Guide to the Historic Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
“The Palazzo Vecchio rises before me, oppressive in its abrupt compact bulk, and I can feel upon me its heavy grey shadow." -- Rainer Maria Rilke
Here's my guide to visiting the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence Italy. The Palazzo Vecchio is a doughty medieval fortress on the outside and a resplendant Renaissance palace on the inside. It's one of Florence's most historic and important buildings. In some ways, Palazzo Vecchio explains the entire history of Florence.
The palace dates from the 13th century. Like the Duomo, it was originally designed by famed Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio. With its crenellations and tower that points to the sky, Palazzo Vecchio is one of Florence's unmissable sites.
Steeped in history, the Palazzo Vecchio was Florence's seat of power, the home of the City Council that governed the Republic of Florence. The palace sits in the Piazza della Signoria, a beautiful square that's essentially an outdoor art gallery.
Inside, you can explore the grand Hall of the Five Hundred, admire Michelangelo and Donatello sculptures, and gaze admiringly at beautiful frescos at every turn. Let's take a tour of the Palazzo Vecchio and explore its history.
The Rise and Fall of the Medici
The Palazzo Vecchio is synonymous with the Medici family. They used the palace as both their seat of government and private residence (until they moved into the Pitti Palace).
The first real power broker was Cosimo the Elder, a man who was both an avid art patron and a Machiavelli-like politician. He sponsored early Renaissance artists like Donatello and Ghiberti. Over 37 years, Cosimo created a dynasty that would endure for centuries and produce four popes.
Perhaps the most powerful and influential Medici was Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo. Lorenzo became known as Il Magnifico, or the Magnificent. Lorenzo was a true Renaissance man -- savvy politician, connoisseur of arts, music composer, and even a romantic poet. His second son became Pope Leo X.
Lorenzo the Magnificent essentially kicked off the golden age of the Renaissance, when Florentine arts were at their apex. Sandro Botticelli was a Medici court painter. Leonardo and Michelangelo were also both members of Lorenzo's court for some time.
In 1537, Cosimo I came to power, becoming the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. In 1539, he married the beautiful Eleanora di Toledo. It was a love match. Cosimo fell for Eleanora when they met for the first time in 1536. Deeply pious, he was reputedly faithful to Eleanora -- a true aberration for that age.
In 1540, the pair moved into the Palazzo Vecchio and began redecorating. What you see today is mostly the effort of Cosimo I. By all accounts, the pair were happily married. Eleanora was considered a “first lady” by modern standards, traveling with her husband and helping rule the city.
Today, Cosimo is probably best known for building the Uffizi Gallery, the Vasari Corridor, and the Convent of San Marco.
The descendants of Cosimo I ruled into the 18th century in relative stability. But decay had set in. This generation of grand dukes ruled by force, and reduced Florence's reputation as a cultural capitol. The last Medici died in 1743. She bequeathed all of the Medici treasures to Florence.
History of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's Most Iconic Building
In 1298, Florentines decided to build a palace to house the governmental entities of the republic. They hired Arnolfo di Cambio, architect of Florence Cathedral and the Basilica of Santa Croce.
In the 16th century, Cosimo I turned the Palazzo Vecchio into the official ducal residence. The palace was then known as the Palazzo della Signoria. When Cosimo moved to the Pitti Palace, he renamed it Palazzo Vecchio, or old palace. Today, the Palazzo Vecchio still houses the city hall.
The Palazzo Vecchio is the setting for key moments in Florence's history. It was famously the scene of one of Renaissance Florence's most infamous attempted coups. In 1478, the Pazzi family tried, but failed, to oust the ruling Medici family. They plotted to kill both Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano.
Giuliano was murdered. Lorenzo escaped and exacted revenge. In just a few hours, the killers and conspirators (including the pope's nephew) were captured. They were hung from the second floor ramparts of the Palazzo Vecchio. Incensed, the pope excommunicated Lorenzo.
The palace is also linked to the rise of the fiery Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola denounced the excesses of clerical and despotic power. He told Florentines the apocalypse was coming and to save themselves through self censorship.
The doomsday preacher eventually ousted the Medici and established a theocracy in Florence for several years. But Savonarola went too far. In the 1497 "Bonfire of the Vanities," he destroyed works of art in the Piazza della Signoria. The pleasure loving citizens of Florence had enough and didn't want their cultural legacy destroyed.
In 1498, Savonarola was defrocked and imprisoned in the Palazzo Vecchio for heresy. After being tried and convicted, he was executed in the Piazza della Signoria. A circular plaque near the Palazzo Vecchio's entrance marks the spot of Savonarola's execution.
What To See Inside the Palazzo Vecchio
Why visit the Palazzo Vecchio? Because it's so much more than just a museum. The palace is living breathing history. Let's step through the entrance -- guarded by Michelangelo's David and Bandinelli's Hercules -- and take a peak inside. Here are 10 reasons to visit the Palazzo Vecchio.
1. The Michelozzo Courtyard
In contrast to the bleak exterior of Palazzo Vecchio, there’s a surprising playfulness inside. You begin in the charming courtyard, designed by the famed architect Michelozzo in 1453. He was hired to give the palazzo a makeover when Cosimo's son married Hapsburg Princess Joanna of Austria in 1565.
The courtyard has intricately carved and gilded columns, beautiful grotesque style ceiling frescos, and sculptures. Grostesque frescos became the rage in the Renaissance after Domus Aurea, the ancient palace of Emperor Nero in Rome, was discovered and thought to be a cave/grotto. The frescos are a fanciful mix of animal, human, and plant decorations.
To welcome Joanna, the walls of the courtyard were decorated with frescos of Hapsburg estates in Austria. Unfortunately, they're not in very good condition. Vasari was in a hurry when he created them. Like Leonardo with The Last Supper, Vasari painted the scenes in fresco secco (dry fresco) not the more durable fresco buon (true fresco on wet plaster).
In the center, an iron putti tops a fountain by artist Battista del Tadda. The putti and his dolphin are a copy of the original by Andrea del Verrocchio, which was moved inside the place. The water that playfully squirts from the dolphin's nostrils comes from the Boboli Gardens at Palazzo Pitti.
2. Hall of the Five Hundred & the Mysterious Missing
The first floor of the Palazzo Vecchio was for public meetings. It's dominated by the Hall of the Five Hundred, the Salone dei Cinquecento. The name derived from the 500 man assembly that met there in pre-Medici Florence.
The Hall of 500 is the largest room in Italy built for a palace. Savonarola commissioned it in 1494. He sought to establish a more democratic government. Consistent with his reforms, Savonarola created the Council of Five Hundred to govern Florence.
In the mid 16th century, the then spartan Hall of Five Hundred was lavishly remodeled by Giorgio Vasari, an artist and the world's first art historian. In particular, he painted massive frescos depicting the The Battle of Marciano, in which Florence triumphed over rivals Pisa and Siena. Vasari also painted the 39 gilded ceiling panels, telling the life story of Cosimo I.
But before Vasari came Leonardo da Vinci. Some scholars believe that behind Vasari's frescos hides a long lost Leonardo -- The Battle of Anghiari. What happened to it?
In 1503, the Signoria (or city council) commissioned Leonardo to paint a massive fresco in the room celebrating Florence's victory in 1440 over Milan in the Battle of Anghiari. Leonardo created a cartoon of the battle with horses and riders fighting to the death.
Leonardo painted the 15 x 20 central panel, but never finished the commissioned fresco. Unfortunately, Leonardo experimented with paint (adding wax), as he did with The Last Supper in Milan. And he used braziers to increase drying speed, which made the paint run. Frustrated by the failed experiment, Leonardo abandoned the project. (As he frequently did with commissions.)
Still, people came to admire Leonardo's unfinished fresco. Other Renaissance artists thought it was Leonardo's best work yet and made copies. There's a famous version by Peter Paul Rubens in the Louvre.
Fifty years later, in 1563, Vasari was commissioned to repaint the unfinished walls. Vasari was a great admirer of Leonardo. Legend holds that, instead of painting over Leonardo's work, Vasari built a false wall over the fresco to preserve it. Then he painted The Battle of Marciano on the false wall.
Vasari even left a cryptic clue. On a flag on his fresco, he wrote the phrase “He who looks will find.” Only 15 known Leonardo's exist, making this possibility tantalizing.
In 2012, an air gap was discovered behind Vasari's painting. Siting historic documentation, an art diagnostician got permission to drill tiny holes through cracks in the wall housing Vasari's work. The project was backed by the National Geographic Society and had the support of the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi. Traces of pigment that matched Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari were found.
But then a hew and cry began. Some art historians didn't want the Vasari frescos, recently restored, to be damaged in any way. The project was shut down. Still, Florence's mayor remains interested in discovering the lost Leonardo.
Another masterpiece of the Hall of Five Hundred is Michelangelo’s Genio della Vittoria, or Genius of Victory, sculpture. It was carved for the Tomb of Pope Julius II, another project that didn't come to fruition, and donated to the Medici family.
In the sculpture, a young man stands victorious with his foot on a vanquished foe. It's a symbol of Julius II, who was known as the "Warrior Pope." The model was one of Michelangelo's students, Tomasso dei Cavalieri. Michelangelo was in love with Cavalieri and wrote romantic poetry for him.
3. Studio of Francesco I
The Studio of Franceso I is a secret side room that's an annex to the Hall of Five Hundred. It's vaulted and shaped like a Florentine chest or jewelry box, with no windows. It was considered one of the first and finest examples of a cabinet of curiosities.
Built in 1569-70, the studio is decorated floor to ceiling with Mannerist paintings by Vasari and a dozen others. The paintings front 20 functioning cupboards. The portraits of Cosimo I and Eleanora are by the late Renaissance Mannerist painter Bronzino.
From a peep hole, Francesco would spy on meetings in the Hall of Five Hundred. Behind two of the painted panels lie a private alchemy room and a secret staircase. The study was disassembled in its time and only reassembled in the 20th century.
4. The Medici's Private Rooms
On the second floor are the sumptuously decorated private rooms of the Medici. They consist of elegant apartments, small chambers, and a private chapel.
The highlight is the Room of the Elements, Sala deli Elementi, the first of five rooms that make up the quarters of Cosimo I. It's decorated with gorgeous mythological paintings created by Giorgio Vasari and his workshop in 1556-66.
The paintings symbolize the ancient elements of air, water, fire and earth. You can see the frescos, which have been restored, here. For a fine view of Florence step out onto the Loggiato di Saturno in Cosimo's quarters.
You should also visit the Apartments of Eleanora di Toledo, Cosimo's wife. She has her own chapel, with frescos painted by Renaissance master Bronzino, including The Deposition of Christ.
5. Hall of the Lilies
The Hall of Lilies is stunning example of early Renaissance interior decoration. It's spectacularly decorated with gilded coffered ceilings with gold on blue fleur de lis, the symbol of Florence.
In the Hall of Lilies, you'll find another precious treasure -- Donatello's groundbreaking Judith and Holofernes sculpture commissioned by Cosimo the Elder. A copy of the sculpture is in the Piazza della Signoria for free viewing.
Judith and Holofernes is an Old Testament story, in which a heroic woman defeats a warlord who’s besieged her town in Israel. She does this by seducing, inebriating, and decapitating him.
Judith and Holofernes carried forth the Medici's underdog theme. The statue was first placed in the Medici garden. When the Medici had a short exile from the city, the citizens moved the statue into the Piazza della Signoria. The original was moved to the Hall of Lilies in 1888.
On the east wall is a fresco series by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It's a classical composition with faux painted architecture.