Exploring Piazza della Signoria in Florence: A Visitor's Guide
Piazza della Signoria has been the political center of Florence since the 14th century, when houses of prominent families had to make way for the new square. It's been the center for ceremonial events, rallies, and festivals ever since, and here, you'll find several iconic Florence tourist attractions: Palazzo Vecchio, the Neptune Fountain, the Uffizi Gallery, the Loggia dei Lanzi, and copies of statues by Michelangelo and Donatello. But the square was busy long before the Renaissance palace made it the headquarters for government. Excavations in the 1980s turned up finds from the Roman era and earlier relics from the Etruscan period and even the Bronze Age. As the Florentines were not prepared to have their finest square become a permanent archaeological dig, the excavations were filled in, and the festivities continue.
If you've heard of the zealous cleric and political reformer Savonarola, who tried to force Renaissance Florentines into more righteous ways, look for the granite disc near the fountain marking the spot where he and two companions were executed on orders of Pope Alexander VI. Also near the fountain, a Giambologna statue commemorates the elevation of Cosimo I, shown on horseback, to Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569.
Piazza della Signoria's most impressive monument, and the square's centerpiece, is the Fonte di Piazza, created by Bartolomeo Ammanati to celebrate the wedding of Francesco de' Medici, son of Cosimo I, to Princess Johanna of Austria in 1565. Because the marriage signified the Medici's rise into the ranks of Europe's great ruling houses - Francesco was to receive the title of Grand Duke - the already begun fountain suddenly became a much larger project and had to be finished in a hurry. So Ammanati and his assistants worked feverishly to make this the largest fountain in Florence, with Neptune surrounded by four horses and three tritons. They may have been in too much of a hurry, since when it was finished in 1575, the Florentines were heard to jeer "Ammanato, che bel marmo hai rovinato" - what lovely marble you've ruined, Ammanato!
Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria)
The Palazzo Vecchio, one of the major attractions in Florence, is easy to spot, with its 91-meter tower looking over the piazza.
Loggia dei Lanzi
Also known as the Loggia della Signoria, the arcade was built between 1376 and 1382 and although it predates the Palazzo Vecchio, it forms a good counterpoint to its cubic brick lines. One of the finest examples of Florentine Gothic architecture, the loggia served the Republic as a stage for official ceremonies, such as receiving ambassadors and princes and installing public officers. The Loggia lost this political function with the end of the Republic and took on a purely decorative role, but 19th-century restorations brought it back to public use, and it is once again decked out with banners and garlands on festive occasions.
Flanking the entrance are two lions, one from classical Greece, the other a 16th-century copy, and inside are some important sculptures. The most photographed is the dramatic bronze masterpiece of Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini (1545-1554), impressive for its delicate workmanship and bold composition. Two outstanding marble groups are by Giambologna, Hercules fighting with Nessus the Centaur (1599) and The Rape of the Sabine (1583). It is likely that this title and interpretation were given to it somewhat later, but that doesn't change its artistry or significance.
Bargello Palace & National Museum
The massive Bargello Palace now houses the National Museum, containing an entire room devoted to Michelangelo and another to the lovely glazed terra cotta reliefs of Giovanni della Robbia.
San Michele in Orto
The church of San Michele in Orto dates from the 14th century. Its exterior is distinguished by the delicate stone traceries in its window arches as well as its niches containing statues of the patron saints of various Florentine guilds by artists including Ghiberti, Donatello, and Giambologna.
The ornate pointed spire of the Badia, opposite the Palazzo del Bargello, contrasts sharply with the square tower of the Palazzo Vecchio - and with the rest of Florence's skyline. Although the church and Benedictine abbey was founded in 978, it was enlarged in the 13th century, and its interior virtually rebuilt in the 17th century. In its Gothic façade look for the 15th-century portal with a Madonna and Child in glazed terracotta in the lunette. Inside, be sure to see Filippino Lippi's 1485 masterpiece The Madonna appearing to St. Bernard and go into the Choir to reach the beautiful 15th-century cloister, called the 'Chiostro degli Aranci' because of its orange trees (if it's open). The fresco scenes from the life of St. Benedict date from the cloister's completion in the 1430s.
Address: Via del Proconsolo, Florence
Casa de Dante (Dante's House)
Make no mistake: Dante didn't live here, although the Alighieri family did live on this street and it is likely that he was born close by. Dante himself was exiled from Florence in 1301 for being on the wrong political side and never returned (he died 20 years later in Ravenna, where you can see his tomb). There are no artifacts from Dante or his family, but the museum does contain documents and exhibits relating to his life and work (most labeled in Italian) and is a rare remaining Medieval home in the heart of Florence. Stop by if you're fascinated by this 13th-century poet whose works have endured for more than seven centuries and still inspire 21st-century writers (witness Inferno by Dan Brown and Matthew Pearl's )The Dante Club.
Address: Via Santa Margherita 1, Florence
Close to Piazza della Signoria, the Baroque complex of San Firenze includes two church facades with a palace between them, and this odd combination reflects its checkered history. The church of San Filippo Neri was built in the 1600s on the site of an old oratory and its facade was added in 1715 by Ferdinando Ruggieri. The church of Sant'Apollinare was built nearby between 1772 and 1775, its facade was based on Ruggieri's 1715 designs. At the same time, a palazzo was built between the two churches, incorporating the cloister areas. Today, all three joined buildings house the Tribunale, Florence's judicial authority.
Address: Piazza San Firenze, Florence