Some of my most perfect days in Florence involved nothing but hours of combing through Zara sale racks, 4 popsicles from La Bottega, and a chick flick at the Odeon. I have Catholic guilt though. And what did Catholic guilt mean for an Art History student in Florence, constantly aware of the reality which would someday swoop her back to America? It meant culture guilt. Usually a blessing, but sometimes a curse, my culture guilt weighed on me every single day in Florence. It insisted that I see/participate in at LEAST one, but usually more, culturally important and interesting things/activities each day. So how could I possibly enjoy a day of shopping for clothes made in China and watching movies made in Hollywood? I call them cultural shorts. Zip through one and make your otherwise average day uniquely Florentine in no time. Today’s cultural short – the Palazzo Vecchio Courtyard.
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Directions to the Palazzo Vecchio are scarcely necessary. But if new to Florence, simply make your way to the hub of the city, Piazza della Signoria, and look up. The tower marks the Palazzo and the entrance to the courtyard, between David and Hercules, stands wide open during the day. While entrance to the interior of the Palazzo has a price tag, the courtyard is public domain.
Today, the cortile is most commonly utilized as a mere connection from point A to point B – you to the Palazzo ticket office. It has faded into the infrastructure of the city. I don’t know about you, but infrastructure in my hometown sure doesn’t look like this.
The space was originally constructed, along with the rest of the walls of the Palazzo, at the end of the 13th century, following the design of Arnolfo di Cambio. The enlightened, airy, balanced style of the Renaissance in the 15th century, however, demanded a much-needed makeover of the courtyard. Architect Michelozzo, nailing the new Renaissance style right and left all over town (see the Medici Palace and cloister of San Marco), was asked to give the Gothic, militaristic Palazzo a face lift.
About 100 years later, Medici Duke Cosimo I (resident of the Palazzo) decided the space needed a bit more sprucing. And what better occasion for sprucing up the house than his son’s wedding? The dark, often emo, Francesco de’ Medici was less than tickled about marrying the Hapsburg Princess Joanna of Austria. Duke Cosimo, on the other hand, was more than tickled to have a Hapsburg join the family. Probably with a pang of sympathy for Joanna, and a political incentive to impress her brother (Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II), Cosimo rolled out the red carpet in welcoming Joanna to Florence. Many works of art around the city, such as the Fountain of Neptune just outside, were commissioned and installed specifically for the occasion, including the frescoes on the interior of the courtyard. Directed by Medici favorite, Giorgio Vasari, the design focused on a series of scenes depicting Hapsburg estates in Austria. The images were done in haste as the wedding date rapidly approached. Unfortunately, Vasari was forced to cut some corners and complete the frescoes on dry wall instead of wet plaster, which explains their poor condition today. With a good pair of glasses and some patience, however, you can still make out most of the cities, resulting in some quality ah-ha moments!
The lunettes above the city scenes depict symbols of the guilds of Florence, which historically played a politically prominent role in the city. The rest of the space is dripping in grotesques – or Mannerist doodles as I like to call them. Naked ladies, bodiless cherubs, and all sorts of swirly twirly-ness (it’s a technical art history term, don’t worry about it) crawl over the walls and up into the ceiling vaults. I imagine this is a lot like what Vasari’s notebook pages looked like as a kid.
The grotesques even creep onto the columns as the medium morphs from paint to stucco. At the time of the wedding, the stucco would have been gilded, now faded away. Which, now that I think about it, gilded pillars garnished in grotesques are probably a decoration I’ll need at my wedding one day – just something to keep in mind, Dad.
Samson casually takes out the Philistine to the right of the entrance to the subsequent courtyard. The lone statue was sculpted by Piero da Vinci. And yes, you bet he was related to Leonardo! The nephew took up the craft that put the town of Vinci on the map. Unfortunately, young Piero’s career didn’t jet off quite like his uncle’s. Poor guy. Just imagine the size of those shoes he was handed down.
I know you’re itching to get to H&M, but please don’t forget to check out the most darling decoration of the cortile, before you check-out of this cultural short. In the center of the space dances an iron putto atop a fountain by artist Battista del Tadda. The putto and his dolphin are admittedly a copy of the original by Andrea del Verrocchio, which resides inside the Palazzo itself. The water that playfully squirts from the nostrils of the dolphin is sent over directly from the Boboli Gardens at Palazzo Pitti, just across the Arno – a nod to the important connection between these two former Medici homes.
How was that for a spritz of culture!? Now get out there and get on with your lazy day freed from the weight of your culture guilt!