Palazzo Veccio, Florence's City Hall



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Florence City Hall: Palazzo Vecchio
By James Monaghan

8 October 2005: Florence has over 2000 years of history, which includes Etruscan, Roman and Lombard periods. It was a free commune from 1075 onwards and was at least in theory republican until the Medicis took over in the 16th century. The City Hall of Florence is today called the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) and has been the centre of political life in the city since the 13th Century.

It was also called the Palazzo della Signoria and the Palazzo del Popolo in the Middle Ages, reflecting the changing modes of government in the city. The building as it appears today, is the result of at least three successive building stages between the 13th and 16th centuries. These were Arnolfo’s Palace, the alterations in Republican times and the later restructuring by the Medicis.

The first part of the Palazzo was built by Arnolfo de Cambio between 1299 and 1302. He had been commissioned to provide a suitable meeting place for the representatives of the main guilds who were to be the foundation of Florence’s wealth and prosperity (and instrumental in inventing capitalism, bills of exchange, cheques, banking and credit etc!) and the Renaissance! Its tower – the highest in the city - is 94 metres high. It is positioned off-centre, towards the right, partly to fit in better with the lack of symmetry of the square in front of it but also in order to incorporate an ancient tower. It has held Cosimo the Elder (1433), later to be the founder of the Medici dynasty which was one of the most important in Medieval Europe, and Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1498), the friar who presided over the “Bonfire of the Vanities”, where the people of Florence rose up against the secular values of the Renaissance and the contemporary Church. Both men were imprisoned here in a room known as the "l'Albergaccio" (Hotel).

The tower, known as "Arnolfo's tower", was completed in 1308, and later topped with a cusp, a bronze sphere and the Marzocco, a lion, holding up the Florentine lily. The word "Marzocco" probably came from Mars, the protector of the city before the Christian city chose St John the Baptist. A statue of Mars was on the Ponte Vecchio until 1333 when it was swept away by the Arno in one of its periodic floods. A pair of lions were in fact kept in a cage at the rear of the palace until the 18th century, hence the name Via dei Leoni.

The Gothic characteristics of the oldest part of the building can still be seen in the Arms Room on the ground floor (used for the temporary exhibitions organized by the City Council), in the Hall of the Two Hundred on the first floor, and what was once the Residence of the Priors, on the second floor. Here it is possible to admire the Chapel of the Priors (Signoria), with frescoes by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio (1514), the Hall of Audience and the Room of the Lilies, which both open onto the Chancery where Niccolò Machiavelli - the author of The Prince - used to work, and the Room of Maps, originally a terrace and later a storeroom. The difference between Arnolfo's palace and the period of the first alterations is apparent in these last two rooms. With the expansion of the territory ruled over by Florence the space needed to house the Magistrates had to be enlarged as well and eventually it was to double in size.

The Palazzo Vecchio's exclusive role as the political representative of the city gradually lost importance from 1565 for three centuries, being partly replaced by the Uffizi and the new Pitti Palace. It came back to prominence
in the 19th Century after the Lorraine family had been expelled from the city in 1848. It became the seat of United Italy's provisional government from 1865-71, when Florence was the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, and housed the Chamber of Deputies (the Senate sat next door in the Uffizi, linked up by an overhead passageway above Via della Ninna). It was to return to its original function as the seat of the City Council in 1872.

Although the palace today contains the offices of the City Council, much of it can still be visited. The public can admire the Hall of the Five Hundred, the little Study of Francesco I and the four monumental apartments: the Quarters of the Elements, the Quarters of Eleonora of Toledo, the Residence of the Priors and the Quarters of Leo X, where the reception rooms of the mayor and the council that governs the city are situated today. The Hall of the Two Hundred is once more being used for the meetings of the City Council and therefore not always open to the public. There are two entrances, both with airport style metal detectors and security: you have to check sharp objects etc. The side one is quieter in high season.


Hall of the Five Hundred


Introducing
the Medici family

The Medici family was a powerful and influential Florentine family from the 13th to 17th century. The family produced three popes, numerous rulers of Florence, and later members of the French royalty.

From humble beginnings (the origin of the name is uncertain, though it probably reflects a medical trade - medico), the family first achieved power through banking. The Medici Bank was one of the most prosperous and most respected in Europe. From this base, the family acquired political power initially in Florence, and later cross Italy and Europe.

Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici was the first Medici to enter banking, and while he became influential in Florentine government, it wasn't until son Cosimo the Elder took over that in 1434 as gran maestro that the Medici became unofficial head of state of the Florentine republic. The ‘senior’ branch of the family — those descended from Cosimo the Elder; ruled until the assassination of Alessandro de' Medici, the first Duke of Florence, in 1537. Power then passed to the ‘junior’ branch — those descended from Lorenzo the Elder, younger son of Giovanni de Bicci, starting with his great-great-grandson Cosimo I the Great.