Today I am going to try my hand at being your tour guide. Since I figure you can read the plain ‘ol facts about historical sights anywhere, I have my own approach. This past Tuesday I went on a tour of Palazzo Vecchio with a group from my school – one of our teachers is a very knowledgeable guide and gives us great insights to the places we visit (all in Italian, of course). The following is a sampling (based on my understanding of what I learned), with my own personal spin and additions. Since I only get about 80% of what the teacher explains, I have checked to make sure I am not totally making anything up out of left field. Fortunately, photos are allowed in the palace (though without flash, so excuse the lighting). Enjoy your tour…
As you approach Palazzo Vecchio, you can’t help but notice the huge Neptuno fountain just to its left (an allegory for Florence’s dominion over the sea). Now, this statue was supposed to be all that and a bag of chips when it was commissioned for a Medici wedding in 1563 (and the face of Neptune is in fact Cosimo I). However, unlike myself, who thinks the fountain is pretty darn cool, apparently the Florentines at the time thought it was a monstrosity and called it “Il Biancone” (the white giant). Different strokes…
Looking at Palazzo Vecchio you see where Michelangelo’s David used to stand (and where a replica now stands). There is also a replica of Hercules and Cacus by Bandinelli (symbolizing power [and?]). While the original statues date from the 1500’s, the Palazzo was begun at the very end of the 13th century and was the seat of government and community affairs in Florence. (You can still go there to wait in lines for official business to this day!). Apparently when it was built, it was more practical – for instance, notice how small the windows on the bottom level are – it was built for protection, not beauty. However, after the Medici family moved in during the Renaissance, they went about enlarging it, decorating it, and basically taking over. Through this time it didn’t have a fancy name – just the town hall. It became “Palazzo Vecchio,” not because it’s really old (which it is now), but because the Medici decided to move down the road to Palazzo Pitti as their new home (thus this became their old “vecchio” one).
The inside of the palace is insanely ornate. Check out the detail on a single column in the entryway, the main room and a small part of the ceiling in that room. As with most everything in the palace today, these things were added by the Medici during the Renaissance.
You may notice that one wall does not look pretty at all – it is covered by some industrial-looking tarp. Well, this is one of the more interesting things in this room – it may – or may not – contain a missing DaVinci painting! As the story goes, Leonardo was commissioned in 1503 to paint one long wall with a battle scene celebrating a famous Florentine victory. Depending on what version you read, the painting (“The Battle of Anghiari”) was either accidentally destroyed or purposefully painted over. In any case, National Geographic has undertaken a project to try and discover this lost masterpiece. Another cool thing in this room is a Michelangelo statue “Genius of Victory” (1533–1534) – from what I gathered, Michelangelo wasn’t very found of working on this statute and it was actually a nephew who decided to give it to the Medici family as a present. If you notice the bottom figure, it is unfinished – it looks very similar to the “prisoners” at L’Accademia (but you’re not allowed to take pictures there, so here’s the closest peek you get). Michelangelo believed the sculptures were already inside the stone and his job was to “free” them – so once they were “free” he didn’t always feel compelled to finish them.
Now we’re upstairs in some of the private chambers. The next 4 photos are from the room of Lorenzo the Magnificent and represent “grotesques” (and my favorite art in the palace – you know how I love weird old art!). Okay, what I understood my teacher to say (I was taking notes) was that either the owner (or the artist?) was playing ball as a kid and fell (in a well?) and hit his head and had weird dreams, and these pictures represent the things he dreamed. Since I was pretty sure I didn’t get that quite right I have done some actual research and this is what I found out (I got it about 60% right): In the 15th century, a young Roman fell into a hole and found himself in a cave with walls covered with weird frescoes (the “cave” was actually a room in an unfinished palace complex started by Nero in AD 64), inspiring him and many artists to follow to paint in this very fanciful style, baptized “grotesque.” (I think the secondary lesson here is that while my Italian can be trusted with minor tasks, do not rely on it for matters of life-or-death!).
In this last set of photos, we have one wall (“water”) in the room of the 4 elements. Apparently this room was decorated on each side with an allegory for the 4 elements (fire, wind, water, air) because by working in this room the powers of the elements were harnessed and it increased your mojo. And if you’re asking “hmm….did the artist ‘borrow’ the ‘Birth of Venus’ idea form Botticelli?’ the answer is “yes.” There is also a beautiful old courtroom with a clear shot of the Duomo through a window behind where the judges sat. If I understood my teacher correctly, this was done purposefully to keep the head of the state mindful of the head of the church, but I haven’t been able to verify this anywhere (in any case, it makes for a cool view). Finally, there’s a shot of the Medici map room – an entire room filled of maps of the world – all impressively drawn by hand and from travelers’ recollections back in the 15oo’s! (While they are amazingly accurate for their time, I would not set sail by them today.)
So there we have my first official “tour” of Florence. I hope you have enjoyed the view and maybe learned something (and that most of it is accurate!). Thanks for coming along!