The hub of local life since the 13th century, Florentines flock here to meet friends and chat over early-evening aperitivi at historic cafes. Presiding over everything is Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's city hall, and the 14th-century Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air gallery showcasing Renaissance sculptures, including Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women (c 1583), Benvenuto Cellini's bronze Perseus (1554) and Agnolo Gaddi's Seven Virtues (1384–89).
In centuries past, townsfolk congregated on the piazza whenever the city entered one of its innumerable political crises. The people would be called for 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 de Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) with pin-headed bronze satyrs and divinities frolicking at its edges. 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 guarding the western entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio since 1910 (the original stood here until 1873), 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).
The Loggia dei Lanzi at the piazza's southern end owes its name to the Lanzichenecchi (Swiss bodyguards) of Cosimo I, who were stationed here.