Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

Originally known as the Palazzo dei Priori and later as the Palazzo della Signoria and Palazzo Ducale, the 13th-century Palazzo Vecchio was built to house the Priori, the leaders of the guilds, following the establishment of the popular government in 1283.

The site was probably chosen because of its proximity to their previous meeting place, the church of S Piero.

Palazzo Vecchio History

Palazzo Vecchio tower

The new palace was an architectural statement of the new political order that followed the resolution of the fierce fighting between the Guelph and Ghibelline factions in the city.

Construction involved the demolition of a number of buildings formerly belonging to such families of the defeated Ghibelline faction as the Uberti and the Foraboschi, and the subsequent trapezoidal plan of the palace and its skewed façade largely resulted from the piecemeal acquisition of the building site.

As the foundations were being laid in 1299, further houses in the vicinity were acquired and demolished in order to create a great piazza to the north that would balance the open space on the west resulting from the leveling of the Uberti property.

Palazzo Vecchio courtyard decoration

This occasional balancing of spaces continued throughout the first half of the 14th century, and as late as 1349 the decision was taken to demolish the church of S Romolo to the west of the palace in order to improve the square.

The bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, which was considerably higher than the original Foraboschi tower on the same site, was a powerful symbol of the new government; it tolled warnings in times of unrest or danger and called citizens together to discuss matters of communal interest.

The palace was originally free-standing and extended only five bays along its northern flank, which was then the main front. It has been traditionally argued, although there is no precise documentation, that it was designed in the main by Arnolfo di Cambio.

Palazzo Vecchio great hall

Construction was rapid, and the Priori was already installed in 1302, but such haste possibly contributed to later structural problems. During the first half of the 14th century, further property to the east was acquired so that the fabric could be expanded along the north front.

These later developments are clearly visible in the variety of levels and openings on the north side, although some effort was made to achieve consistency through the use of string courses and a common window line.

interior decoration Palazzo Vecchio

The original walls were divided by narrow cornices into three horizontal sections of diminishing height. The robust, rusticated ashlar walls, constructed of blocks of stone quarried from the local Boboli hillside, were pierced by elegant Gothic windows with cusped double openings.

The Palazzo Vecchio set the pattern for Central Italian civic architecture during the 14th century. Its battlemented upper profile, with deeply recessed supporting brackets decorated with the coats of arms of the Florentine comune, was typical of the fortification of secular buildings from the time of the free comuni.

Warring factions within the early comuni often made it necessary for members of government to install themselves behind battlements and sturdy walls, with internal council chambers safely raised above the level of surrounding streets and squares. The Loggia dei Lanzi opposite the palace, erected during the late 14th century and originally known as the Loggia dei Priori or Loggia della Signoria, was used for public government ceremonies.

Palazzo Vecchio Display of artisans works

Government officials often congregated on the raised platform (aringhiera) in front of the Palazzo Vecchio to hear public proclamations declaimed from the loggia. This structure, therefore, served as an open-air adjunct to the main government building.

The palace subsequently underwent many changes, both internally and externally. In the 15th century, when it was known as the Palazzo della Signoria, Michelozzo was charged with shoring up the internal courtyard and fortifying the tower, both of which were in danger of imminent collapse; the present courtyard is very different from the 13th-century original, where thick columns with bases and capitals in pietra serena lined each side.

Palazzo Vecchio inside

Michelozzo also carried out extensive alterations to many of the external windows and a number of the internal rooms. Some parts nevertheless remain in their earlier form, notably the ground-floor Sala d’Arme, with groin vaults supported by octagonal pilasters. In 1495, after the expulsion of the Medici, an enormous hall was built by Cronaca for meetings of the new legislative body (Consiglio Maggiore) until its dissolution in 1530.

Between 1540 and 1550 the palace was used as the official residence of Cosimo I de’ Medici and was called the Palazzo Ducale. The building became known as the Palazzo Vecchio only after Cosimo transferred his principal place of residence to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the River Arno in 1550. Thereafter the Palazzo Vecchio was used only for government business.

Palazzo Vecchio ceiling above a stairway

A particularly grandiose and ornate internal reconstruction was carried out under the direction of Vasari in 1555–1572.

Vasari decorated the courtyard in which Michelozzo had worked, designed and built the nearby great staircase rising to the Salone del Cinquecento, and planned an elaborate series of decorative schemes for the palace. The internal rooms reflect the individual tastes of various members of the Medici family: for example the studio of Cosimo’s son Francesco I celebrates his interest in alchemy and the natural sciences.

Some of the schemes celebrate the triumphs of war and peace, the most splendid being in the Salone del Cinquecento, for which Vasari and his many collaborators painted 39 panels celebrating the power and glory of the Medici.

Thus, although it was conceived as a monument to a democratic government, the Palazzo Vecchio now bears witness to the power of Florence’s best-known rulers, the Medici.

Palazzo Vecchio Location

Palazzo Vecchio Address: Piazza della Signoria, 50122 Firenze, Italy. Get help with directions using the map provided below:

Palazzo Vecchio Map

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