The Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio, or Palazzo della Signoria, as it was once known, was the seat of political, civic, and administrative power for Florence throughout the most formative years of its history. Many of the great technological and artistic innovations that the city produced during the Italian Renaissance can be connected to the power politics that took place behind the palace’s heavily-fortified stone walls. Although it doesn’t hold the vast collections of Renaissance art boasted by galleries like the Uffizi and the Accademia, it’s a must-see for history buffs who want to learn about the vicious political intrigues of Florentine history and how their repercussions changed the face of the world as we know it.
Visiting the Palazzo Vecchio: What to See
The Salone dei Cinquecento
This massive hall was originally commissioned in 1494 by the famous enemy of art and opulence, Girolamo Savonarola. It was to be a meeting place for the 500-person (cinquecento) Grand Council that would rule Florence in the absence of the Medicis, who had recently been run out of town. When Savonarola was thrown out of power and executed, the Medici’s returned and Grand Duke Cosimo I claimed the space as a sort-of throne room in which he would receive guests. Subsequent improvements brought into the room Michelangelo’s famous marble group The Genius of Victory and a spectacular paneled ceiling by Giorgio Vasari.
The Lost Works of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci
Despite the treasures mentioned above, the Salone dei Cinquecento is perhaps most famous for two paintings that it DOESN’T have. When Vasari was renovating and decorating the room for Cosimo I he encountered two unfinished paintings – The Battle of Cascina, by Michelangelo, and The Battle of Anghiari, by Leonardo Da Vinci. Michelangelo had apparently abandoned his work for the same reasons that he abandoned many of his works, i.e., he was somewhat unreliable. Da Vinci, on the other hand, had every intention of finishing his work, and according to some historians, he did. Others believe he made a mistake while experimenting with the formulas of his pigments and it caused the whole thing to run into a terrible mess. The historical record remains blurry.
Either way whatever he did paint something that was around long enough to be hailed by his contemporaries as one of his finest works. But curiously, when Vasari finished his renovation, neither the unfinished work of Michelangelo nor the possibly-finished work of Leonardo were anywhere to be found. Scholars have long debated the existence of the “Lost Da Vinci”. National Geographic even funded an attempt to look behind the Vasari frescoes for evidence of an earlier painting. Unfortunately the effort ended in a bitter feud between art historians, archeologists, and representatives from the city of Florence, that saw all work to uncover the painting abandoned. Somehow the mystery still stands. Regardless of who you believe there is no denying the draw of the mystery.
The Hall of Maps
In the 16th century any self-respecting Italian ruler needed a room in his palace that showed how much he knew about the world around him. The go-to guy for these sorts of decorations was the Dominican monk, Ignazio Danti. Before he designed the Hall of Maps in the Vatican, the Medicis brought him into the Palazzo Vecchio to paint 53 maps of scientific interest. Not only did these maps educate the rulers of Florence, they were a powerful sign of just how wise and learned they were. Working with Stefano Buonsignori, Danti also created the largest globe in the world at the time, reaching some six feet in diameter. Unfortunately, the globe is now all but illegible due to excessive restoration work.
It’s hard to dig anywhere in an Italian city without uncovering some Roman ruins (a good reason never to do yard work in Italy) and Florence is no different. The ancient Roman settlement of Florentia was established by Julius Caesar in 59 BC. Because of its location, it became an important trading hub and grew accordingly. Like many Roman cities, it developed on top of itself, so that older buildings became the foundations for newer ones. The Palazzo Vecchio was actually built directly on top of an old Roman Theatre and if you descend into the basement you can still see the beautifully preserved ruins.
The Palazzo Vecchio Tower
The lofty tower, or Torre di Arnolfo, is modeled on the Medieval towers that were once built all over Tuscany to help keep tabs on the notoriously fractious neighbors. To this day it remains the tallest structure in Florence. The tower contains two jail cells, only one of which you can see, in which were kept prisoners of particular political importance. Savonarola was kept in one leading up to his execution. Cosimo the Elder was also kept in one of the cells when he was suspected of having too much unofficial influence in the politics of the city. Today visitors can ascend to the top of the tower, but given that it includes 416 steps, we recommend that you think very hard about how much you want to see the view before you buy your ticket.
Tips for Visiting the Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio’s hours differ depending on whether you visit during high season or low season. From April to September it’s open every day except Thursdays 9:00am to midnight , and on Thursdays: 9:00am to 2:00pm. From October through December it’s open every day except for Thursdays, 9:00am to 7:00pm, and on Thursdays: 9:00am to 2:00pm.
To complicate matters, the tower is open on slightly different hours. From April 1 to Sept 30, it’s open every day from 9:00am to 9:00pm (no admission after 8:30pm). On Thursdays, it’s open from 9:00am to 2:00pm (no admission after 1:30pm)
From Oct 1 through March 31st it’s open every day from 10:00am to 5:00pm (no admission after 4:30pm). On Thursdays it’s open from 10:00am to 2:00pm (no admission after 1:30pm).
If you want to visit the Roman ruins in the basement you have to book in advance.
The list of what you can and cannot bring into the Palazzo Vecchio is a little looser than those of more-visited sites like the Uffizi and the Accademia but to be on the safe side here are the things that you should avoid bringing:
You may leave all of these items in the cloakroom, which is free.
The two main floors of the museum are wheelchair accessible but the Tower is not.
The Tower also closes in the event of rain.
You are allowed to take photos in the Palazzo Vecchio but you can’t use tripods, or flashes
Tickets cost €10.00 to see the museum or €14.00 to see the museum and climb the tower (or €12.00 to visit the museum and the battlements.) Visiting the tower by itself is €10.00.
The Best Time to See the Palazzo Vecchio
As one of the less-visited of Florence’s main attractions you would be surprised how easy it is to stroll into the Palazzo Vecchio and have it mostly to yourself. Since it’s open late in the high season, we think it’s one of the nicest things to see in the evening, either before or after dinner. If you are set on climbing the tower check the weather forecast because it closes if you get any rain.
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