Palazzo Vecchio has been the symbol of the civil power of the city of Florence for over seven centuries.
The palace is attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, who began to build it in 1299.
At the time, Palazzo Vecchio was called Palazzo dei Priori, named after the Priory of Arts, the city council composed of members of the Guilds of Florence.
This institution ruled over the city along with the Gonfaloniere of Justice during the long period of the Republic of Florence, which lasted from 1115 to 1434, when the Medici family took power.
Dante Alighieri was a Prior as well, from June 15 to August 15, 1300.
Palazzo Vecchio was also called Palazzo della Signoria. The term signoria usually means lordship, but in that period it was just another name for the Priors Council.
The current building is the result of consecutive enlargements and restorations, completed between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The Duke of Athens Walter VI of Brienne enlarged Palazzo della Signoria toward Via della Ninna, gave it the appearance of a fortress, and also built a secret staircase, which plays an important role in Dan Brown’s Inferno.
The duke was called to administer Florence 1342–1343, as it was torn apart by struggles between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.
The Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) was built in 1494 during the Republic of Girolamo Savonarola.
Palazzo Vecchio’s current appearance is due largely to great works of renovation and interior decoration that were made around 1540, when Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife Eleanor of Toledo decided to turn the palace into their residence. If you want to learn more about the Medici Family, we recommend an interesting book, The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall.
In 1550, as the Medici court moved to the Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo della Signoria took the name Palazzo Vecchio. Palazzo Vecchio continued to host a number of government offices until 1871, when it became the seat of the Municipality of Florence.
Palazzo Vecchio is a veritable and fascinating labyrinth of institutional chambers, apartments, terraces, and courtyards, which were used for different purposes throughout history.
The ground floor of Palazzo Vecchio features a number of astonishing courtyards, decorated with frescoes and fountains.
A mezzanine is located between the first and second floors. It was created in 1453 by Michelozzo by lowering the ceilings of some rooms of the first floor. In these rooms lived Maria Salviati, the mother of Cosimo I, and some young princes. Today, the mezzanine houses the Loeser Collection, donated by the American art critic Charles Loeser, who died in 1928.
The second floor was the more private part of the palace when it was a private residence. It features the Apartments of the Elements, the Apartments of Eleanor of Toledo, and the Hall of Priors, along with many small chambers and chapels, including two rooms particularly important for Dan Brown’s Inferno.
They are the private study of Duchess Bianca Cappello and the Hall of Geographical Maps.
The first one is a delightful small room, used as private chamber by Bianca Cappello, mistress and afterward second wife of Francesco I de’ Medici, son of Cosimo I.
From here Duchess Bianca, just as stated in the book, could look around, and not be seen, and see what was happening in the Hall of the Five Hundred, through a grating of wood. You can enter this small room only through a secret passage from the Hall of Geograhical Maps, as quoted in Dan Brown’s novel.
The Hall of Geographical Maps was instead the Guardaroba, which means an important administrative room where the most relevant documents were kept. It hosts the Mappa Mundi, a six-foot-tall sphere that was the largest rotating globe of its era and dozens of geographic maps designed at the end of the sixteenth century.
In an andito—a small passage between the Apartments of Eleanor of Toledo and the Halls of Priors—the Palazzo Vecchio also houses the Dante death mask…
Pictures: outisde TuscanyArts and jessica@flickr, inside and Study of Bianca Cappello FlorenceInferno