The Palazzo Vecchio, also known as the ‘Old Palace’, stands on the most famous square of Florence, the Piazza della Signoria, on whose hallowed stones many of the most significant political and cultural events of the city’s history have unfolded. Construction started on the palace in 1294. The palace was in fact originally conceived as a fortress, an intention which is imprinted in the massive stones of the imposing façade and the crenelated roof and tower. From the side, the building seems like an impassable cliff-face. Thus the palace was built to provide residence and protection in equal measure to the city magistrates. Over time this sober residence began to fall short of the expectations of the city’s rulers, and the most famous of that number, the Medici, set themselves up in the newer and more comfortable Pitti and Uffizi palaces. Only in the 19th century, when Florence was once again declared a republic, did the Palazzo Vecchio regain its place as the headquarters of the city administration and residence of the city council, a function it serves to this day.
The Palazzo Vecchio is adorned with a series of paired windows, set into semi-circular arches. Above the upper level of windows there is a series of frescoes featuring nine different coat-of-arms. Note the palace tower soaring to a height of 94 meters into the sky. The clock-face on the tower dates from 1667. Near the main entrance there are marble sculptures, which serve as the foundation for a system of mounted chains. Above the entrance is a round marble plaque, bearing the Monogram of Christ. The Latin inscription underneath reads ‘Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords’. This text dates from 1851 and does not replace an earlier text by Savonarola as mentioned in guidebooks.
The interior courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio is decorated with white and gold stucco and frescoes from the 16th century. The ground floor of the palace is dominated by the Salone dei Cinquecento (the ‘Hall of the 500’), which functioned as an assembly room for the Grand Council. The interiors were designed by Giorgio Vasari. The ceiling is painted with allegorical scenes, with the most important scene depicting the return of Duke Cosimo to Florence. Cosimo’s old office, the Studiolo of Francesca I, is also located on this floor. The walls of the room, which conspire to create the illusion that there are numerous hidden entrances, are testament to the Medici’s passion for alchemy and other occult sciences. Above this study, accessed via a set of stairs, is the Sala dei Gigli (‘The Room of the Lilies’), so-called owing to the patchwork of golden lilies carved against a blue background into the ceiling. This is the heraldic symbol of the French Dukes of Anjou. The frescoes on the perimeter walls are the work of Domenico Ghirlandaio. Another room of particular interest on this floor is the ‘Old Chancellery’. This was Machiavelli’s office when he was Secretary of the Republic; today a bust and portrait of the ultimate political pragmatist can be found in the room. Finally, the ‘Hall of Geographical Maps’ contains a number of fascinating pre-modern maps, as well as one of the most famous of all the medieval ‘Mappa Mundi’ (‘World Map’).
The mezzanine floor (located between the first and second floors) of the Palazzo Vecchio accommodates the Loeser collection, gifted to the city of Florence by the famous American art-collector. The collection includes a number of items formerly held by the Medici Dukes.