The Many Names of the Old Palazzo

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in January 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.


Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo della Signoria, named as it was originally after the Signoria of Florence, the city’s ruling body, serves as its town hall. Back when Florence was a republic, it was also known as the Palazzo del Popolo and Palazzo dei Priori, and had its name change to Palazzo Ducale when the city turned into a Duchy. It was only after the dukes of Florence moved their residence to the Palazzo Pitti that the building acquired the name by which it’s most known — Palazzo Vecchio, or “old palazzo.”

Judith and Holofernes by Donatello
David by Michelangelo

Built by Arnolfo di Cambio in the beginning of the fourteenth century, the palazzo was constructed upon the ruins of two previous structures owned by the Uberti family, which had rebelled against Florence. The propping up of a new building on that precise location, then, was a symbolic gesture that cast them out completely, as it would prevent a new Uberti structure from rising up in what had been historically their home.

Michelozzo, known for his work on the Palazzo Medici and the Basilica di Santa Croce, was responsible for the design of this first courtyard (there are three in total) in the mid-fifteenth century. Lunettes decorate high positions on the walls with images from the church and symbols of the city guilds, and the rest are covered with frescoes created by Giorgio Vasari (architect responsible for work at both the Uffizi, and the Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens) to celebrate the wedding of Francesco de’ Medici and Johanna of Austria.

Salone dei Cinquecento

The Hall of the Five Hundred is what I remembered the most from my days of studying Renaissance art history, and it’s the most impressive room in the whole building. It was built by Simone del Pollaiolo at the end of the fifteenth century and commissioned by Girolamo Savonarola to hold his Consiglio Maggiore, or Grand Council, which would be 500 members strong. Later the hall was enlarged by Vasari for Grand Duke Cosimo’s courtly use.

During Vasari’s renovation, some famous works went missing, including the Battle of Cascina by Michelangelo and the Battle of Anghiari by da Vinci. The story behind the latter work is, in true da Vinci fashion, one of innovation, but sadly it is also one of failure (similar to the story behind his Last Supper). This time, he decided to mix wax into his pigments, and once he had seen that his work was not drying fast enough, he had braziers stoked with hot coals to hurry the process. You all know what happens to wax when heated, right? As for Michelangelo’s piece, he never really got beyond the preparatory drawings, as he was called to Rome by Pope Julius II. Something about some Vatican chapel that needed painting.

Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici by Giorgio Vasari
The Birth of Venus by Giorgio Vasari

Cappella di Eleonora

Decorated with frescoes created by Agnolo Bronzino in the mid-fifteenth century, Eleanor’s chapel was one of the rooms in her apartments inside the Palazzo Vecchio. The frescoes depicts biblical tales, and of particular note is Brozino’s Crossing the Red Sea, which is considered a masterpiece by many. The room was built by Giovanni Battista del Tasso and Vasari to serve as the duchess’s private chapel.

Remember Dante, who died in Ravenna while exiled from Florence and though his mother city built him a splendid tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce, there it sits, empty? There’s also this so-called death mask, which has been on display at the Palazzo Vecchio since the beginning of the twentieth-century – and I say so-called because it is believed to not be true death mask and have instead been carved in the late fifteenth century in his image. The moral of this story is, don’t trust Florence when it comes to Dante.

Sala dei Gigli

The Hall of the Lilies, as this room is known, is so called for the fleur-de-lys that decorate its walls. This choice in decoration was apparently made in order to refer to the good relations between Florence and the French Crown, and the frescoes on the other walls were made by the hand of Domenico Ghirlandaio. The room has, additionally, served as home to the original statue of Judith and Holofernes by Donatello since 1988. Also, that ceiling.

Old Chancellery

This room once served as Niccolò Machiavelli’s office, when he served as Secretary of the Republic in the period that the Medici were out of power. The bust, created by Santi di Tito, is probably modeled after his death mask.

Stanza della Guardaroba

While the word “guardaroba” best translates to “wardrobe,” the purpose of this type of room at this time was to serve as a cabinet of curiosities, a wunderkammer of sorts. Rooms such as this were highly popular during the Renaissance, focused as it was on classicism and scholarship, and so when Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned the extensive renovation of the Palazzo, he just had to have one, too. He then filled the room with artefacts, maps, and scientific instruments used to measure time and study astronomy. It was Cosimo’s intention for this room to be open to visitors, similar to what they did at the Uffizi. Dionigi di Matteo Nigetti was responsible for the wooden panels covering the walls and ceiling, the same ones that are still on display today.

The Rape of Polyxena by Pio Fedi
Perseus by Cellini

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