

Piazza della Signoria is a spacious piazza that’s been at the centre of Florentine political life since the 14th century and has witnessed triumphant marches and vicious executions.

Piazza della Signoria

Piazza della Signoria History

This vast, irregular-shaped piazza is dominated by the fortress-like Palazzo Vecchio, from which it derives its name – the building was formerly called the Palazzo della Signoria. The towering palace was once the seat of Florentine government, and the square in front operated as a space for the public to gather and either celebrate or condemn the rulership, as well as being the place where they were elected to power. In times of strife, the bell in the tower, known as the vacca (Italian for ‘cow’) for its monotonous tone, rang out across the city. This would summon all men to the square to vote on emergency council members. The piazza also served as a public forum. Along one side of the palazzo hung portraits of criminals that would have been pelted with rotten fruit and dung. During Girolamo Savonarola’s rule of the city in the late 15th century, the square was the site of the Bonfire of the Vanities, when people burned any objects that were considered irreligious (such as mirrors, ancient manuscripts, paintings, musical instruments, books on astrology, and tapestries). It was also the place where Savonarola himself was hanged and burned after his downfall – a marble circle marks this spot.

The square is commanded by several colossal sculptures designed to convey the government’s power. A 20th-century replica of Michelangelo’s David marks the place where the original towering statue would have stood (beside the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio). This image was chosen to represent the spiritual power the Florentine people assumed in order to overcome the oppressive rule of the Medici at the end of the 1400s. However, other sculptures in the square were commissioned by the Medici on their triumphal return to rule in the 1500s. Next to Michelangelo’s replica statue is a depiction of Hercules and Cacus by Baccio Bandinelli, produced to celebrate the return of the former rulers. The sculpture depicts part of Hercules’ tenth labour, when he subdued the fire-breathing giant Cacus. The pause in the action it depicts demonstrates the potential leniency of the Medici family in their rule. However, it’s evident that Hercules is in complete control, just as the Medici were.

Other sculptural highlights include the Fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati to a design by Bandinelli, and the Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I by Giambologna. The intriguing fountain was commissioned by Cosimo, 1st Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1559, to celebrate the marriage of his son, Francesco, as well as his gift of clean water to the city. Neptune arrives in majesty upon an ornate chariot. As there were no known classical sculptures of him available for Renaissance artists to study, the form of the Roman sea god relied on the individual interpretation of the sculptor. Here, Ammannati produced a figure with a strong likeness to the Florentine duke. If you look closely at the wheels of the chariot, you’ll see symbols of the zodiac. The depiction of Virgo is particularly interesting as there’s a unicorn in the image as well as the maiden. This was to emphasise the cleanliness of the water as both unicorns and Virgo were symbols of purity.

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