The Old Palace and The Hall of the Five Hundred

The Palazzo Vecchio has had many names throughout its storied past, including the Palazzo dei Priori, the Palazzo della Signoria, the Palazzo Ducale, and the Palazzo di Piazza. Each of these names reflects the period of Florentine history with which it coincided, but it is its final and lasting name, the Palazzo Vecchio, that is the most revealing of all. It testifies to the winner of Florence’s internecine struggles: the Medici. Indeed, the palace’s surviving name, il Palazzo Vecchio (the “Old Palace”), is a nod towards the Medici’s use of the Palazzo as a familial residence and their ultimate move to the Palazzo Pitti, their “new palace.”

The Palazzo Vecchio began its life as the Palazzo dei Priori and served as the principal seat of government, and in fact remains to this day, Florence’s city hall. Construction began in 1298 on top of a 1st century AD Roman theatre, the ruins of which may be seen by visiting the bottom floor of the Museum. The building was built in celebration of the foundation of the Florentine Republic. To emphasize the Republic’s core values, distaste for nobility and a love of economy, the building was constructed with local stone without decoration.

Outside you can see Giambologna’s Rape of a Sabine Woman, the Medici Lions, and Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa. Perseus and Medusa was Cellini’s answer to Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes.

Perseus and Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini

Salone dei Cinquecento

The Palazzo is home to the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred), which was built in 1494, during the short lived Republic of Fra Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola led a popular uprising against the Medici, ousting them from both power and the city. Upon installing his new republican government, Savonarola increased the number of Florentines eligible to participate in the government to (purportedly) over 1,000 people. Thus, a large hall was needed to accommodate at least five hundred Florentines at a time.

Fra Savonarola was eventually condemned to death, paving the way for the return of the Medici, but prior to their return, gonfaloniere Pier Soderini commissioned Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci to decorate the hall. Michelangelo painted the Battle of Cascina; Leonardo, the Battle of Anghiari, but neither mural was ever completed. Michelangelo was recalled to Rome by the Pope, and Leonardo, who rarely finished his commissions, abandoned the project.

The Battle of Anghiari centered on the fight for the Milanese standard during the climax of the battle. Leonardo’s focus on the standard may have been inspired by his patron, Gonfaloniere (“Standard-bearer”) Pier Soderini, but the gruesome action was influenced by his recent employment as a military engineer under the vicious warrior Cesare Borgia. The cartoons captured frenzied movement as only those of Leonardo could. Displaying emotion through movement was one of Leonardo’s specialties. In fact, as one of the pioneers of human dissection for art’s sake, Leonardo’s knowledge of anatomy enabled him to correctly depict the facial muscles that corresponded to his figures’ facial expressions. Moreover, his preparatory sketches and horse dissections for a planned (but never executed) equestrian statue for Duke Ludovico Sforza enabled him to render the horses’ movements perfectly.

They are among the greatest evocations of movement in the entire history of art. … Movement, something that had obsessed Leonardo ever since he had tried to catch the blur of a cat’s squirming limbs in an early drawing, is here clarified as a theme with blood-red intensity.

Jonathan Jones, British art critic

In his book Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson posits that Leonardo abandoned his work on the Battle of Anghiari because “[h]e was a perfectionist faced with challenges other artists would have disregarded but that he could not.” Indeed, Leonardo struggled with achieving the proper visual perspective of a large mural that would be seen from multiple vantage points, causing figures to look distorted when observed at those vantage points. According to Isaacson, “Other painters would not have noticed, or would have chosen to ignore, the way figures in a large painting could seem disproportionate when viewed from different parts of the room. But Leonardo was obsessed by the optics, mathematics, and art of perspective.” Regardless of the reason the Battle of Anghiari was never finished, Leonardo’s cartoons for the project became a point of reference for future artists. Raphael traveled to Florence for the sole purpose of seeing the work, inspiring his move towards mannerism. Indeed, Benvenuto Cellini wrote of the cartoons, “As long as they remain intact, they were the school of the world.”

After Fra Savonarola was burned at the stake and the Medici regained power, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici made the Vecchio his residence in the 1540s, moving his court from the Palazzo de’ Medici (now Palazzo de’ Medici-Riccardi) and renovating the Hall to exude princely power, demonstrating his absolute rule. The palace was renamed the Palazzo Ducale, cementing the Medici as the ruling party in the once republican Florence.

Cosimo commissioned Baccio Bandinelli, Giuliano di Baccio d’Agnolo, and Giovanni Caccini to design a public audience chamber (known as the Udienza), where the Duke would receive foreign dignitaries, guests, and messengers. The result was a design reminiscent of imperial Roman triumphal arches; a connection that I am sure was not lost on those visiting the ducal receiving chambers.

The figure in the middle arch is Pope Leo X, the first Medici (but not the last) to sit on the papal throne. To the left of Pope Leo is Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Duke Cosimo’s father (as well as a famous condottiere) while to the right is Duke Alessandro de’Medici, the first Duke of Florence. Above each Medici are the devices associated with that particular individual. For instance, above Giovanni dalle Bande Nere is a winged firebolt, symbolizing his physical prowess and speed while above Duke Alessandro is a rhinoceros, symbolizing power.

The entire itinerary was meant to impress upon the viewers the magnificence (real or imagined) of the Medici House and reaffirm its claim to be within the upper echelons of royalty.

Meanwhile, the ceiling was commissioned to Giorgio Vasari, Duke Medici’s court painter. Vasari raised the ceiling by around seven meters and decorated it in the Venetian style with frescoes that celebrated Cosimo I’s pivotal role in the creation of the Duchy of Tuscany.

Every day I draw for the Great Hall and façades so that it will reflect all your mastery, and this has redoubled my creativity.

Giorgio Vasari to Cosimo I

For a comparison to the “Venetian Style” that Vasari was mimicking, I’ve included images below of two different ceilings located in the Doge’s palace (Venice).

As you can see, the Venetian style is epitomized by golden borders offsetting each episode.

On the left of the Palazzo Vecchio ceiling are scenes from the Florentine-Pisan war, in the center are scenes from Florence’s domestic history, and on the right are scenes from the Florentine-Sienese war during which the Duke lead the Florentines to victory. Side by side the frescoes demonstrate the stark contrast between the disastrous war led by the republican government against Pisa and the successful one fought under absolute power. The Pisan war was won at great cost to the Republic, lasting over fourteen years while the Sienese war lasted a mere fourteen months.

The central tondi, however, is the Apotheosis of Cosimo I, which depicts Cosimo I in all his glory. Here, Cosimo is wearing a purple mantle (the color of royalty), accompanied by the ducal crown, the cross of the Order of St. Stephen (a chivalric order he himself founded in 1541 and dedicated to Pope Stephen I), and the Golden Fleece, which had been awarded to him by Emperor Charles V in 1545. Chivalric orders were princely trappings that helped promote the royal families across Europe. He is surrounded by the coasts of arms of the city and the insignias of the Florentine Guilds.

Apotheosis of Cosimo I, Vasari and Giovanni Battista Naldini

One of the several middle panels is known as The Foundation of Florentia. This panel reflects the traditional foundation story that haunted Florentines for centuries.

The Foundation of Florentia, Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Stradano

Here, Mark Antony, one of the members of the Second Roman Triumvirate presents the Florentines with a banner of a white lily embroidered on red. It is what is in the background, however, that alludes to Florentine foundation anxiety: the Roman temple to Mars, the god of war.

Indeed, Florentines blamed most of their strife on this single moment in their history. When Caesar’s army founded Florentina, so the story goes, they also built a temple to Mars. The early Florentines, however, betrayed Mars when they reconsecrated his temple to St. John the Baptist, a saint known for his pacifism. (According to archeological evidence, the oldest parts of San Giovanni are from the 4th century AD and were indeed built on Roman foundations). Though at odds with our modern sense of religion, even the most pious of Florentines believed that the God of War inflicted social upheaval on the city because of their abandonment of him.

This belief intensified when, at the foot of the displaced Mars statute, one of the most famous murders in Florentine history occurred, the murder of a Messer Buondelmonte. Allegedly, it was this murder that set off the start of the Guelf and Ghibelline conflicts.

And so it is clear that this life-destroying enmity comes from no other source than the sin of the pagan Florentines themselves who in ancient times worshiped the idol of Mars, since at his feet they committed the murder from which so much evil followed.

Giovanni Villani

Also interesting about this panel is Mark Antony’s posture. Notice the similarities to the Belvedere Torso? Click here to read more about the famous Torso and its influence on generations of art.

The frescoes on the walls of the hall also reflect the juxtaposition of the Sienese and Pisan wars. Recording the “disastrous” war with Pisa are the following frescoes:

Maximilian of Austria Attempts the Siege of Leghorn, Vasari and Naldini, depicts the moment that Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian comes to the aid of the Pisans, but, alas, to no avail. The Emperor’s attack on the Florentines failed, in part due to a terrible storm that shipwrecked the imperial fleet, forcing the imperial forces to withdraw. The Storming of the Fortress of Stampace, pictured below, depicts the Florentine capture of Stampace.

The Storming of the Fortress of Stampace, Vasari, Naldini, and Jacopo Zucchi

As explained above, the frescoes on the other wall are episodes from the Sienese War. In 1552, Siena rebelled against its overlord, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, prompting Charles to request Florentine intervention whereas the Sienese turned to the French for help claiming their independence. It wasn’t until January of 1554, however, that Florentine troops marched in support of the Emperor. The frescoes depict the most famous of the battles.

The first, Capture of the Fort near the Porta Camollia, depicts the January 1554 attack on Siena led by Giangiacomo Medici, Marquis of Marignano (Giangiacomo was not a relation of the Medici family, but a member of a Milanese family of the same name). On January 26th, the ducal army attacked the Sienese fort located near Porta Camollia and surprised the guards while they slept. The Florentines marked this event as the beginning of the war.

Capture of the Fort near the Porta Camollia, Vasari

The second, The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, depicts the August 2, 1554 battle in Val di Chiana, which was decisive for the Florentines’ victory the next spring. Here, Florentine exiles, who had fled the Medici rule and sided with Siena, Frenchmen, and Grisons attacked the Florentine army, but the Florentines routed the Sienese troops.

The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, Vasari and Zucchi

The last, The Capture of Porto Ercole, Vasari, depicts the capture of Porto Ercole, Siena’s last holdout. Those who had been loyal to Siena fled to Porto Ercole after Siena had fallen on April 21, 1555. After a twenty-four day siege, however, the final bastion of Sienese independence fell.

Also found in the Hall is Vincenzo de’ Rossi’s series of statues known as The Labors of Hercules. Significantly, Cosimo I identified with the ancient Greek hero, going so far as to include Hercules’ likeness on his official seal. It was no coincidence that Hercules was also the symbol of Florence and had been on Florence’s official seal (the seal was engraved with the words, “Herculea clava domat florencia prava,” roughly translated as Hercules’ club smashes Florentine crookedness).

Moreover, take another look at the Foundation of Florence panel, discussed infra. Hercules makes an appearance! He is a little blurry, but there he is, identifiable via the club slung over his shoulder.

Thus, Cosimo was appropriating republican propaganda, “becoming the state” (perhaps beating Louis XIV to the concept of l’état, c’est moi). Ironically, Florentines idealized Hercules as the hero that destroyed tyrants.

It was Cosimo’s objective to become the “new” Hercules. In fact, Cosimo’s dominions over the 12 Etruscan cities were likened to Hercules’ 12 labors. I should mention here that some mythologies have Hercules performing more than the famous 12. Twelve, however, seems an opportune number as the 12 labors may be illusions to the 12 months, linking Hercules with time itself.

Time was a recurrent theme in Medici propaganda. Lorenzo il Magnifico’s motto was “Le tems revient” (“The time returns”), a play on his father Piero’s motto “Semper” (“Always).

The rest of the palazzo contains subtle and some not-so-subtle allusions to Hercules (indeed, here is an entire room named for him) in a further effort to link the Medici with greatness. Alas, I think I have probably spent way too long in this post talking about all the neat artwork to see in a single room that the next rooms will have to be saved for later. Thanks as always.

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