Palazzo Vecchio

Florence, 1299-1322




Political Conflicts

The Palazzo Vecchio was begun at the end of a century filled with conflict on several levels.


International level. On the broadest level, political factions supporting the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (Ghibillines) battled with those supporting the papacy (Guelphs) to assert competing claims of authority. 


Regional level. On a regional level, neighboring cities like Florence and Siena fought over territory and regional dominance. 


Local level. On a local level, the feuding resulting from competition among powerful families in business and politics sometimes erupted in assassination plots and periods of exile. 


Political Climate in Florence

Florence's governing council of priors supported the papacy, and after an important victory of papal forces in 1266 at Benevento in southern Italy, the council planned a permanent government headquarters.


The new building was conceived as both a stronghold for defense from further challenge and as a symbol of victory and freedom from the authority of the Holy Roman Empire.


To complete the building in a timely manner, workers were transferred from Florence Cathedral.


Location and Shape

The Palazzo Vecchio is located on the Piazza della Signoria, Florence's municipal square.


The building's irregular shape is due to a deliberate decision to avoid building on land that previously belonged to the politically despised Uberti family, who had been exiled as traitors.


The non-axial relationship between the building and the piazza reflects the limitations of the site, which had pre-existing buildings of some importance.  A change in the location of the entrance from the north to the west facing led to having open spaces on both facings, and together, they form the current, L-shape piazza.


Original Architect

Vasari's attribution of the building to Arnolfo di Cambio, the original architect of Florence Cathedral, is generally accepted although it is not confirmed by fourteenth-century documents.






The palace had five names within three centuries, a reflection of the volatile nature of Florentine politics during the Renaissance.


Palazzo dei Priori

The original palace was called the Palazzo dei Priori because Florence was ruled by seven priors, who represented the major guilds.


Palazzo del Popolo

The name Palazzo del Popolo, which refers to the "people" or "populace," was the name commonly used in the fourteenth century.


Palazzo della Signoria

The name change from "Popolo" to "Signoria" (governing council) reflects a change in political dominance from the craft guilds to the commercial guilds, whose leaders were called "signori."  By the mid-fifteenth century, the wealth of commerce and banking enabled the Medici family to dominate the city politically.


Palazzo Ducale

The designation as the duke's palace occurred in 1540 when Cosimo I de' Medici moved there from the Medici family palace.


Palazzo Vecchio

The current name "Palazzo Vecchio," which means "Old Palace," was given in 1450 when Cosimo moved to the more spacious Pitti Palace.





Multiple Stages

As can be seen along the north side of the building, the Palazzo Vecchio was built in several stages.


1299-1322: Original Block

The original palace was constructed by 1314, but completion of the tower required another eight years.  Other modifications were also made during the fourteenth century, particularly to the south side of the building.


1495-6: Assembly Hall

In 1495-6, after Savonarola gained power, a rectangular addition containing a large assembly hall on the second story was built near the original block by Simone di Pollaiuolo (1457-1508), called Il Cronaca.  Although not completely finished, it was in use by 1496.  The new meeting hall, the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, is better known as the Salone dei Cinquecento for the five-hundred member Grand Council, which Savonarola instituted.


1495-11: Connecting Wing

The section connecting the original block with the new assembly hall was complete by 1511.


1540s-1560s: Remodeling Hall

When Cosimo moved from the Medici Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio in 1540, he initiated the remodeling of the great hall as an audience chamber and ballroom with a platform at the south end.  In 1560, Vasari raised the ceiling and began frescoing the walls and ceiling.


1549-55: Eastern Block

Most of the eastern block was added by Cosimo I around 1550.  Vasari, who also worked on the Palazzo Vecchio for Cosimo in the early 1540s, modified this section in the late 1550s.


1565-66: Vasari Corridor

In 1565 Cosimo commissioned Vasari to build an enclosed passageway, which is now known as the Vasari Corridor.  It connected the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florentine government, with the Palazzo Pitti, the Duke's residence after 1565.


1588-92: Decoration of Eastern Addition

Cosimo's son Ferdinando I commissioned the decoration of the back part of the palace from 1588 to 1592.





Appearance of Impregnability

An appearance of impregnability is projected by the original building through the blockishness of its core and the muscularity of its crowning projection of machicolations topped by crenellations.



The ruggedly textured surface of undressed pietra forte also contributes to the building's impression of massiveness and solidity.



The biforate windows of the upper stories are typical of the late-Gothic period in having mullions and triple-lobed arches.






Except for the arched structure at the top of the tower, the tower resembles a narrow, elongated version of the main structure because both have block-like masonry bases capped by machicolations and crenellations.  



The position of the tower enables a viewer within it to see the streets and public spaces that lead into the Piazza della Signoria from several directions as illustrated by views from the street in front of it and the narrow piazza on its right side.



Florence commissioned a large bell, reputedly the largest in the world at the time, from a Sienese foundry.  It was mounted in a temporary wooden structure until the tower was completed in 1322.


The bell, which was identified with the Republic of Florence, was known as the "Lion" in reference to the city's heraldic symbol, the marzocco.


Ringing the bell summoned the Consiglio, and because of its historic association with the city's representational government, the Medici dropped the bell to the ground after being restored to power following a siege by Charles V's imperial army in 1530.






As illustrated by the plan of the original building, a large part of the interior is devoted to the courtyard, which was modified in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


Remodeling in the Fifteenth Century

In the fifteenth century, much of the palace was rebuilt by Michelozzo and others.


Remodeling in 1565

In 1565 the courtyard was remodeled by Vasari in preparation for the arrival of Francesco de' Medici and his wife, Joan of Austria.


Walls and vaults painted with frescoes. Vasari and his pupils painted the vaulting with conventional decorative designs and the walls with scenes of Austrian towns, which were intended to provide the bride with pleasant reminders of her homeland.  


Columns decorated by stucco relief. Vasari ornamented the columns with gilded stucco reliefs depicting arabesques and grotesque inspired by paintings in the Domus Aurea in Rome. 


Fountain topped by putto. A fountain by Verrocchio consisting of a bronze putto holding a dolphin was brought from the Medici villa at Careggi.  The current sculpture is a reproduction of the original, which has been moved to a protected part of the palace.  The porphyry basin was made by Francesco Ferrucci del Tadda around 1555. 





Salone dei Cinquecento

The Sala del Maggior Consiglio, which is better known as the Salone dei Cinquecento, meaning "Hall of the Five Hundred," was a large assembly hall intended to accommodate a five-hundred member Grand Council that was instituted when Savonarola was in power.  The hall was built by Il Cronaca.


1496-98:  Intentional lack of decoration. In keeping with Savonarola's preaching against the vanity of the arts, the assembly hall was left undecorated.  


1503-12: Frescoed scenes commissioned. In the interval between Savonarola's execution in the Piazza della Signoria in 1498 and the Medici return to power in 1512, efforts were made to decorate the Salone dei Cinquecento.  The two most esteemed artists of the day, Leonardo and Michelangelo, were commissioned to paint scenes of Florence's military history on its walls, but both artists abandoned the project several years before the Medici regained control of Florence. 


1512: Use as offices and barracks. Because the Medici wished to nullify the hall's identity as an architectural emblem of republican government, they stripped out the seating and other fine woodwork, which were given to the Cathedral, and used the space for offices and barracks. 


1540s: Conversion to audience chamber. To convert this hall into an audience chamber in 1540, Cosimo I commissioned Bandinelli to design a podium and architectural enframement of columns and niches at the north end.  It contains statues of important members of the Medici family including Cosimo I himself and Pope Leo X, whose sculpted portrait occupies an apse in the center.  


1560s: Decoration by Vasari. Vasari enlarged the hall, raised the ceiling, and decorated the walls and ceiling with frescoes.    


1564: Addition of Michelangelo's Victory. After Michelangelo's death, his statue of Victory, which had originally been planned for the 1516 version of Julius II's tomb, was acquired from the artist's family and placed in the center of the south wall.  


Rooms Dedicated to Esteemed Medici

Cosimo commissioned the decoration of a number of rooms that were dedicated to important members of the Medici family.  These included the Room of Pope Clement VII, the Room of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the Room of Pope Leo X.


In this last room, Vasari designed and oversaw the execution of the decorative scheme in which Cosimo's distant cousin Pope Leo X is the subject of a large painting, Pope Leo Chooses New Cardinals. Another distant cousin, Alessandro, whose assassination in 1534 precipitated Cosimo's coming to power, is depicted wearing ancient Roman armor in the portrait between the windows.















Italian Medieval Architecture 11 of 15




Palazzo Vecchio, Florence