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Piazza della Signoria · interesting places nearby
Palazzo Vecchio information
This fortress palace, with its crenellations and 94m-high tower, was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio between 1298 and 1314 for the signoria (city government). From the top of the Torre d'Arnolfo (tower), you can revel in unforgettable rooftop views, while inside, Michelangelo's Genio della Vittoria (Genius of Victory) sculpture graces the Salone dei Cinquecento , a magnificant painted hall created for the city's 15th-century ruling Consiglio dei Cinquecento (Council of 500).
During their short time in office the nine priori (consuls) – guild members picked at random – of the signoria lived in the palace. Every two months nine new names were pulled out of the hat, ensuring ample comings and goings.
In 1540 Cosimo I made the palace his ducal residence and centre of government, commissioning Vasari to renovate and decorate the interior. Not too long after the renovation, he and his wife Eleonora di Toledo (famously immortalised in Bronzino's portrait in the Uffizi collection) decided that the newly renovated apartments were too uncomfortable for their large family to live in year-round and he purchased Palazzo Pitti as a summer residence. After the death of Eleonora and their sons Giovanni and Garzia from malaria in 1562, Cosimo moved the rest of his family to Palazzo Pitti permanently. At this time, the building became known as Palazzo Vecchio (it was originally called Palazzo della Signoria). It remains the seat of the city's power, home to the mayor's office and the municipal council. The best way to discover this den of political drama and intrigue is by guided tour (€2 on top of the regular ticket price) or audioguide.
Sheer size aside, what impresses most about the 53m-long, 22m-wide Salone dei Cinquecento are the swirling battle scenes, painted floor to ceiling by Vasari and his apprentices. These glorify Florentine victories by Cosimo I over arch-rivals Pisa and Siena: unlike the Sienese, the Pisans are depicted bare of armour (play 'Spot the Leaning Tower'). To top off this unabashed celebration of his own power, Cosimo had himself portrayed as a god in the centre of the exquisite panelled ceiling – but not before commissioning Vasari to raise the original ceiling 7m in height. It took Vasari and his school, in consultation with Michelangelo, just two years (1563–65) to construct the ceiling and paint the 34 gold-leafed panels, which rest simply on a wooden frame. The effect is mesmerising.
Off this huge space is the Chapel of SS Cosmas and Damian , home to Vasari's 1557–58 triptych panels of the two saints depicting Cosimo the Elder as Cosmas (on the right) and Cosimo I as Damian (on the left). Next to the chapel is the Sala di Leo X , the private suite of apartments of Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, the son of Lorenzo Il Magnifico, who became pope in 1513.
Up the stairs and across the balcony (from where you can enjoy wonderful views of the Salone dei Cinquecento), are the private apartments for both Eleonora and her ladies-in-waiting. These bear the same heavy-handed decor blaring the glory of the Medici as the rest of the palace. Of note is the ceiling in the Camera Verde (Green Room) by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, inspired by designs from Nero's Domus Aurea in Rome, and the vibrant frescoes by Bronzino in the chapel.
Also on the 2nd floor, the Sala dei Gigli, named after its frieze of fleur-de-lis, representing the Florentine Republic, is home to Donatello's original Judith and Holofernes. Domenico Ghirlandaio's fresco on the far wall in this room, depicting figures from Roman history, was meant to be one of a series by other artists, including Botticelli.
A small study off the hall is the chancery, once Niccolò Machiavelli's office. Another room, the Sala delle Carte Geografiche (Map Room), houses Cosimo I's fascinating collection of 16th-century maps charting everywhere in the known world at the time, from the polar regions to the Caribbean.
On dry days (closed when raining), end your visit with a breathtaking (literally), 418-step hike up the palace's striking Torre d'Arnolfo and battlements. No more than 25 people are alllowed on the terrace at any one time – in high season expect to wait in line on the 3rd floor – and the panorama of Piazza della Signoria and the city beyond is fabulous. Once up, you have just 30 minutes to lap it up.