With Halloween creeping (quite literally) upon us, you can’t help but wonder about Florence’s eclectic history and the sights it must have witnessed in the past. Behind the extraordinary monuments and breathtaking architecture that comprise this city, it is inevitable that a few sinister and gory sights took place.
The Bargello National Museum with its gothic Florentine architecture is an ideal location for a horror film. Indeed, as one of the oldest buildings in the city — dating back to 1255 — the Bargello was not always a museum. It now holds some of the city’s most precious sculptures and treasures, including works by Donatello, Michelangelo and Cellini. However, before 1865, the building was the headquarters for the Head of the Guards, whose responsibility it was to arrest, question, and condemn criminals. By 1574, the building had been transformed into a prison, complete with torture chambers.
The prison witnessed important historical moments: sieges, fires and executions such as that of Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli, conspirator of the infamous Pazzi plot against the Medici family. Furthermore, as a warning and reminder of the building’s purpose, apparently a tree stump would be placed outside the building displaying the victim’s head, for all to see.
American writer Charles Godfrey Leland’s reports in his Legends of Florence Collected from the People (1896), that prisoners of the Bargello were subject to horrendous cruelty and maltreatment. He writes that when Cosimo de’ Medici was preparing the venom to poison Piero Strozzi, he would experiment on condemned prisoners of the Bargello.
Similarly, Le Murate, a notorious Florentine location for public housing, restaurants, bars and shops and a popular social and cultural hub, is in fact another converted prison and convent. It began in 1424 as the Santissima Annunziata alle Murate and Santa Caterina convent, home to the Benedictine nuns who gave the building its name. They were nicknamed le murate (closed up, walled in) as they had chosen to lead a closed, religious life and, previous to living in this convent, had lived in cells in the walls of the Rubaconte bridge (now Ponte alle Grazie).
From 1883 to 1985 Le Murate was transformed into a male prison, and incarcerated the political prisoners and partisans of World War II that were arrested by Nazi fascists.