The main palace in Florence seems like a living timeline, encapsulating the city’s rich history. As you explore the courtyard, climb Vasari’s grand staircase to the impressive Salone dei Cinquecento, and make your way to the Medici Apartments, you’ll meet the guiding lights of Florence’s rise to power and those who guided it through its artistic and cultural heyday as the leader in the European Renaissance.
The almost fortress-like building reflects the strength of the Florentine state and the Medici family from the 14th to the 16th century. It had just begun as the 13th century drew to a close, in 1299, as the official residence of the Priors (Palazzo dei Priori) and the Gonfaloniere, the governing body of the Republic (the Signoria). The Medici dynasty, which dominated Florence and Tuscany, lived and still had offices in their own palace until 1540, when Cosimo I moved here, and it became the Doge’s Palace (Ducal Palace). When he moved to the Pitti Palace, the Ducal Palace became known as the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace). Between 1865 and 1872, during the Italian struggle for unity, it was for some time the seat of the government, the Chamber of Deputies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After unification, it became the city offices and the state chambers were opened to the public.
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Looking at the cubic shape and battlements of the Palazzo Vecchio, it’s easy to see it as the fortress these palaces once were. In fact, it was built around one of the defensive towers that noble families built in the Middle Ages as refuges from the frequent attacks of rival cities and various marauders. You will notice how the current tower is offset from the center of the building; that is to account for the older tower that forms the base. Together with a copy of one of Florence’s most famous icons, Michelangelo’s Davidreplicas of two works by Donatello are at the main entrance: Marzoccothe heraldic lion of Florence with the city’s coat of arms and a bronze statue, Judith and Holofernes (the original is in the Sala del Gigli, inside).
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Cortile di Michelozzo and the ground floor
Start your visit in the first courtyard, redesigned in 1470 by Michelozzo with an arcade of intricately carved columns. In the middle is one Verrocchio Fontein with a putto and a dolphin (1476); you’ll see a copy of the original in a more protected spot upstairs. The original palace has been restored several times and is the only room of the 14th century palace to survive Arms Roomor arsenal. The grand staircase you will climb to reach the main floor above was added by Vasari in 1560-1563.
Hall of the Five Hundreds
The ground floor (called the first floor or the “piano nobile” in Italy) centers around the soaring Salone dei Cinquecento, whose ornate coffered ceiling rises 21 meters overhead, each of its 38 panels decorated with allegories and scenes from the history of Florence and of the Medici family. The walls are lined with monumental paintings of the Medici and the history of the city. The highlight is Michelangelo’s Genius of Victory (1532-1534), intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome. It is one of the artist’s best works, showing his mastery both in representing the movement of the body and translating that into marble.
Leone X’s quarters, opposite the entrance, are now offices for the mayor and city council. Vasari designed a beautiful jewelry box of a room for De studie van Francesco Idecorating it with paintings, frescoes and statues by some of the most prominent painters and sculptors of the late Renaissance, including Giambologna, who created the small Apollo statuette. One of the palace’s many secret staircases, through which the Medici moved privately from room to room, leads to the treasure. This was the study of Cosimo I, with ceiling paintings by Vasari students. On the other side of the Salone dei Cinquecento are more small rooms, including the Sala del Dugento with a beautifully carved wooden ceiling by Michelozzo.
Sala dei Gigli in Medici Apartments
A star attraction on the top floor (on Italy’s second floor) is the Sala dei Gigli, or Lily Room, with a large fresco by Ghirlandaio (1481-1485) and the original of the famous bronze group Judith at Holofernes door Donatello (1455-1460), brought here in 1888 from Piazza della Signoria to protect it from the weather. Another original, Verrocchio’s Putto en Dolphin from the fountain in the courtyard below, is in the Cancelleria, former chancellery of the Secretary of the Florentine Republic.
The Sala dell’Udienza (Audience Room) has a richly carved ceiling and frescoes, as do several other rooms on this floor, but among the most interesting of these are the Duchess Bianca Cappello’s private study and the Eleonora district of Toledo, rooms of Cosimo I’s consort, Eleonora of Toledo. The frescoes on the ceilings and elsewhere in her rooms are scenes from history and mythology; those decorating her chapel are by Bronzino. Make sure that the walls of Guardaroba (cloakroom) are covered with cards painted on leather, and in the middle of it, the center Mappa Mundi from the 16th century, a 2-meter sphere that was the largest spinning sphere of its time. From the Quartiere degli Elementi, step out onto the terrace Loggia of Saturn to enjoy the view of Florence.
The Arnoldo Tower
From the Ballatoio, on the private apartment floor, you can climb 233 steps to the crenellated gallery at the top of the tower for a panoramic view of the city. On your way up you will pass the Alberghettino, a prison cell known as the ‘little hotel’, where Cosimo the Elder was held in 1433 before being sent into exile and where Savonarola was briefly imprisoned in 1498. The tower, with its square shape and widened parapet at the top , is a recognized symbol of Florence and has since been imitated in churches and other towers around the world. It is the earliest part of the palace, begun in 1299 at the base of a medieval tower.
Take a tour
Some of the city’s most interesting tours, especially for children, are offered by the Palazzo Vecchio. These range from a 75 minute itinerary through the rooms, and a guided tour highlighting the works of the Medici architect, Giorgio Vasari, with a tour of the scenes from Dan Brown’s novel, hel. The most interesting – and a chance to get to places most tourists don’t see – is the Secret Passage tour, which includes areas such as Duke Gualtieri’s secret staircase and others not open to the public. Several are especially designed for families with children, including At Court with Donna Isabella, led by a lady-in-waiting who brings life to the days at the ducal court. Workshops include learning fresco techniques and painting on wood with tempera. Some tours cost very little more than the palace entrance fee, but all must be booked in advance.
Tips and tactics
- Expect to spend at least 90 minutes exploring the palace and tower.
- The tower is closed in case of rain and is not advised if you have a heart condition, respiratory problems, acrophobia or claustrophobia. Children under the age of six are not allowed in the tower, and those under the age of 18 must be with an adult.
- Because tours vary and must be reserved, it’s a good idea to stop here early in your stay and reserve seats.
- During the summer, you can visit the battlements at night between 8am and 11pm for an additional fee. You must register at the ticket office.
- Piazza Signoria, Florence