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WALKS IN FLORENCE: CHURCHES, STREETS AND PALACES

SUSAN AND JOANNA HORNER



 
 

Chapter XIII:  Piazza della Signoria

The Piazza della Signoria has returned to its original designation, after an interval of two hundred years, during which period it was known as the Piazza del Gran Duca.  It formerly occupied a far smaller area, as the central space has been enlarged by the demolition of houses which belonged to some powerful families, and several churches which stood here have likewise been destroyed.  The principal of these was San Piero Scheraggio, nearest the Palazzo della Signoria, in which the ceremony for the election of the priors of the Republic took place every two months.  The Priors were all chosen from among the citizens, to the exclusion of the nobles, a measure which was carried in 1282 by the Consuls of the Guild of Foreign Wool.  The number of Priors was afterwards increased from two to six, to represent each of the six Sestieri, or districts into which the city was divided; and when this change took place, the ceremony of election was transferred to the church of San Piero Maggiore.  In times of public disturbance, the Gonfaloniers and Priors frequently sought refuge within the sacred precincts of San Piero Scheraggio.  The word scheraggio means drain, and the church took its name from the drain in which all the rain-water which fell in the city was collected and carried to the Arno.  The chief entrance to San Piero Scheraggio was near the present entrance to the Uffizi, leading to the Gallery of Paintings; and within the church was preserved the Fiesolan Caroccio, which was captured in 1010:  the wheel, the emblem of the district of San Piero Scheraggio, was probably adopted from this circumstance, as it appears to have been a favourite emblem of the Etruscans.  The marble pulpit, adorned with reliefs, was conveyed to this church from Fiesole; the Caroccio perished in the course of time, but the pulpit was transported in 1782 to the little church of San Leonardo in Arcetri, outside the Porta San Giorgio, where it still remains.  San Piero Scheraggio was one of the largest churches in the city; it was deprived of one aisle in 1561, when the Uffizi was built, but was not completely demolished until 1743.

The most beautiful object in the piazza is the Loggia di Orcagna, or, as it is more usually called, the Loggia de' Lanzi, from a guard of Swiss lancers, who were placed here when in attendance on the Grand-Duke Cosimo I.  This loggia is formed of wide and lofty arches, supporting a platform or terrace, and was intended to afford shelter from the weather for the citizens, when engaged in the discussion of public affairs.  The building was commenced in 1376, and though it has generally been attributed to Andrea Orcagna, his death about the year 1368 renders this impossible; and documents exist which prove that the loggia was constructed by Simone di Françesco Talenti and Benci di Cione.  Benci di Cione was a native of Como, and therefore considered a foreigner in Tuscany.  He came to Florence when young, to practise his trade as a builder, but he soon became one of the most distinguished architects and engineers of his time. He was frequently chosen one of the judges when there was a competition of artists for the façade of the Cathedral, and he was employed by the Commonwealth in war to direct sieging operations.  Though he rose to be a Prior of the Republic, he did not escape the attacks of jealous rivals, and it appears in the State archives that an accusation was preferred against him by some unknown person, who, through the Tamburo of the Esecutore,120 declared Benci di Cione ineligible for office, because a foreigner and married to a lady of the Ghibelline family of Davanzati.  The architectural ornaments round the lunettes of Or San Michele, and the elegant façade of the Church of San Carlo, sufficiently attest the genius of Simone Talenti.  The grand vaulting of the Loggia de' Lanzi is by Antonio de' Pucci, an ancestor of the well-known Florentine family.

The loggia is described by Mr. John Bell as "a magnificent colonnade or open gallery, consisting of only three pillars and three arches - large, spacious, and noble.  Five steps run along the front, on which the platform is raised.  Columns in flat clustered pilasters rise from a short and highly ornamented plinth; one vast massive shaft of thirty-five feet in height, terminating in a rich and beautiful capital of the Corinthian order.  The shaft proceeds from a curved base, embellished by the favourite Marzocco.  Grace and lightness of effect are produced from the capitals supporting a frieze and projecting cornice of elegant proportions, which rises with an open parapet above the arches, and gives a fine square to the whole building."


Below the parapet are the arms of the Republic, as well as allegorical representations of the four cardinal and three theological virtues, emblematic of what ought to be the foundation of all good government.  When these statuettes were first placed in their respective niches, they were set in a frame of blue stained glass, the work of Leonardo, a Vallombrosian monk, and they were painted and touched up with gold by Lorenzo de' Bicci to heighten the effect.

The ceiling of the loggia is composed of semicircles, according to the purest Grecian style of architecture, differing from the usual practice in the fourteenth century, when the circles were divided in four equal parts.  The whole construction is a noble combination of Greek and Gothic, and is remarkable for its perfect harmony of proportion.  The wide span of the arch was so much admired in the time of the Grand-Duke Cosimo I., that Michael Angelo proposed that the colonnade should be continued all round the piazza - a scheme which was only laid aside from the vast expense required for its fulfilment.  A stone wainscoting which lines the back and one end of the loggia, has a most elegant border of acanthus leaves and lions' heads.  There were formerly two entrances, one in front, by steps from the piazza, the other by a staircase at the end facing the Palazzo della Signoria, which was specially reserved for the priors.  There were no statues in the loggia before the middle of the sixteenth century; and even after the three groups by Donatello, Benvenuto Cellini, and Giovan Bologna had been placed beneath the arches, the space within was left free, allowing the breadth of its proportions to be seen.  The Grand-Duke Pietro Leopoldo first began to fill up the interior with sculpture.

The bronze group of Judith and Holofernes was cast by Donatello for Cosimo Vecchio, and retained in the private Palace of the Medici until 1494.  On the expulsion of the Medici from Florence, the statue was placed in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, and was regarded as symbolical of liberty; the strong woman representing the Republic destroying tyranny, personified by Holofernes.  The words inscribed beneath are, Exemplum salutis publica cives posuere; beside them is the sculptor's name, Donato fec.

Some time later, when the Republic was placed under the protection of the Saviour, Judith and Holofernes were removed within the cortile, and Michael Angelo's statue of David - typical of Jesus Christ, "the Son of David" - was placed before the door of the Palace.  In 1560 Donatello's group was conveyed to its present position, at the head of what had been the prior's entrance to the loggia.  It is not one of the sculptor's best productions; Judith is diminutive, and Holofernes, seated at her feet, appears quietly to submit to the operation of sawing off his head.  The group is deficient in grandeur of design and execution.

The Perseus of Benvenuto Cellini, in bronze, is one of the most remarkable works ever executed by this artist, to which he was stimulated by the taunts of Bandinelli and other artists in the service of the Grand-Duke Cosimo I.  Perseus stands triumphantly over the body of Medusa; a sword in his left hand, and the Gorgon's head in his right.  The attitude of the young hero is animated and free, and the whole is so beautiful in proportion that, although the figure is far above life-size, it does not at first sight appear to exceed the ordinary size of a man.  The body and head of the Medusa are represented streaming with blood, a clumsy attempt to copy what is impossible in sculpture, and revolting from exaggeration.  The composition is confused, and the mangled body lies doubled up on a velvet cushion, instead of resting on the naked rock.121 The pedestal, which is likewise by Benvenuto Cellini, has three extremely beautiful gas-reliefs, representing scenes from the Greek legend.  In the autobiography of the artist, there is a most graphic and amusing account of the difficulties he had to overcome, when casting this beautiful group.  It was in 1545, shortly after Benvenuto's return from Paris, that, by the desire of the Grand-Duke Cosimo I., he made a design in wax of Perseus, which met with so much approbation that he immediately received a commission to execute the statue.  Benvenuto had made his first experiment in bronze casting in a colossal bust of the grand-duke.122 In the midst of this anxious operation he was seized with fever, and, when confined to his room, he was suddenly informed that Perseus was irrevocably spoiled.  Driven frantic by the news, he leaped from his bed, and, dealing blows right and left on all who offered consolation, he rushed to his workshop, and gave orders immediately to feed the furnace with more wood.  Finding the metal itself nearly exhausted, he added all his own pewter dishes and plates, - about two hundred; and when the bronze began to flow again, returning to his room, he threw himself on his knees to thank God for this mercy, and then slept tranquilly.  His fever was completely cured by the violent exertion he had made, and as soon as day dawned again he devoured a fat capon, supplied by the thoughtful care of his faithful housekeeper, Mona Fiore.123

A few years later, about 1585, the French artist, Giovan Bologna, executed his celebrated group of the Rape of the Sabines.  Like Benvenuto, he too was roused to greater exertions by the observations of envious artists, who declared him incapable of a work of these dimensions.  He proposed to represent the stages of life - youth, manhood, and old age; and, as a type of vigorous youth, he selected a young man of the Ginori family, who was remarkable for his height and perfect proportions.  Happening to meet him one day in the Church of San Giovannino, near the Palazzo Riccardi (then Medici), Giovanni surveyed him so earnestly that Ginori inquired if he wished to speak with him.  The artist apologised for his indiscreet behaviour, but ingenuously confessed his desire that he should stand as a model for one of the figures in his group.  The young man good-humouredly consented; and the Rape of the Sabines was produced, which, though the latest, was perhaps the most successful piece of sculpture ever executed by Giovan Bologna.  Mr. John Bell again remarks:  "We behold a bold and spirited youth forcibly tearing a beautiful female from the arms of her father, a feeble old man; he is beaten down, and kneels on the ground clinging to the ravisher, and endeavouring to rise.  The youth, whose figure is formed in fine proportions, full of strength and manly vigour, not only lifts the young female from the ground, but holds her high in his arms.  The whole is finely told, and constitutes a group of merit, especially when beheld in a front view.  The figures are, however, not well balanced, they rise perpendicularly, one above the other."  The bronze pedestal, also executed by Giovan Bologna, is richly adorned with bas-reliefs representing the same subject.  Towards the middle of the last century, Pietro Leopoldo placed under the loggia six female statues, which represent the Priestesses of Romulus, and which he brought from the Medici Villa at Rome.  He also placed the two lions at the entrance from the piazza; one is antique, the other an imitation by Flaminius Vacca.  Hercules slaying the Centaur Nessus is by Giovan Bologna, and was brought from the Canto de' Carnesecchi.124  It is a spirited group, carved out of a solid block of marble.  Facing the central arch is the group of the dying Patroclus, supported by Ajax, which was brought hither from the southern end of the Ponte Vecchio.  There is so excellent a copy of this group in the cortile of the Palazzo dei Pitti, that it is uncertain which is the original.  The Rape of Polyxena, by the living sculptor Fedi, was added in 1866.  This diagonal, rather than spiral, group exhibits considerable power in overcoming the difficulty of the subject for composition, and has spirit and feeling.  It is best seen from the piazza.  The loggia is unfortunately disfigured by thermometric and barometric disks, and by several inscriptions.  One of these, in Latin, by Dr. Giovanni Lami, refers to the change in the year, which was begun on the 1st January instead of on the 25th of March, as had been customary until 1749, when the alteration was enforced by a decree of the Grand-Duke Francis II. of Lorraine.  The other inscriptions are in Italian, and were placed here in 1865, 1866, and 1871, to record the annexation of Milan Venice and Rome to the kingdom of Italy.  Above each is their emblem.

The Piazza della Signoria has lost a distinctive feature since Florence became the capital of Italy.  The broad, rugged and picturesque projecting roof, known as the Tetto de' Pisani, which many a traveller will recollect on the western side of the Piazza, sheltering the former post-office, is no more.  The whole building, including the ancient Tower of the Infangati,125 has been demolished, and a modern palazzo, in the old rustic style of architecture, has taken its place.  This well-known roof was constructed in 1364 by prisoners from Pisa, who were brought to Florence after a defeat, and exposed to various insults and contumely.  On this spot also formerly stood the Church of Santa Cecilia, or, as it was specially designated, "The Merchant's Church," because here the silk and wool merchants congregated from their booths - botteghe - in the Por San Maria or the Via Calimala, to discuss their affairs.  Santa Cecilia was one of the oldest sacred buildings in Florence; it was destroyed by Neri Abate's fire in 1304, and was a second time demolished in 1367, when it was rebuilt some feet farther back, to allow greater space in the piazza.  In 1783 it was finally suppressed.  The street leading from the piazza to the Por San Maria is called the Vacchereccia, from the family Vacca, or from being opposite the Tower of the Palazzo della Signoria, whose bell was popularly known as the vacca, or cow.  In a small house of this street lived Tomaso Finiguerra, the inventor of niello, which led to copper and steel engraving, 1420-1480.  The brothers Pollaioli had also their workshops in the Vacchereccia.

On the opposite side of the piazza, adjoining the north-western angle of the Palazzo Vecchio, stands the Fountain of Neptune, surrounded by Tritons, the work of Bartolommeo Ammanati.  Born in 1511, at Settignano near Florence, Ammanati was a pupil of Baccio Bandinelli, but never rose above mediocrity.  Bandinelli himself was so desirous to obtain the commission for making this fountain that he is said to have hastened to Carrara before the block of marble could be removed from the quarry, and to have cut it to the exact size to suit his design, hoping that the grand-duke would thus be compelled to entrust the work to him.  On his return to Florence he at once began to model the group, but before he could finish it he was taken ill and died.  Five artists then entered into competition - Cellini, Ammanati, Giovan Bologna, Vincenzio Danti, and Il Moschino of Pisa.  The best design was acknowledged to have been that of Giovan Bologna, who was probably at that time residing in the house of his patron Vecchietti; but it was set aside on the plea that so important a work could not be confided to the youthful artist.  Cellini's design was considered second, but he offended the grand-duke by admonishing him, in the presence of an ambassador from Lucca, not to disgrace himself by his choice of an inferior artist.  Ammanati's design was the third chosen, and he therefore received the commission, which he executed in 1571.  A clumsy colossal figure of Neptune stands on a car drawn by sea-horses.  The artist has mistaken feebleness for ease, and the size of the god is out of all proportion with the rest of the fountain.  Below him are male and female figures, and other ornaments in bronze.126
 

A few paces from this fountain stands the bronze equestrian statue of Cosimo I. by Giovan Bologna.  It rests on a marble pedestal, decorated with bas-reliefs, which commemorate triumphs in the life of this base and cruel tyrant.  The statue is fine; Cosimo has the air of a conqueror, and he sits with graceful ease upon his charger.  The animal is well executed, and admirably modelled.  When first completed, Giovanni ordered the scaffold by which it had been protected to be lowered to within seven or eight feet of the ground, and, concealed behind it, he listened to the observations of the crowd.  A peasant, who had been contemplating the statue a long time, remarked that the horse was well made, but wanted the callosities within the fore legs:  on hearing this, Giovanni caused the statue to be re-inclosed, and, by his miraculous skill and ingenuity in the art of casting metal, repaired the defect.

The building on the northern side of the piazza, distinguished by its very beautiful façade, is the Palazzo Uguccione, and was build in 1550.  Its design is variously attributed to Raffaelle d' Urbino, Andrea Palladio, and Michael Angelo.  Its resemblance in some respects to the Palazzo Pandolfini, in the Via San Gallo, which is an undoubted work of Raffaelle, makes it probable that this Palazzo is by the same master.  Very near this spot was the Canto della Farina, mentioned in Florentine history; and here also stood the Church of San Romolo, every vestige of which has long since disappeared. At the eastern angle of the piazza is a building which still bears traces of the arms of the major and minor arts, sculptured on a series of shields in a horizontal line.  This was formerly the Residence of the Mercanzia, a corporation which was elected by the major arts, and was composed of six foreign doctors of law, and of six Florentine citizens belonging to one or other of the Florentine guilds.  Appeals were made to this tribunal from every part of Europe.  Bankruptcies were here decided, as well as all maritime questions.  Inscribed above a former entrance, now a window, are the words:  Omnis Sapentia a Domino Deo Est - "All wisdom proceeds from the Lord God."  This is surmounted by a square tablet, on which is carved a figure of Christ in bas-relief, his hand raised in the act of benediction, and lilies in the background.  The tablet rests on a diamond, and on the projecting angles is a crown, with the lily of Florence on either side.
The Piazza della Signoria has been the scene of many civic festivities; the most brilliant of which was the Festa dei Omaggi di San Giovanni, instituted in 1300, and celebrated every St. John's Day, 24th of June, until the year 1808.  In accordance with a custom probably imitated from feudal rites north of the Alps, the representatives of various conquered towns dependent on Florence, such as Pisa, Arezzo, Pistoia, Volterra, Cortona, &c, brought tribute and paid homage - omaggi - to the Signory of the Commonwealth.  This festival is described with great animation by the old chroniclers, who relate how each deputation carried a banner, which was set in one of the rings outside the palace.  An amusing account is also given of the crowds who flocked into the piazza on this occasion.

A very different ceremony was performed here also, characteristic of Florentine customs, namely, the oblazione.  Prisoners of war and of state, even those who had committed petty crimes, were released from their punishments three times every year, at Easter, on St. John's Day, and at Christmas, on condition of walking in procession from their prisons to the Baptistery, and passing before the prior's residence, the Palazzo Vecchio, with uncovered faces, and wearing white paper mitres with their names inscribed upon them.  It is recorded that Dante was advised by a friend to seek exemption from his own punishment by submitting to this humiliating ceremony, a proposal which he indignantly rejected.


 

_______________

Chronology
 

Ammanati, Bartolommeo, Fountain of Neptune 1574
Bologna, Giovan, Equestrian Statue of Cosimo I 1594
Bologna, Giovan, Rape of the Sabines 1585
Cecilia, church of St., founded 10th century, suppressed 1783
Cellini, Benvenuto, group of Perseus 1545
Donatello, Judith and Holofernes 1495
Donatello, Judith and Holofernes placed under Loggia 1560
Fedi, Rape of Polyxena 1866
Loggia de' Lanzi begun by Benci di Cione and Talenti 1376
Piero Scheraggio, St., founded 10th century, suppressed 1743
Romolo, Church of San, founded 10th century, suppressed 1769
Tetto de' Pisani constructed 1364
Uffizi built 1561
Uguccione Palace built after a design by Raffaelle 1550
 
 

Notes
 

120 "Tamburo of the Esecutore," a box to receive public accusations.
121 See Mr. John Bell's "Notes on Italy."
122 This bust is now preserved in the Museum of the Bargello.
123 See "Vita di Benvenuto," 8vo., vol. i. p. 279.
124 The corner of the Via de' Banchi and the Via Panzani.
125 The Infangati, a Ghibelline family allied with the Uberti, whose houses stood on the opposite of the piazza.  The reader will recollect that Mangia degli Infangati suffered death with one of the Uberti in the garden of San Michele.
126 See Mr. John Bell's "Notes on Italy."
 

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Chapter XIV:  The Uffizi - National Library
 

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