Apartments of the Priors

The Apartments of the Priors are located in one of the oldest parts of the Palazzo Vecchio. They were built to house the members of government, which, at the time, consisted of eight elected officials, known as priors, two for each of the four quarters of Florence, the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia (the “Standard Bearer of Justice”), who acted as the figurehead of the state, two advisory bodies, the Twelve Wise Men and the Sedici Gonfalonieri, and two legislative bodies, the Consiglio del Popolo and the Consiglio del Commune. To ensure no one person dominated the government (which apparently failed to stop the Medici), each prior only served for a two month period. During their two month tenure, the law mandated that they live within the Palazzo; indeed, within these rooms. Their private quarters were renovated by Duke Cosimo I to become private chambers for his wife, Eleonora of Toledo, whereas the rooms now known as the Apartments of the Priors kept their more or less public character.

Sala dell’Udienza

Coffered Ceiling, Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano

During the Republic, the Priors used this room to deliberate on public matters. It was renovated from 1470 to 1481 by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano, who are responsible for the coffered ceiling. The Maiano brothers’ wall frescoes, however, were replaced by Duke Cosimo I during the 16th century. Indeed, the Duke used this room to hold audiences while he was waiting for the princely Salone Cinquecento to be finished.

In 1543, Duke Cosimo commissioned Francesco Salviati to re-fresco the walls. Salviati was born Francesco de’Rossi, but, as was common among Renaissance artists, adopted the name of his patron, Cardinal Salviati. Typical of mannerist painters, Salviati’s work is informed by Michelangelo’s muscular body types packed together in awkward postures, giving the effect of frenzied and frantic movement.

Salviati created a fresco cycle depicting the story of Marcus Furius Camillus, a Roman General who purportedly freed Romans from the Gaulish invaders in 390 BC and defeated a rival Etruscan tribe centered in the town of Veii. Camillus became known as the “Second Founder of Rome.” The message to those lucky enough to be granted an audience with Cosimo was clear: Cosimo, like Camillus, defeated his people’s enemies. Also like Camillus, the Medici family had been exiled from their home city multiple times by inept governments and called back just as many times to save il popolo (the people). Significantly, Camillus was a republican hero, but the scenes depicted on the walls focus on his imperialist expansion of Rome, an expansion completed for the good of the Roman Republic.

On the east wall (the right wall on the picture below), Salviati painted The Triumph of Camillus, which depicts Camillus in a chariot driven by four white horses, triumphantly processing back to Rome after defeating the Veii and destroying their city.

On the north wall, Salviati painted different representations of time, including those used by the Egyptians, to link Cosimo’s rule to the “great” civilizations of the past and visually legitimize his reign by placing it in the context history.

On the last wall, which is opposite to the chapel and faces towards the north, in a corner on the right hand, is the Sun figured in the manner wherein the Egyptians represent him, and in the other corner the Moon in the same manner. In the middle is Favour, represented as a nude young man on the summit of the wheel, with Envy, Hatred, and Malice on one side, and on the other side Honours, Pleasure, and all the other things described by Lucian. Above the windows is a frieze all full of most beautiful nudes, as large as life, and in various forms and attitudes; with some scenes likewise from the life of Camillus.

Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing, 2018.
The Weighing of the Gold of the Gauls and the Intervention of Camillus, Francesco Salviati

In The Weighing of the Gold, Salviati depicts the moment that Brennus, King of the Gauls, is attacked by Camillus.

The Romans had agreed to pay the Gauls a thousand pounds of gold as ransom for Rome, but, according to legend, Brennus placed his sword on the scale, indicating that more was due. At that moment, Camillus, recently returned from exile, attacked and defeated the Gaulish army. According to the ancient Roman historians Livy and Plutarch, after the Gauls sacked Rome, the Roman Senate had no choice but to recall Camillus from exile and grant him absolute power so he could defeat the Gauls. So too, the message goes, did the Florentine Priors have no choice but to recall the Medici from exile and grant Cosimo I absolute power.

The figure with two heads (on the left) is time. She is two-faced to look both towards the past and towards the future. She holds Opportunity by her forelock, while Cosimo I’s zodiac sign, the Capricorn, is located above. The allusion is clear: Cosimo I, like Time, grabs opportunity and leads her where he will. Indeed, as mentioned above, the room is full of allusions to time and Cosimo’s place within it.

Sala dei Gigli

Interestingly, this room retained its decoration from the days of the Republic. Each wall was supposed to be dedicated to men of great civic virtue (at least in the eyes of the ruling Florentines), in other words, a cycle of “uomini famosi” (“famous men”). This genre of decoration was typical of humanist tradition. Each individual depicted was to inspire the viewers (usually the ruling elite) to a higher standard of behavior and governance. The idea was that with the uomini famosi looking upon the officials, the officials would be informed by the illustrious examples of leadership, patriotism, etc. In the end, only one of the wall was completed; the other walls were decorated with the Angevin Fleur de Lys, giving the room its name, Sala dei Gigli (Hall of the Lilies).

 Domenico Bigordi, known as Ghirlandaio

The wall that was finished depicts six Romans underneath typical Roman triumphal arches . They are arranged chronologically, from left to right: Lucius Junius Brutus, Gaius Mucius Scaevola, Marcus Furius Camillus, Publius Decius Mus, Scipio Africanus and Cicero. Although all republicans, these Roman heroes were chosen for their patriotism, not their republican values, as evidenced by their accompanying inscriptions. Indeed, Lucius Junius Brutus, the first consul of Rome (not the Brutus famous for his role in killing Julius Caesar), is celebrated for defending his country (“BRVTVS EGO ASSERTOR PATRIAE REGVMQ FVGATOR”). Lucius Junius Brutus purportedly drove out the Tarquin king, his uncle, and founded the Roman Republic after the king raped a noblewoman named Lucretia. Although the inscription beneath him does mention the flight of the Tarquin king (“REGVMQ FVGATOR”), it is only incidental (and comes after) to his defense of his country. No mention is made of his pivotal role in founding the Republic.

Additionally, Cicero, who was a martyr for the Roman Republic, is extolled for his quashing of the Catiline conspiracy (“SVM CICERO TREMVIT NOSTRAS CATILINA SECVRES”), a clear comparison to the recent Pazzi Conspiracy, which occurred in 1478, a mere four years prior to the decoration of this room. Perhaps the most telling that this Hall did not celebrate Republican virtues is Ghirlandaio’s inclusion of the heads of Roman Emperors in the tondi on the spandrels.

This itinerary can be explained by the fact that Lorenzo de’Medici was the de facto ruler of Florence and organized the redecoration of the Hall himself. In fact, during the redecoration of this room, Lorenzo was busy tightening his grip on the Florentine government via “reforms,” including the creation of an executive committee known as the Council of Seventy, which was authorized to bypass the elected priors. The Council was also responsible for selecting from its own ranks members to comprise two additional committees: the Eight, which oversaw foreign policy, and the Twelve, which oversaw domestic affairs (this committee is separate and apart from the Council of the Twelve Wise Men mentioned above). Unsurprisingly, Lorenzo sat on both committees. Moreover, the Council of Seventy chose those individuals eligible to run for election as any public officials. Thus, the frescoes are less concerned with republican ideals and more interested in promoting patriotism.

In addition to the cycle of uomini famosi, the fresco contains allusions to the city of Florence itself. On either side of the central arch are illusions to the Marzocco, the heraldic lion of Florence, each holding a banner, the one on the left holding aloft the red cross of the popolo while the one on the right (partially obscured by the doorway) is holding the banner of the Florentine lily.

San Zanobi (St. Zenobius), patron saint of Florence, is depicted underneath the central arch. Allegedly, St. Zenobius saved Florence from the Ostrogoths in AD 405 when he was bishop of Florence. St. Zenobius is most famous for his uncanny ability to bring people back from the dead. Here, he is flanked by his deacons, St. Eugene and St. Crescentius.

In the background, Ghirlandaio anachronistically included the Dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore (commonly known as il Duomo), which wasn’t constructed until the 15th century (well after St. Zenobius’ lifetime).

St. Zenobius also had connections to the Medici family. First, Cosimo il Vecchio played a major role in translating St. Zenobius’ remains to their final resting place in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore during the Council of Florence (a church meeting that was intended to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic churches). Secondly, the three saints’ likenesses were modeled on depictions of them located in the north sacrasity of the Cathedral, the sacrasity to which Lorenzo was forced to flee for his life during the ill fated Pazzi conspiracy. Such an association reinforced Lorenzo’s legitimacy as divinely supported.

Chapel of the Priors

Located between the Sala dell’Udienza and Eleonora’s apartments, the Chapel of the Priors was commissioned by Gonfaloniere Piero Soderini to Baccio d’Agnolo and Ridolfo Ghirlandaio. The Chapel served as a place for the Priors to convene and pray prior to attending public debates.

The Madonna with Saints John and Elizabeth (Fra Mariano da Pescia)

The Chapel contains thirty-two latin inscriptions taken from Biblical, Classical, and early Christian texts that extol the virtues of good government as a message to the city leaders to practice good government.

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; Da Vinci, the Battle of Anghiari, but neither mural was ever completed. Michelangelo was recalled to Rome by the Pope, and Da Vinci, who rarely finished his work, abandoned the project. Although the Battle of Anghiari was never finished, Da Vinici’s cartoons for the project became a point of reference for future artists. 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.

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.