The Hall of the Five Hundred (Salone dei Cinquecento) is the largest and most important room in terms of artistic and historic value in Palazzo Vecchio.
This impressive hall, which plays a key role in Dan Brown’s Inferno, is 54 meters long, 23 meters wide, and 18 meters high. It is the largest room in Italy made for a civil power palace.
The room is on the first floor of the building and part of the wing of the palace built in the fifteenth century, adjacent to the oldest section built by Arnolfo di Cambio.
The Hall of the Five Hundred was built in 1494 by Simone del Pollaiuolo and Francesco Domenico and commissioned by Fra Girolamo Savonarola.
Savonarola had ousted the Medici from power for a short period and had founded a new Florentine Republic, which lasted between 1494 and 1498.
He tried to establish a more democratic government for the city of Florence and thus created the Council of Five Hundred (or Great Council), consisting of five hundred people, modeled after the Grand Council of Venice.
In this way, the decision-making power belonged to a greater number of citizens, and it was more difficult for a single person to take control of the city.
The tangible result of these reforms was the creation of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the government building, which at the time involved a remarkable engineering effort.
According to the austerity pursued by Savonarola, the room was also very basic and almost devoid of decoration.
Savonarola was arrested in 1498, hanged, and burned at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria as a “heretic, schismatic, and for preaching new things.”
Management of power was given to Piero Soderini, who was appointed Gonfaloniere for life.
He decided to decorate the Salone dei Cinquecento and succeeded in reaching an agreement with the two greatest Florentine artists of the time, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, for the construction of two large murals to decorate the walls of the room, with battle celebrating the victories of the Republic.
Leonardo started working on the Battle of Anghiari, while Michelangelo focused on another portion of the wall for the Battle of Cascina.
The two geniuses of the Renaissance would have an opportunity to work for a certain period of time face-to-face, but none of their work was ever completed.
Leonardo experimented with an encaustic technique, which proved disastrous, hopelessly wasting the work. Michelangelo stopped and left for Rome after being called by Pope Julius II. Both original works are lost, but copies and preparatory drawings still remain.
Later, the Medici returned to power and in 1540 chose Palazzo Vecchio as a residence, radically transforming it. Most of the work was entrusted to Giorgio Vasari.
The Salone dei Cinquecento was transformed from a place of celebration of the power of the Republic to the boardroom of the Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, where he received ambassadors and gave audience to the people.
If you want to learn more about the Medici Family, we reccommend an interesting book, The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall.
The decorations, therefore, had to exalt and glorify the Medici family. To accentuate the grandeur of the hall, Giorgio Vasari raised the ceiling seven meters, covering the truss structure with a beautifully decorated coffered ceiling.
The trusses were built ingeniously, in a double set at different levels: a truss supporting the weight of the roof and another one supporting the coffers underneath.
The forty-two panels were carried out by a team of painters coordinated by Vasari, and the iconographic subject was treated by Vincenzo Borghini. In the original sketches, the center was to be occupied by an allegory of Florence, but Duke Cosimo actually wanted a glorious depiction of himself.
The artists who participated in the decoration, in addition to Vasari himself, were Giovanni Stradano, Tommaso di Battista del Verrocchio, Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, and many others.
Around the central panel with Cosimo I in apotheosis, we can recognize some allegories of the districts of Florence and Tuscany in an act of submission to the Duke, episodes of the War of Pisa (1496–1509) and the War of Siena (1553–1555), as well as portraits of some of Giorgio Vasari’s collaborators.
Down the hall is a raised area called la Tribuna dell’Udienza (consultation gallery), designed to accommodate the throne of the Duke, by Giuliano di Baccio d’Agnolo and Baccio Bandinelli.
The architecture is inspired by a Roman triumphal arch to enhance the power of the sovereign and hosts a number of niches containing statues of members of the Medici family.
The two largest arcs contain the statues of the two Medici popes Leo X and Clement VII depicted while crowning Charles V King of Spain.
The other four niches contain other members of the Medici family: Cosimo I, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Alessandro, and Francesco I. In the boxes above are depicted the main enterprises conducted by them.
The whole room is richly decorated, and Giorgio Vasari, along with his helpers, painted on the walls six scenes of battle that represent the military successes of Cosimo I against Pisa and Siena.
On the east side, you can find the Conquest of Siena, the Conquest of Porto Ercole, and the Battle of Marciano.
On the west side, you can find The defeat of the Pisans at the tower of San Vincenzo, Maximilian of Austria attempting the conquest of Livorno, and Pisa attacked by the Florentine troops.
The decorative complex would be completed by a series of sixteenth-century tapestries, which are hung only on special occasions.
Access to the Studiolo of Francesco I is along the side of the entrance wall.
We will soon examine in detail the Battle of Marciano and the cerca trova.