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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Porta San Niccolò in Florence

What is Porta San Niccolò?

Porta San Niccolò is a former gate once part of Arnolfo di Cambio’s city walls that offers great views of Florence.

Porta San Niccolo

Porta San Niccolò History

It may seem the epitome of calmness nowadays, but with its long history, Florence has endured numerous attacks and sieges over the years. Amongst the most notable are the sieges in 405, as part of the barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire; in 1312, during the Wars of the Guelphs and Ghibellines; and between 1529 and 1530, as part of the War of the League of Cognac. The latter alone, lasting 10 months, cost an estimated 52,000 lives, when a large Imperial and Spanish army surrounded the city, captured it, and overthrew the Republic of Florence in order to install Alessandro de’ Medici as ruler.

Naturally, with all this conflict, the city required substantial fortifications. The Porta San Niccolò, this large gate here at the Piazza Poggi, was once part of the former eight-kilometre-long defensive walls built during the 13th and 14th centuries and designed by Arnolfo di Cambio to replace earlier walls. They were mostly destroyed in the mid-19th century during a period of urban renewal, to make way for the increasing number of residents. However, this gate, resembling a tower, was kept as it enjoyed great panoramic views of the city. Standing 45 metres tall, there are 160 steps to the summit.

There were 15 such gates dotted around the city walls, and the Porta San Niccolò is the only one that was never shortened. During the first half of the 15th century, the technology of warfare had progressed and weapons such as canons made high gates too vulnerable to artillery fire. While all the other gates were lowered during the 16th-century Siege of Florence, the Porta San Niccolò was protected from attack by the hill of San Miniato directly in front of it.

With the walls around it now gone, this medieval structure looks somewhat isolated and alone. However, in its prime it stood proudly as an entrance gate to the city and a watchtower responsible for the defence of the eastern side of Florence.

There used to be huge wooden doors at the base of the gate, and you can still see the hinges; just above the arch of the doorway you can also see frescoes, painted in the 1300s. They depict John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and Saint Nicholas of Bari, patron saint of the locality during the Middle Ages.

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