Photo by Matthew Hutchinson (Flickr user)
Walking into Piazza della Signoria, where does one look first? David, Perseus, Neptune and Hercules all vie for attention. Practically an open-air sculpture museum, the piazza boasts a colorful and violent history. Savonarola was burnt to death in 1498 and a mob once ate a man alive in the square. Since the 14th century, Piazza della Signoria has been the center of political activity and Florentine civic life.
Looming over the square is Palazzo Vecchio, also called Palazzo della Signoria, the symbolic seat of political power built at the end of the 13th century for the Signoria, leaders in the city government. The 94-meter tower was built around 1310. Perhaps the most famous sight is Michelangelo’s David, a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture. Created in 1504 and placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, David was moved in 1873 to the Galleria dell’Accademia and replaced with a replica.
Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Florence, commissioned Baccio Bandinelli to sculpt Hercules and Cacus in 1534 and placed it across from David as a symbol of the victory of the Medici dynasty over their enemies in Florence, to counterbalance the ‘republican’ masterpiece by Michelangelo. Benvenuto Cellini described it as “a sack of melons.” Giambologna’s equestrian bronze of Cosimo I, who brought the Medici family back to power in 1537, was installed in 1594. Giambologna also created some sensuous nymphs and satyrs for Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune, of which Michelangelo is said to have remarked, “Ammannato, Ammannato, che bel marmo ha rovinato” (“Ammanato, Ammannato, what beautiful marble you have ruined.”).
Ammannati eventually admitted the statue was inferior, having used a piece of marble lacking width, giving the god shoulders too narrow for his body. Copies of Donatello’s ‘Marzocco,’ the lion which symbolises Florence, and ‘Judith and Holofernes’ can be found by the Palazzo Vecchio. The originals are now housed in the Museo del Bargello and inside the Palazzo itself.
The 14th century Loggia dei Lanzi was originally built to provide protection against the natural elements during public meetings and events. One of the most striking occupants of the Loggia is Benvenuto Cellini’s triumphant ‘Perseus,’ displaying the horrifying Medusa’s decapitated head. The casting of the bronze almost failed when it began to set too quickly, but Cellini ingeniously fed the furnace with his furniture and about 200 dishes, and pots and pans, causing the bronze to flow freely and allowing the statue to be finished.
Giambologna attempted to outdo Cellini with his impressive ‘Rape of the Sabine Women,’ made from the largest block of marble ever to be transported to Florence. This statue is the first in European sculptural history to be conceived without a dominant viewpoint. Nearby is Giambologna’s Hercules beating the Centaur Nessus. Other statues in the Loggia include the ‘Rape of Polyxena’ by Pio Fedi and a collection of Roman Sabines.
Nowadays, Piazza della Signoria is a meeting place for tourists and locals alike. Despite constant restoration, the locks of tourists, souvenir stalls and pavement cafes, the square still maintains the dignity and asceticism of bygone times. It is a bustling center during the day as tourists scramble to get into the Uffizi or the Palazzo Vecchio while taking pictures in front of all of the statues. At night, locals and tourists alike sit on the piazza with their aperitivo as the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio lights up for the night. Nevertheless, a visit to Piazza della Signoria is not to be missed, whether you are just passing through or if you live here year-round.