Piazza della Signoria – a place so packed with culture, history, secrets, and just general wow-worthy moments that we had to break it into two separate posts. Last week, in piazza della signoria part 1, after a dizzying history lesson and some serious art contemplating, you were left high and dry at your cafe of choice to take a mental break. Now that we are re-energized, it’s time to discover the treasure box of the piazza – the Loggia dei Lanzi.
The Loggia is technically an outdoor sculpture gallery. The guards ever-present in the Loggia and security car posted there at night should remind you of a few things:
1. Woohoo! This is a legitimate museum for your viewing pleasure FREE OF CHARGE.
2. The statues, unlike David over there, are all originals.
3. No picnicking in the Loggia (too bad!).
4. No funny business with the statues (tempting as it may be to climb on a lion).
Before we enter the Loggia lets get one thing straight – what’s a loggia?! A loggia is pretty much a fancy way to say porch. Now take a moment to admire this elegant structure! So lovely in fact, that Michelangelo himself wanted to surround the entire piazza with more loggias just like this one (that idea was unfortunately shot down). The structure was built in the late 14th century as a place to hold important public ceremonies. When the Medici dukes showed up a hundred years later, however, they turned it into their very own shadow box for show and tell. Here they displayed everything from antique statues (a hot commodity during the Renaissance), to contemporary artwork that glorified their power. They even hauled a whale carcass from the Livorno coast to stress their “prominence” in science and exploration (thank you Meg for discovering that fun fact during thesis research).
Alright, I know you’re dying to get out of the busy piazza and head in. So find some good company and a good seat on the over-sized stone steps among the over-sized stone ladies.
Feel like you missed the memo that it was a toga party? Well that’s because these statues were taken from one of the first toga parties ever, in Ancient Rome…so yes, you did miss the memo. Their specific identities are debated but we can be pretty sure there are some noble Roman women in the bunch (The Real Housewives of Ancient Rome perhaps?).
Speaking of Ancient Roman loot, check out the statue in the dead center of the Loggia.These two scantily clad men are reenacting a scene from The Iliad, Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus. Although the statue has been through significant restorations, it is still impressive to know that these two men are almost 2,000 years old!
If you’re standing facing these guys look to your left to see a the Rape of Polyxena. Not that it isn’t a great sculpture, but it was done in 1865. Did you come to Florence to see art done in 1865? Me neither. Let’s go check out that centaur getting pummeled on the other side of Menelaus and Patroclus instead.
Here we find the statue of Hercules and Nessus completed in 1599. The sculptor, Giambologna, is one of Meg and my personal favorites. So take your time to appreciate this piece. Consider it a warm-up before turning around to find, in my opinion, Giambologna’s greatest work.
This masterpiece depicts the Roman legend of The Rape of the Sabine. Or does it? Honestly, Giambologna mostly wanted to make an artistic statement with this one rather than to glorify the Roman legend. This group of three twisting, interlocked figures didn’t just make for a visually captivating piece, but was also extremely progressive. The statue is said to be the first work of art to have more than one intended viewing point. Go ahead and take a spin around the statue. Sure, you may have to exit the Loggia for a moment to get a good view, but it’s worth it.
Check out the twisting, strained anatomy of the figures, grimaces on the faces of the men and the terror in the woman’s face. The sculpting of this statue was also progressive in it’s use of marble. Marble is a very heavy material, meaning that you can’t be too crazy with your sculpting (excessive negative space is a no-no). For example, look over at David, he seems pretty static right? Well now look back at this thing – limbs everywhere! How did you do it Giambologna?! He was just good, and he knew it. A bit of a show-off, really. He didn’t necessarily care about the subject of the piece, and many argue that it was given its name after the statue was completed. The work was placed in the Loggia in 1583 and has remained here ever since.
Now to the cherry on top of this delightful visit – Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa. It’s hard to miss the rippling abs and disembodied head, but just in case, the statue sits in the left bay of the Loggia.
Benvenuto Cellini – a Renaissance character even more dramatic and flamboyant than his elaborate bronze statues. Cellini was such a character that he gave himself the starring role in his highly embellished, yet madly entertaining, autobiography. It is therefore no surprise that this sculpture has a story as wild as its maker’s.
After the utter flop of Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus (the burly fellow nearby who I mentioned in piazza della signoria part 1), Duke Cosimo de Medici was apprehensive to reveal more art with his name as patron attached. Cellini, conceited to a fault, believed that he could create a masterpiece so astounding that he would redeem the Duke’s marred patron reputation. Rather than strike laughter in the hearts of his subjects, Cellini would create a statue for the Duke that would incite abject fear. For the dramatic 10-year birthing process of this statue, check out Cellini’s biography. For the sake of brevity here, however, we will fast forward to the day that the statue was revealed in this very spot in 1554. The crowds gathered around the veiled sculpture, anxious to cast their criticisms on the piazza’s latest work of art. A nervous Cosimo stood behind a closed window in the Palazzo Vecchio where he waited to hear the crowd’s reaction. When the statue was unveiled and met with gasps, praise, and poetry galore, Cosimo came out from his hiding place and took credit for commissioning the masterpiece.
Cellini had certainly come through on his promise. But the arrogant guy that he was, he didn’t exactly do it pro bono for the Duke’s reputation. No. Cellini had a few bones to pick and statements to make himself. His two primary points to prove: bronze is superior to marble, and Cellini is God’s greatest gift to the arts. How to do that? Well, the mythological tale of Perseus and Medusa would help. Any man who looked on the face of Medusa was turned to stone. So take a look at Medusa’s head (don’t worry, you won’t turn to stone) and now look at the three figures in the Piazza who are looking right at her – Hercules, David and Neptune. All of these men are – that’s right – stone.
In one fell swoop, Cellini proved that bronze is the dominant medium (look at the vast negative space he could achieve that these stone cold statues never could) and that all of the fellow masterpieces in the piazza are basically powerless before his Perseus (yah even you Michelangelo!). Yikes, bold statement Cellini. But in all fairness, this thing is good. Graphic, but good. To make sure that his mastery was lost on no one, he opted to autograph the strap across Perseus’s chest, and he sculpted his own portrait in the back of the helmet.
Cellini certainly wanted this statue to be the paramount piece of the piazza, and I would often argue that it is. However, in some moments I find the best part of this Loggia is simply being here. Rather than reflecting on Ancient Romans or genius artists, I like to simply just be. Enjoy that spot you claimed on the steps to watch the throngs of tourists pulse through the piazza, eavesdrop on the high school girls next to you complain about high school boys (sure it’s in Italian, but I promise you can tell), and sway to the music that drifts into the Loggia from the street performer who sits just below. Simply enjoy the moment.
If you come to the piazza on an evening when you can’t access to the Loggia, don’t distress! Be excited that you have stumbled upon one of the frequent performances offered here. Ballets, symphonies, and orchestras round out the artistic showcase of frequently occurring shows during the summer months and occasionally during the Fall and Spring. They are free so grab a gelato and stay for awhile.
As we have all heard countless times, “the best things in life are free.” Whoever said that first, surely had been to Piazza della Signoria.