With a caffeine buzz and time to take in the first half of our Medici saga, let’s get back on our track with your Medici warm-up walk of Florence in Piazza della Signoria.
Distance: 800 m
Time: 45 minutes
Piazza della Signoria
The early years of the 16th century boded well for a Medici-free Florence. But with the appointment of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son as Pope (Leo X), the Medici had the necessary support to wiggle their way back into the city in 1512. By 1532, Medici Pope Clement VII locked down his family’s rule in Florence by appointing the young Alessandro de’ Medici as Duke of the city.
With the reigns firmly back in Medici hands, it was time for the Medici to make their artistic rebuttal in Piazza della Signoria. The family hired Baccio Bandinelli to sculpt a statue of Hercules and Caucus to stand opposite of David. It was a pretty brazen metaphor of how the Medici planned to run the show. Nevertheless, when the statue was revealed, the public was amused rather than intimidated by the bulky statue with the bubble butt – much to the chagrin of the Medici.
Duke Alessandro’s career ended up being almost just as much of a mess his statue. His violent, tyrannical reign came to a halting screech when his cousin, Lorenzaccio (bad Lorenzo) plotted Alessandro’s assassination (via a weird, incestuous seduction that we won’t get into here). Proof that history repeats itself, it turns out nothing kicks up Medici support quite like an assassination. The people rallied behind Alessandro and turned against Lorenzaccio, who claimed to have been attempting to save the Republic from the Duke.
Without a legitimate heir, the Medici scrambled to fill their seat of power. A boy named Cosimo (yes, Cosimo) came to mind. Florentine noblemen were eager to put the naïve youngster in power, thinking they could really pull the strings from behind the scenes, as Cosimo il Vecchio had done a century before. Oh boy, were they wrong.
Duke Cosimo is our first favorite Medici at Florence for Free, and not even because he bore an uncanny resemblance to Justin Timberlake (ok, maybe a little?). He created political stability in Florence that had never been previously achieved. Head to the large statue of the man on horseback to see Giambologna’s depiction of Duke Cosimo himself.
Florentines knew Cosimo meant business when he decided to move his residence from the Palazzo Medici on Via Cavour to the Palazzo Vecchio, the symbol of the Florentine Republic for centuries. I don’t imagine that sat well with most Florentines. Then, through a series of impressive military campaigns, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted Cosimo the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany. After this political conquest, we start to see a delicate little crown added to the Medici crests. Nice touch, huh?
Like most Medici rulers before him, Cosimo felt the need to make a strong political statement or two via his court artists. Head over to the Loggia dei Lanzi for our favorite of Cosimo’s contribution to the piazza. The statue of Perseus and Medusa by Cellini is qualitatively a masterpiece and historically a gem. Cosimo commissioned it to assert his power, but remembering Alessandro’s Hercules debacle made the new ruler understandably apprehensive. At the unveiling of the statue, Cosimo hid behind the curtains of a window in Palazzo Vecchio as he awaited the crowd’s reaction. Only when he heard the crowd gasp in amazement did he step out to receive his due credit. The statue quite overtly expressed Cosimo’s style of rule – scary. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit about this statue is its very strategic placement. The legend of Medusa holds that any man who looks upon her will turn to stone. Well, look at Medusa’s head held high in the sky by Perseus. Now, look back toward the Palazzo Vecchio and spot the three gentlemen (Hercules, David and Neptune) who are all made of stone – they’re all looking directly at the bronze medusa. See what Cellini and Cosimo did there? These guys!
Time to pry ourselves from the pretty piazza and glide down the majestic Uffizi Courtyard. Giorgio Vasari constructed the Uffizi at Cosimo’s request. The Uffizi (offices) were built as part the Duke’s efforts to consolidate the government. The walls of the corridor are lined with the famous Florentines. And, as he intended, the most “influential” Florentine, Cosimo himself, stands tall above the rest between the allegorical figures of Equity and Rigor just above the inner façade of the courtyard.
*About halfway to the river, on the right, find a break in the building and a small alley that passes out of the courtyard. Turn and find a door immediately to your right. Next to the door is the Buca delle Suppliche (Mouth of Supplications). The opening, today filled, is where the public could submit requests, complaints, and pleas to the Medici Dukes.
Head towards the Ponte Vecchio. As you stroll across the river, look up. The Vasari Corridor is the enclosed passageway that connects the Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti (our final Medici palace).
Using the passageway, the Medici and guests could make hassle-free trips from one residence to the other, to the offices, and even to mass. From the street, you can follow the corridor windows from the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio, through the church of Santa Felicita (just past the Ponte Vecchio on the Oltrarno), and all the way to…
A hop and a skip from Santa Felicita comes the sprawling Palazzo Pitti – a Medici acquisition thanks to Cosimo’s wife, Eleonora of Toledo. Fed up with the medieval style, cramped quarters and loud lions (yes, lions) kept in cages too close to Palazzo Vecchio on Via del Leone, the Spanish Princess went house hunting. Palazzo Pitti, situated across the Arno, in what she considered the countryside, was perfect. Cosimo said, “No,” and Eleonora, with a hefty dowry from her Spanish family, said, “Watch me.” Eleonora purchased and renovated the palazzo, which nearly doubled its size. The majestic Boboli Gardens were constructed just behind it, completely redefining our concept of a backyard. It didn’t take much to convince Cosimo to move in.
The bare, brick piazza, emphasizes the sheer sprawl of Pitti. Reliefs of Florentine lions wearing the Ducal crown emphasize its prestige. For a sneak peek of the Boboli Gardens, walk to your left along the palazzo wall. You’ll find a large iron gate, but when has that stopped us before? Poke your head through for a peek into the magnificent Medici garden. Look left to check out the statue of Nano Morgante, Cosimo’s favorite dwarf friend and muse.
All the fancy statues and homes didn’t guarantee happiness, however. Grand Duke Cosimo sunk into a nasty depression the last ten years of his rule. Many historians give many different explanations – but here are our completely unsubstantiated thoughts on the matter. Cosimo is perhaps the only leader in all of history who did not take a mistress while his wife was alive. The two were an unstoppable team and appeared to have a true, genuine love for each other. Cosimo’s depression quickly followed her death and he never quite bounced back.
During his absence, his son and heir to the throne, Francesco de’ Medici, took over. Francesco was a classic case of a rebellious child. He was far more interested in making potions and entertaining prostitutes than ruling Florence.
Cosimo orchestrated a dream of a political marriage between Francesco and the Hapsburg princess, Joanna of Austria. Much to Cosimo’s disappointment, and Francesco’s delight, Joanna died after only thirteen years of marriage. Francesco then married his long-time mistress, Bianca Cappello. Mysteriously (or not so mysteriously), the two both died on October 17, 1587. Legend has it that Francesco’s brother, Ferdinando, poisoned them. Others say it was malaria. But we’re always inclined to go with the more exciting story, so we say poison.
Florence was happy to be out with surly Francesco and in with personable Ferdinando. Ferdinando continued to decorate the city with the prized family jewels and ruled Florence and Tuscany as royalty. All former qualms about legitimate claims to power were tossed out the window; the Medici finally let the royal crown sit on their heads with ease.
Now aware of the Medici melodrama, you’re prepared to take on your Florentine itinerary. The Medici was a family made of intrigue, power, scheming, and lavishness. Their history runs deep, and the impression they left on the city is inescapable. Some chose to hate them, others chose to love them, but everyone must admit that the city we flock to today would not be the same without them. You are in Medici territory now.