Lonely Planet review
Edged by historic cafes, crammed with Renaissance sculptures and presided over by magnificent Palazzo Vecchio, this photogenic piazza has been the hub of local life for centuries. Early evening and all day at weekends, Florentines indulge in the sacrosanct passeggiata (evening stroll), breaking for a coffee, hot chocolate or aperitivo , perhaps at the city's most famous cafe, Caffè Rivoire .
Whenever the city entered one of its innumerable political crises, the people would be called here as a parlamento (people's plebiscite) to rubber-stamp decisions that frequently meant ruin for some ruling families and victory for others. Scenes of great pomp and circumstance alternated with those of terrible suffering: it was here that vehemently pious preacher-leader Savonarola set fire to the city's art – books, paintings, musical instruments, mirrors, fine clothes and so on – during his famous 'Bonfire of the Vanities' in 1497, and where he was hung in chains and burnt as a heretic, along with two other supporters a year later.
The same spot where both fires burned is marked by a bronze plaque embedded in the ground in front of Ammannati's Fontana di Nettuno (Neptune Fountain). With its pin-headed bronze satyrs and divinities frolicking at its edges, this huge fountain is hardly pretty and is much mocked as il biancone (the big white thing), not to mention a waste of good marble, by many a Florentine. Far more impressive are the equestrian statue of Cosimo I by Giambologna in the centre of the piazza, the much-photographed copy of Michelangelo's David that has guarded the western entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio since 1910 (the original stood here until 1873 but is now in the Galleria dell'Accademia) and two copies of important Donatello works - Marzocco , the heraldic Florentine lion (for the original visit the Museo del Bargello) and Giuditta e Oloferne (Judith and Holofernes, c 1455; original inside Palazzo Vecchio).
Facing this line-up is the 14th-century Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air museum where works such as Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women (c 1583), Benvenuto Cellini's bronze Perseus (1554) and Agnolo Gaddi's Seven Virtues (1384-89) are displayed. The loggia owes its name to the Lanzichenecchi (Swiss bodyguards) of Cosimo I, who were stationed here, and the present day guards live up to this heritage, sternly monitoring crowd behaviour and promptly banishing anyone carrying food or drink.