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Originally known as the Palazzo della Signoria, the building is the result of at least three successive building stages between the 13th and 16th centuries. The image that we see, facing into the Piazza della Signoria, was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1298 and much of it was completed by 1302. Originally intended for the seat of the Republican government, it was later to host the Gonfalonier of Justice and the Priors of the Arts (it was in fact at first called Palazzo dei Priori - the "priors" were administrators in charge).

The Palazzo Vecchio's exclusive role as the political representative of the city gradually lost importance from 1565 for three centuries, being partly replaced by other constructions. It did return to its original function, essentially that of Town Hall, as the seat of the City Council in 1872.

Architecturally, the building looks like a fortress. Internal political dissent caused the architecture of the city to be fortified, in an anti-riot mode.

I have purposefully kept illustrations out to this point, so that, having been given a smattering of information, you might be better prepared to visually approach what lies ahead. We commence:

As is our wont, we shall take a circuitous course to arrive back to the Piazza della Signoria. We catch our first glimpse of the Palazzo Vecchio (old palace) from a side street at right angles to its entrance facade. Florence has innumerable spots of extraordinary beauty, and some - but not all - are visually connectable. This is a fortunate line of sight, as we become involved in "serial vision." We glimpse the entrance, in perfect alignment with this street. However, we cannot see the entire facade, nor do we get any kind of sense of openness of the Piazza in front of the Palazzo. These await us. The dark entrance archway flanked by two white marble statues, catching the mid-day sun, beckons.

Looking up, we see the slender campanile, with its crenellations and machicolations. Towers such as this were built for both practicality as well as civic ego. The Italian city of Bologna had nearly two hundred towers; there are only two remaining. This tower in Florence is about 94 meters high (308'). Often called "watch towers," posted lookouts could warn of approaching invaders, in which case the bells in the same tower would be rung. Obviously the higher the tower, the more practical, and the more imposing or impressive. Florence had become a crossroads in the web of Crusader routes across the European continent, and commerce, trade, and industry all flourished as a result.

This strictly secular monument was erected to illustrate the city's economic success. The tower and the Town Hall below are heavily fortified, some say strictly for stylistic purposes, while other authors suggest local civic unrest (street riots, marauding gangs, etc.), as well as political intrigue and unrest, already mentioned. Next semester we will discuss the escape route built from the Palazzo Vecchio through the Uffizi Gallery, over the Ponte Vecchio to the other side of the Arno River. Style, indeed! This is all so much like present-day life, unfortunately; we have hardly progressed, if at all. As we study history, we find that so little of the bad changes, but sadly a lot of the good often disappears. Miami-Dade County's relatively new Government Center building by Hugh Stubbins features a separate County Commission chamber separated from its high-rise office building by a passageway. Unbeknownst to the public is the fact that there is a second parallel passage, which allows only the Commissioners to exit from the chamber, ostensibly to "avoid the press." In a democracy? Hmm.

You will note that the building facade is decidedly asymmetrical, while the entrance is definitely in line with the first street, the Via Vacchereccia. The tower and doorway, over which it is centered, not being in the center of the main facade cause the asymmetry. The resultant strength of the facade is definitely a result of that asymmetrical design. It's so easy to create symmetrical mirror images, yet it is a challenge to do things off-center, achieving both counterpoint as well as balance.

The first phase of the Palazzo Vecchio was finally completed in 1314. Here the decorated entrance arch is flanked by two pieces of sculpture, with the one on the left being a copy of Michelangelo's "David."

The original stood on this spot until 1873, when the Academy Gallery (Accademia) was built to house it and other works by Michelangelo. The statue itself is in scale to the size of the piazza (more below).

Flanking the entrance on the opposite side of the doorway is a second piece of sculpture, also built to the scale of the Piazza, this by Bartolommeo Brandini, created in 1543. The work represents Hercules killing the fire-breathing monster known as Cacus, and was a part of the "tenth labor" of Hercules.

Crests of influential Florentine families of the time were tucked inside the machicolations, rather well integrated into the design. A clock was placed on the tower above - a rather practical thing to do, and something we seem to have forgotten in our civic designs today, such few there are.

Here the windows are bifurcated. You will also notice that the stonework has deeply recessed joints and irregularly shaped stones, which project out from the wall surface. This was a medieval way of psychologically creating an image of even greater architectural strength (and subsequent security for those within). Such stonework is known as rustication.

We've been strolling through the Piazza della Signoria, and here to the right of the Palazzo Vecchio we see the Uffizi Gallery (heading south). This will take us to the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio, the "old bridge." See notes below.

Even the copy of Michelangelo's "David" looks strikingly good, as the smooth finish contrasts with the rusticated stonework of the building behind. This statuary, approximately 5.5 meters (18') high, and therefore more than three times the height of an average person, exemplifies the fact that sculptural objects placed out of doors need to be in scale to the space in which they are exhibited, and the buildings to which they might relate.

The interior of the Palazzo Vecchio, so typical of Italian Palazzi of the time, features an open courtyard in the center, for light and air.

The building is so well composed, full of both strong (notice the columns), as well as delicate detail (see the wall and ceiling paintings).

The fresco ceiling work, probably done by Vasar, between 1550 and 1565, after the Medici family left, and the building was taken over by the local government, as well as a new ruling family.

The Salone dei Cinquecento, designed by an Italian Renaissance Architect Simone Del Pollaiuolo, known popularly as "Il Cronaca" (the chronicler), completed in 1495. The room is so named because it housed 500 representatives in its Council.

As we exit, the silhouette of the "David" is to our right. Glancing about the very sunny Piazza, we can see that this space is as it has always been, a center of bustling activity. People tend to gather in open, airy spaces in which they can talk, sit, shop, do some business, eat and drink - the daily interchange of human beings in society, in a city. You will just have to imagine that sunny scene for the moment.

Here is a winter scene, not much sun, but a lot of people, standing in front of our next site, the Loggia dei Lanzi.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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