Florence's imposing fortresslike town hall was built from 1299 to 1302 on the designs of Arnolfo di Cambio, Gothic master builder of the city. Arnolfo managed to make it solid and impregnable-looking yet still graceful, with thin-columned Gothic windows and two orders of crenellations -- square for the main rampart and swallow-tailed on the 94m-high (308-ft.) bell tower.
The palace was once home to the various Florentine republican governments (and today to the municipal government). Cosimo I and his ducal Medici family moved to the palazzo in 1540 and engaged in massive redecoration. Michelozzo's 1453 courtyard, just through the door, was left architecturally intact but frescoed by Vasari with scenes of Austrian cities to celebrate the 1565 marriage of Francesco de' Medici and Joanna of Austria. The grand staircase leads up to the Sala dei Cinquecento, named for the 500-man assembly that met here in the pre-Medici days of the Florentine Republic and site of the greatest fresco cycle that ever wasn't. Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned in 1503 to paint one long wall with a battle scene celebrating a famous Florentine victory. He was always trying new methods and materials and decided to mix wax into his pigments. Leonardo had finished painting part of the wall, but it wasn't drying fast enough, so he brought in braziers stoked with hot coals to try to hurry the process. As others watched in horror, the wax in the fresco melted under the intense heat and the colors ran down the walls to puddle on the floor. Michelangelo never even got past making the preparatory drawings for the fresco he was supposed to paint on the opposite wall -- Pope Julius II called him to Rome to paint the Sistine Chapel, and the master's sketches were destroyed by eager young artists who came to study them and took away scraps. Eventually, the bare walls were covered by Vasari and assistants from 1563 to 1565 with blatantly subservient frescoes exalting Cosimo I de' Medici and his dynasty.
Off the corner of the room (to the right as you enter) is the Studiolo di Francesco I, a claustrophobic study in which Cosimo's eldest son and heir performed his alchemy and science experiments and where baroque paintings hide secret cupboards. Against the wall of the Sala dei Cinquecento, opposite the door you enter, is Michelangelo's statue of Victory, carved from 1533 to 1534 for the Julius II tomb but later donated to the Medici. Its extreme torsion -- the way the body twists and spirals upward -- was to be a great influence on the Mannerist movement.
The first series of rooms on the second floor is the Quartiere degli Elementi, again frescoed by Vasari. The Terrazza di Saturno, in the corner, has a view over the Uffizi to the hills across the Arno. Crossing the balcony overlooking the Sala dei Cinquecento, you enter the Apartments of Eleonora di Toledo, decorated for Cosimo's Spanish wife. Her small private chapel is a masterpiece of mid-16th-century painting by Bronzino. Farther on, under the sculpted ceiling of the Sala dei Gigli, are Domenico Ghirlandaio's fresco of St. Zenobius Enthroned with ancient Roman heroes and Donatello's original Judith and Holofernes bronze (1455), one of his last works.
During the summer evening hours, the following sections, normally closed, are open: the Loeser Collections, with paintings by Pietro Lorenzetti and Bronzino and sculptures by Tino di Camaino and Jacopo Sansovino, and, perhaps more fun, the outdoor Balustrade running around the roof behind the crenellations -- it offers a unique panorama of the city and the piazza below.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Recommended 2010