Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
The Palazzo Vecchio, once home to the Medici and now Florence’s town hall, is also a museum complete with beautiful paintings, archaeological excavations, tall towers and secret passages
Work commenced on the Palazzo Vecchio in 1299. Also known as the Palagio della Signoria it has been the symbol of civic power in Florence for over seven centuries. Built originally to house the city’s governing body and Gonfalonier of Justice, it was expanded and renovated in 1540 to its current appearance to adapt the building to its new function as both ducal palace and seat of the court.
At this time, the ruler of Florence was Cosimo I de’ Medici, who’d only been in power a few years following the murder of his predecessor, Alessandro de’ Medici, the first duke of Florence. The move to the Palazzo Vecchio was therefore a statement of power: the building was designed to provide not only the private apartments for the family, but also the Florentine offices and magistracies, and everything was aimed at celebrating the enlightened Medici rulers, the unification of Tuscany and the Duke himself.
While most visitors to Florence can’t help be seduced by all the fantastic Renaissance art and architecture on show, the city was originally founded in 59 BC by the Romans. Julius Caesar gave land in the fertile Arno Valley to his soldiers, and the first settlement was along the lines of a military camp on a grid basis with the main streets, the cardo and decumanus intersecting at the current Piazza della Republica. The settlement, known as Florentia, was situated on the Via Cassia, the main route between Rome and the North, which meant it was able to expand rapidly as a commercial centre. As it flourished a number of public buildings were completed, including a theatre, amphitheatre, forum, baths and an aqueduct. In the third century
AD, Emperor Diocletian made Florentia capital of the province of Tuscia.
The remains of the Roman theatre can now be glimpsed beneath the Palazzo Vecchio. Visitors can see the theatre that was built in two phases: the first that began in the first century BC and then the second, more substantial phase between the first and second centuries AD, when Emperor Hadrian rebuilt the entrance to the theatre in stone.
Moving from the basement into the palace, via the Cortile di Michelozzo, the courtyard adorned with stuccoes and frescoes, the first main room that you encounter is the Salone dei Cinquecento, the main large hall with monumental paintings showing the history of the city by Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Battista Naldini and a rich array of statues, including Michelangelo’s Victory.
A small and windowless room off the main hall was the studio of Francesco I de’ Medici - but take note as this room is far more than it seems. This room, belonging to Cosimo’s eldest son, was built about 1570 and in it he kept his rare and precious items. Jewels, medals, carved stones, crystals and his smaller inventions were all concealed within cabinets (on the lower register) with the paintings on the front of the cabinets alluding to what was inside. But that is not all that is hidden here. One of the sections conceals a private door - and if you are booked on to the ‘secret passages’ tour, then you can explore the private staircase behind.
If you love going behind the scenes then the secret passage tour is definitely for you. Not only do these concealed passageways take you to an alternative exit in a side street, you can also go up into the roof area. This area was used in a scene in the film Inferno based on the book by Dan Brown. While the guide will explain that it is impossible to fall through the ceiling to the Salone dei Cinquecento below (as seen in the film), it is still fun to explore the magnificent architecture of the roof structure.
On the second floor of the museum are the private rooms of the Medici court, including the Cappella di Eleonora (the chapel with paintings by Agnolo Bronzino), the Sala delle Carte Geografiche (with over 50 paintings of all parts of the world known in the sixteenth century), as well as the mezzanine floor that houses paintings and sculptures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, left to the city by Charles Loeser.
If the weather is good you can finish your visit by climbing up the 223 steps of the tower (95 metres high) which gives fantastic views across Florence. So there is much to see and enjoy in this former seat of power.
Above: The exterior and interior courtyard (Cortile di Michelozzo) of the Palazzo Vecchio