The Piazza della Signoria was for centuries the political and cultural heart of the Florentine Republic. On the 8th of September 1504 Michelangelo presented the citizens of Florence with his David, the statue that quickly became not only Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture but also a key symbol of the cultural achievements of Florence. The original stood here under the open sky on the Piazza della Signoria all the way through to 1909. Today it is kept in the Florence Academy of Art, and a copy of the great work stands here in the piazza.
The history of this famous city square begins in the 5th century, when a large early Christian church was erected here. The church stood for around 200 years, after which it was replaced by the more modest Church of St Cecilia. The only other significant structure in close proximity was the small Church of St Romulus.
Only in the 13th century did construction work on the piazza really begin to take off. It was at this time that the powerful Uberti family built a series of houses on the square’s northern side. Soon after the foundations of the Palazzo Vecchio were laid and the square was first paved. By the 15th century they were joined by edifices such as the Tribunale della Mercanzia, a courtroom where lawyers arbitrated between the city’s various commercial interests, and the Loggia della Signoria, a pavilion for public ceremonies. This construction, frequently studied as typical example of the Florentine Gothic, was soon widely admired for its decorative columns (known as pilasters) and its classical semi-circular arches. The construction has subsequently served many functions, and since the 16th century has been in an open-air museum, with its exhibitions first taken from the collection of the famous Medici family.
The famous Palazzo Uguccioni appeared here in the 16th century. This classic example of Renaissance architecture is, curiously, the only building in Florence with columns on its façade. The Palazzo delle Assicurazioni Generali, built three centuries later, features a façade executed in a similar style, by this time of course referred to as ‘neo-Renaissance’. The sculptures of Donatello are a particularly valued addition to the Piazza della Signoria. One of their number, the bronze statue of Judith, was stolen during from the Medici Palace during a city uprising. It is the only statue taken at this time which was not returned to its owner, but rather left on the square as a reminder to the Medici of the limits of their power. In contrast, Bartolomeo Ammannati’s contribution to the Piazza della Signoria, the Fountain of Neptune, was not originally much loved by the population of Florence. Despite being the first public fountain in the city, the story runs that on the day the sculptor’s work was revealed Michelangelo, who was in the crowd of assembled citizens, cracked: ‘Ammannati, what a fine piece of marble you have ruined!’
During the Middle Ages the square was often the site of public executions. It was here on the 23rd May 1498 that the religious fanatic, prophet and dictator of Florence Girolamo Savonarola was tried and sentenced. Savonarola was also infamous for his campaign against secular entertainments, literature, science and art. The site of the Piazza della Signoria was well chosen for his execution; it was here that Savonarola burned numerous masterpieces of art, together with books, musical instruments and playing cards, in the so called ‘bonfire of the vanities’. A plaque marks the spot where the fanatic was burnt at the stake, which is located in front of the Fountain of Neptune.