Statues of lions have been seen around Florence since the Middle Ages, and today you can spot them just about anywhere. Although they constitute a symbol of power all over the world, they hold a particular connection to Florence, the city in which Dan Brown’s Inferno is set.
The heraldic lion—also known as the Marzocco lion—is the animal symbol representing the free Republic of Florence. As the legend goes, the Florentine Republic chose the symbol of the lion over other animals because lions are able to tear apart the eagle, which is the symbol of imperial power.
The most famous Marzocco can be found in Piazza della Signoria. Sculpted by Donatello in the early 15th century from the fine-grained gray sandstone of Tuscany called pietra serena, this Marzocco lion protects the red lily, the symbol of the city.
Donatello’s Marzocco was commissioned by the Republic of Florence for the apartment of Pope Martin V at Santa Maria Novella. Here, this traditional insegna of communal republican defense stood guard atop a column at the foot of the stairs that led to the sale del papa (Papal apartments) in the convent. The Pope lingered at Florence after leaving the Council of Constance during the Western Schism. It is believed that this staircase was demolished by 1515.
The Marzocco that currently stands in Piazza Signoria is a bronze copy; the original has been conserved in the Bargello since 1855.
Several versions of the Marzocco from various eras can be found in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.
The strange name probably comes from the word Marte (Mars), whose Roman statue—noted by Dante and carried away by the flooding of the Arno in 1333—had previously served as Florence’s emblem. The lion is seated and with one paw supports Florence’s coat-of-arms, the fleur de lys called il giglio, the lily.
Not only statues of lions, but also real creatures form part of Florence’s history. In fact, in Roman times, near the current Via Ghibellina and Via Verdi stood the amphitheater called Parlascio, where gladiatorial games and staged animal hunts were held. These animals were kept in cages adjacent to the Parlascio.
Around 1280, the Florentines kept a real lion in a cage by the Baptistery. According to legend, a lion once escaped and snatched a child , but gave it back unharmed to its mother. Since then, lions have also been seen as a symbol of good luck for the city, and their numbers around town have increased.
Their cages were subsequently moved behind Palazzo Vecchio, to what is now via dei Leoni. As many as 24 lions were kept there until 1550. In that year, Cosimo I de ‘Medici; had the cages dismantled and new ones built where Piazza San Marco is now located to achieve the Vasari projects concerning the expansion of Palazzo della Signoria and the construction of the Uffizi.
In 1770 the custom of exposing lions in the city was abandoned. Since then, however, lions have survived in Florence in various forms, such as holding up the flagpole on top of Palazzo Vecchio or guarding the entrance to the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza Signoria.
These two lions are known as the Medici Lions because they once belonged to Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici and adorned Villa Medici, his home in Rome, until they were moved to the Loggia in 1789. There are many more statues of the Marzocco that continue to protect the city.