Exploring Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria) in Florence: A Visitor's Guide
The principal palace in Florence seems like a living timeline, encapsulating the city's rich history. As you explore its courtyard, climb Vasari's grand staircase to the impressive Salone dei Cinquecento, and continue up into the Medici apartments, you'll meet the leading lights of Florence's rise to power and those who led it through its artistic and cultural heyday as the leader in Europe's Renaissance.
The almost fortress-like building echoes with the power exercised by the Florentine state and the Medici family from the 14th to the 16th century. It was begun just as the 13th century was ending, in 1299, as the official residence of the Priors (Palazzo dei Priori) and the Gonfaloniere, the governing body of the Republic (the Signoria). The Medici dynasty, which ruled Florence and Tuscany, still lived and had offices in their own palace until 1540, when Cosimo I moved here, and it became the Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace). When he moved into the Pitti Palace, the Ducal Palace became known as the Palazzo Vecchio (old palace). Between 1865 and 1872, during the Italian struggle for unity, it was, for a time, the seat of the government, the Chamber of Deputies, and the Foreign Ministry. After unification, it became the city offices, and the state rooms were opened to the public.
Looking at the cubic shape and battlements of Palazzo Vecchio, it is easy to picture it as the fortress these palaces once were. In fact, this one was built around one of the defensive towers that noble families erected during the Middle Ages as places of refuge from the frequent attacks of rival cities and various marauders. You'll notice how the current tower is offset from the building's center; that is to allow for the older tower that forms its base. Along with a copy of one of Florence's best known icons, Michelangelo's David, replicas of two works by Donatello stand at the main entrance: Marzocco, the heraldic lion of Florence holding the city's coat of arms, and a bronze statue, Judith and Holofernes (the original is in the Sala del Gigli, inside).
Cortile di Michelozzo and Ground Floor
Begin your visit in the first courtyard, redesigned in 1470 by Michelozzo with an arcade of intricately carved columns. In the center is a Verrocchio fountain with a putto and dolphin (1476); you'll see a copy of the original in a more protected spot upstairs. The original palace has been restored several times, and the only room of the 14th-century palace to survive is the Camera dell'Arme, or armory. The grand staircase you'll climb to reach the main floor above was added by Vasari in 1560-1563.
Salone dei Cinquecento
The main floor (in Italy called the first floor or the "piano nobile") centers around the soaring Salone dei Cinquecento, whose ornate coffered ceiling rises 21 meters overhead, each of its 38 panels decorated with allegories and scenes from the history of Florence and of the Medici family. The walls are lined with monumental paintings of Medici and city history. The highlight is Michelangelo's Genius of Victory (1532-1534), which was intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome. It is one of the artist's finest works, showing his mastery both of representing movement of the body and of translating that into marble.
Leone X's quarters, opposite the entrance, are now office for the mayor and city council. Vasari designed a beautiful jewel box of a room for Francesco I's study, decorating it with paintings, frescoes, and statues by some of the late-Renaissance's most prominent painters and sculptors, including Giambologna, who did the small Apollo statue. One of the palace's many secret staircases, by which the Medici moved from room to room in private, leads to the Tesoretto. This was Cosimo I's study, with ceiling paintings by students of Vasari. At the other side of the Salone dei Cinquecento are more small rooms, including the Sala del Dugento with a magnificently carved wooden ceiling by Michelozzo.
Sala dei Gigli and Medici Apartments
A top attraction on the upper floor (in Italy second floor) is the Sala dei Gigli, or Lily Room, with a large fresco by Ghirlandaio (1481-1485) and the original of the famous bronze group Judith and Holofernes by Donatello (1455-1460), brought here in 1888 from Piazza della Signoria to protect it from weathering. Another original, Verrocchio's Putto and Dolphin from the fountain in the courtyard below, is in the Cancelleria, former Chancellery of the Secretary of the Florentine Republic.
The Sala dell'Udienza (Audience Room) has a richly carved ceiling and frescoes, as do several other rooms on this floor, but among the most interesting of these are the private study of the Duchess Bianca Cappello and the Quartiere di Eleonora di Toledo, rooms of the consort of Cosimo I, Eleonora of Toledo. The frescoes on the ceilings and elsewhere in her rooms are scenes from history and mythology; those decorating her chapel are by Bronzino. Be sure to see the Guardaroba (coatroom) walls covered with maps painted on leather, and at its center, the mid-16th-century Mappa Mundi, an almost two-meter sphere that was the largest rotating globe of its day. From the Quartiere degli Elementi, step out onto the terrace of Loggiato di Saturno to enjoy the view of Florence.
The Arnolfo Tower
From the Ballatoio, on the floor with the private apartments, you can climb 233 steps to the crenellated gallery atop the tower for a panorama of the city. On the way up you'll pass the Alberghettino, a prison cell known as the "little hotel", where Cosimo the Elder was held in 1433 before he was sent into exile and where Savonarola was imprisoned briefly in 1498. The tower, with its square shape and widened parapet at top, is a well-recognized symbol of Florence and has been imitated in churches and other towers around the world ever since. It is the earliest part of the palace, begun in 1299 on the base of a medieval tower.
Take a Tour
Some of the city's most interesting tours, especially for children, are offered by the Palazzo Vecchio. These range from a 75-minute itinerary through the rooms, and a tour highlighting the works of the Medici's architect, Giorgio Vasari, to one retracing the scenes from Dan Brown's novel, Inferno. The most interesting - and a chance to get into places most tourists don't see, is the Secret Passages tour, including spaces such as the secret staircase of Duke Gualtieri and others not open to the public. Several are designed especially for families with children, including At Court with Donna Isabella, led by a lady-in-waiting who brings to life the days at the ducal court. Workshops include learning fresco techniques and painting on wood with tempera. Some tours cost very little more than the palace admission charge, but all must be reserved ahead.
Tips & Tactics
- Expect to spend at least 90 minutes touring the palace and tower.
- The tower is closed in case of rain and not advised if you have a heart condition, breathing problems, acrophobia, or claustrophobia. Children under age six are not allowed in the tower, and those under 18 must be with an adult.
- Because tours vary and must be reserved, it's a good idea to stop here early in your stay and reserve spaces.
- In the summer, you can visit the battlements at night, between 8 and 11pm, for an extra fee. You must sign up at the ticket office.
- Piazza Signoria, Florence