Piazza della Signoria – duh. If you left your Florence trip planning in the hands of a kindergartner he or she would make this piazza the first stop on your itinerary. So why are Meg and I, two seasoned Florentine explorers, telling you about something your 5-year-old nephew could? Because let’s be honest, if you’re the average tourist you will pack into the piazza sometime between 10 AM and 5 PM on a sweltering July day. You will be jostled around by foreign tour groups, panhandled by the beggars eyeballing vulnerable tourists, and dodge accidental photo bombs like a determined soldier in a mine field. You will then take the obligatory posed picture of yourself harassing poor exposed David and then get the heck out of there! Fortunately, you are not the average tourists and have come to Meg and I for advice on how to do Piazza della Signoria right.
In my professional, and completely biased opinion, Piazza della Signoria is one of the most beautiful, inspiring, and interesting piazzas in the world. Due to the density of art, history, secrets and fun facts that this piazza holds, I will be tackling the space in two parts. Today I will cover all of the piazza except for the Loggia dei Lanzi (the open-air sculpture gallery) which I will write about next week. Think of it as a the ultimate travel cliff hanger!
As for today sit back, relax and enjoy a tour of the piazza that will turn your otherwise sweaty, crowded, tourist site-seeing, into a romantic, historic and unforgettable memory.
From Piazza del Duomo, between the Baptistery and the Cathedral, head south on the large avenue that exits the piazza – Via Calzaiuoli. Walk for about 5 minutes until the street empties you into Piazza della Signoria…yep it’s that easy!
Distance: 400 m from city center (about .25 mile)
Time: 5 minutes
It is at twilight that this place turns from tacky tourist destination to magical, romantic Italy. Do yourself a favor and postpone your visit until after 5 PM. By then mass tour groups have returned to their hotels and students on field trips have gone home. Now the locals are coming out. Lovers walk hand in hand, artists leisurely sketch the statues, and a jolly man named Antonio takes his overfed twin bulldogs on an evening stroll – well more like an evening “sit.”
If there is no symphony in the piazza tonight there will certainly be a street performer of some kind providing you with an instant soundtrack to your picture perfect evening. After you have taken in the romantic scene pull out your trusty “Florence for Free” post about the piazza and get ready to learn.
While the visual splendor of the Piazza is satisfying enough for many, I am a firm believer in a little history making practically everything better. So time for a crash course….
You are currently standing in the epicenter of Florentine history. In this piazza traitors were executed, dukes were crowned, and lion hunts were staged to entertain visiting dignitaries. The piazza itself is named after the most imposing and notable structure (and second most notable on the Florentine skyline) – the castle-like Palazzo Vecchio. Originally the palazzo was named Palazzo della Signoria as it served as the seat of the Florentine Signorie (think of the Signorie as senators and the palazzo as the Capital building). The structure was later renamed Palazzo Vecchio after a few changes of power. At this time Italy was not a unified country but rather a mishmash of city states, most of which were ruled by a duke or a king. Florence, however, boasted a republic and the palazzo, as well as the piazza, became an emblem for the proud Florentines and their citizen-run government. Florence, however, was far from a utopia. Throughout the centuries, power was tugged at and fought over between social classes, neighborhoods, and powerful families. By the 16th century Florentines just couldn’t take the bickering and the threats of the big bullies on the boot such as Milan and Naples. In 1532 they officially folded and handed power over to a duke.
As the political epicenter of Florence, the scars from this turbulent history shaped the piazza that we see today. The amazing thing about this place is that you could arguably read the entire history of Florence just by understanding the statues and architecture in the piazza. This is the point where I think I could start rambling, so I’ll try to reel it in and just give you a taste of some of my favorite examples.
Undoubtedly you noticed Michelangelo’s David. After the Mona Lisa he might just be the most recognizable work of art in the world. Well, if you did your homework you know that this isn’t the original David (he hangs out over in the Accademia on Via Ricasoli), but this is where the original David stood and there’s a darn good reason for it!
Let’s rewind and start with those ball covered shields you have seen plastered all over town. That is the coat of arms of the Medici – the Florentine family that we all love to hate.
The Medici was a powerful banking family that kept stirring the Florentine political pot for almost 300 years. In the early 15th century, under Cosimo de’ Medici, the family’s bank became so prominent in Europe that the Medici were wealthy enough to produce Popes, decorate Florence with some of our most well-known works of Renaissance art, and most importantly, indirectly control the republic of Florence. The Medici kept up their act until the incompetent Piero de’ Medici ran plans into the ground in 1494 at which point the family was exiled from the city. From 1494 – 1512 Florentines reclaimed a republic untainted by the family.
Cue in David here. Between 1501-04 a young Michelangelo was chipping away at a block of marble in a studio provided to him by the Cathedral. He was commissioned to make a statue of David to join the company of the other saints, prophets, and Biblical heroes mounted on the Cathedral. When David had his coming out party, however, it became apparent that this sculpture was just too good to stick high up on the behemoth structure. So a committee of heavy hitting Florentine politicians and local geniuses, like Leonardo da Vinci, had a big meeting about what to do with their new masterpiece. Due to the resurgence of pride in the recently purified Florentine republic, the committee thought that it would be a nice treat to Florentines to place the statue in the politically charged piazza and city center. As a relatively small city-state, Florentines had historically adopted the Biblical character of David as a sort of mascot. Just like little David was able to defeat the formidable Goliath, so little Florentines could stand up to their biggest bullies – and at the moment it was the Medici. David was thus strategically placed in front of the Palazzo as if he were guarding the precious republic. If the Medici still didn’t get the point, the committee had David turned just so that we see him furrowing his brow and glaring south towards Rome, the Medici’s new home, as if he were yelling after the family, “and stay out!”
Well David’s threatening glare only warded off the Medici for 8 years because by 1512 they were back and with a vengeance. Not only did they regain power, but by the 1530’s Alessandro de’ Medici was named Duke of the city, commencing an unbroken line of Medici power that would last for 200 years. And the Medici’s artistic response to pesky David”s not so welcoming glare…..
Hercules and Cacus
Duke Cosimo de’ Medici (the second Medici Duke that you see mounted on the large horse to your left) had Baccio Bandinelli sculpt this statue of Hercules and Cacus in 1534. Cosimo’s message was pretty clear – the Medici were back, and if you messed with them, there was a good chance your head would end up in those famous Medici “balls” just like poor Cacus here.
So you somehow wound up behind Hercules checking out his insane bubble butt (it’s ok, it happens to the best of us). Well, since you’re back there anyway, try to peel your eyes off of those glorious glutes for a moment and turn around and look at the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio that you are standing by. At about eye level, near the corner you will find a rogue sketch in the rock of a male’s silhouette. Florentines have spun many legends about the origin of this mysterious man. However, their favorite attributes the work to Michelangelo. They say that the sketch is a portrait of a prisoner who Michelangelo was watching as the man waited his turn at the gallows in the Piazza. The mystery remains today and Florentines have their fun musing about the scandalous motives behind Michelangelo’s glorified graffiti, and you should too!
Fountain of Neptune
Now onto some not-so-mysterious art. Round back to the front of Hercules and head straight to the large fountain just past David. This fantastical Mannerist fountain by sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati is the Fountain of Neptune. It was installed in 1565 on the occasion of Duke Cosimo’s son’s (Francesco) marriage to Joanna of Austria. Although some may call it an over the top wedding decoration, I call it more of a personal pat on the back. During this time Duke Cosimo had been making substantial strides in expanding Florence’s navy, control of sea ports, and bringing new lines of water into the city. Cosimo was on a nautical roll and wanted to remind his people of that with this fishy fountain (notice that the face of Neptune is suspiciously similar to the Duke’s). Unfortunately for Cosimo, Florentines found more fun in mocking the statue by calling it Il Biancone (the white giant) than praising their Duke for his most recent accomplishments.
Do a 180 and walk directly out from the fountain until you find a large stone circle among the cobblestone. This designates the spot where the fiery, controversial, unusually large-nosed Dominican Friar, Girolamo Savonarola, was executed by the Florentine government (hanged and burned to be more graphic) in 1498. In a nutshell Savonarola was preaching that things like art, music, plays, and indulgent revelry in general had gone overboard in Florence. Maybe if Savonarola were born in a Puritan community a few centuries later he may have met a kinder fate. Unfortunately, at the apex of the Renaissance, doing away with art, music, and literature….well it wasn’t really an option.
Lions and Lions and more freaking Lions…oh my!
By now you have probably noticed lions peering at you from almost every angle of the piazza. No, you are not being hunted, you are in Florence. The Lion (or Marzocco) as Florentines call it, is essentially their mascot. To truly understand how crazy these people are about lions you need to know that Florentines are and always have been OBSESSED with their city. You will find a civic pride in Florence that is found no where else in the world. Just ask Meg! She once let her Irish pride go up against our friend’s stubborn love of Florence. I don’t want to say she lost….but the fight did end with our friend ripping off his shirt to reveal his Marzocco tattooed back and yelling “Florence is the most important city in the whole worrrrllllddddddd!!!!!!”. In conclusion, Florentines love their city and love their lions. Now we can see why it only would make sense to scatter lions about this piazza like a little girl scatters glitter on her artwork. If you would like to take a history break or need to entertain a child, try counting all of the lion’s in the piazza. I’ve started this challenge on a few occasions but usually give up out of exhaustion around lion number 50.
By now you are most likely on a history, art and lion overload. What a good excuse to take a breather at one of the famous cafes in Piazza della Signoria! For a world famous hot chocolate head to Rivoire (west side of the piazza).
Although a treat, Rivoire can be a bit pricey. Luckily you have another very classy unique option in the piazza – the Gucci Museum Cafe. The Gucci Museum is a brand spankin’ new addition to the ancient Piazza. While the museum does cost money, you can get a good feel for the place, a delicious cappuccino, and best yet – sugar cubes shaped like Gucci logos all by opting for this cafe for your piazza pausa.
Kick back at your cafe of choice, take a much needed breather, and wait patiently for my next blog post about Florence’s outdoor museum – the Loggia dei Lanzi! Spoiler alert: beheadings, Renaissance rivalries, secret self-portraits and Ancient Roman artifacts await!