by Lisa McGarry published on May 20, 2009
My natural inclination when I go to Piazza della Signoria is to find a spot somewhere around the edge and look into the middle of the piazza, which is like a big container for people and energy. Whether from under the loggia, the steps in front of Palazzo Vecchio, a table on Caffè Rivoire's patio or simply a free bit of curb, I like to watch the chaotic mixture of locals, visitors, children, dogs, horses and pigeons that doesn't change much from one day to another, but always entertains me.
Wherever you choose to sit, there are reminders that Florence's history was written in this square. The stones we walk across now pave an area that was once the property of the Uberti family. During the period of conflict between the Guelphs (who were pro-Pope) and the Ghibellines (pro-Emperor), the rival families of each of these political groups took turns destroying the towers and homes of their exiled enemies. The two factions alternately dominated the city for much of the thirteenth century, but the Guelphs won a decisive battle at Benevento in 1266, and assumed control from that point on. A couple of years later, the Uberti holdings were demolished, making it clear that the Ghibelline family's exile was permanent. Legend has it that future building was prohibited on their property, so from this first corner the piazza began to grow, developing an asymmetrical shape.
Citizens witnessed and participated in a variety of landmark events in Piazza della Signoria. The revolt of the ciompi took place here in 1378, when the poorer class of wool-workers fought to have a voice in the government by establishing their own guilds. An especially powerful image handed down through the centuries is Leonardo da Vinci's sketch of a corpse hanging from one of Palazzo Vecchio's windows: one of the men involved in the unsuccessful Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478. The Bonfire of the Vanities, instigated in this piazza by the austere preacher Girolamo Savonarola in 1497, was followed by his own demise over a bonfire in Piazza della Signoria the next year. For centuries, a celebration was held here on San Giovanni's feast day, when colorful fireworks filled the square in honor of Florence's patron saint. The French took over the piazza when they entered the city as the new rulers in 1799, and then just a few months later, the Florentines rebelled by burning the symbols of the republic. Michelangelo's original sculpture of David created a stir as it began a five-day journey north to the Accademia in 1873. And in just one of many political rallies and demonstrations, Mussolini, accompanied by Hitler, spoke to huge crowds from the balcony of Palazzo Vecchio in 1940.
Piazza della Signoria is never truly empty: a varied group of statues fills the piazza, each one telling the story of a character forever frozen in stone. A copy of David stands to one side of Palazzo Vecchio's entrance, casting its recognizable shadow onto the rough stone wall. Hercules and Cacus by Baccio Bandinelli balances David's bulk to the right of the entrance, while a copy of Judith and Holofernes, with Judith triumphantly holding Holofernes's head, stands to David's left. Giambologna's grand equestrian statue portrays Cosimo I, the first grand duke, who is poised mid-gallop on the long side the piazza.
At the northwestern corner of Palazzo Vecchio, Ammannati's Neptune, surrounded by nymphs, tritons and horses, rises out of the center of a pool of water—the most flamboyant of Florence's typically restrained fountains. And just as the horses belonging to the police and the carriage-owners mimic the stone and bronze horses, reminders of the real lions that the Medici kept as symbols of strength and liberty—heraldic marzocchi—are found at various points around the square. (The lions also gave their name to the street that runs along the east side of the palace, via dei Leoni, where their cages were once located.)
Adjacent to Palazzo Vecchio, a monumental three-vault loggia shelters an open-air museum of sculpture that dates from Roman times to the nineteenth century. Built in the 1370s, the Loggia dei Lanzi was constructed with a more open and less imposing character than had been necessary when building Palazzo Vecchio a century earlier. Its function changed as the centuries passed: while the original purpose had been to provide a covered outdoor area where city officials could conduct public ceremonies, it also became a place where residents could seek respite from the weather, or gather for informal meetings when the space wasn't in use for public events. The structure acquired the name Loggia dei Lanzi in the sixteenth century, when Cosimo I stationed the Swiss lancers here to guard the square.
Many of the statues in the loggia were created at a time when sculpture was being freed from the confines of niches, and intended to be appreciated from all angles. Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus and Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Women are two of the most notable. These and the other statues dating from the Renaissance onwards contrast dramatically with the originals and copies from antiquity, which are serenely lined up against the back wall. Next to the Renaissance statues, which convey a wonderful sense of movement as one walks around them, they seem more two-dimensional.
The Loggia dei Lanzi serves as a sort of pivot point between Piazza della Signoria and the long, narrow Piazzale degli Uffizi that extends south toward the river. The slightly raised position makes it an ideal place to absorb the atmosphere of both piazzas while observing either the everyday goings-on or the many special events that happen here throughout the year. Street musicians often set up at the intersection of the two squares or along the arcade that follows the U-shaped Uffizi, their instrument cases sprinkled with loose change, confirming the appeal of music as a universal language. Piazzale degli Uffizi carves a strong line from the south-eastern corner of Piazza della Signoria, with the Uffizi's repeating rhythm of columns and sculptures of famous Florentines leading the eye toward the river. Artists, street performers and illegal vendors all vie for attention in this courtyard-like space, where works of sculpture are often exhibited.
©2008 Lisa McGarry. Adapted from the Piazza della Signoria chapter in the The Piazzas of Florence published by Murdoch Books. Photo by Lisa McGarry.
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