It will be impossible for you at first glance to take your eyes off that massive palace and its bold and soaring tower, which is one of the most conspicuous landmarks in Florence, being almost the first thing you see in approaching the city and the last thing, except the dome of the Cathedral, when, on your departure, you watch the city fade away in the distance.
Now, having had this brief glance, look back to the church of San Miniato al Monte, whence we have come. You can see it to the left of the base of the Vecchio tower yonder on that hilltop and veiled in the golden haze of a glorious summer afternoon. The gardens in which we are standing are hidden from us by this ancient palace near us. Then we were looking toward the northwest, now toward the southeast. From our present position we get an excellent view of the charming heights surrounding Florence, covered, as many of them are, with beautiful villas and imposing edifices, giving a visitor to the city an opportunity for ideal excursions to delightful environs :
” Pillar’d with the grand old forests, Roof’d with broad, expansive blue; Flowers springing up for carpets, Bathed in pearly hanging dew.”
Before we begin an examination of the buildings which surround it, let us take a look into the Piazza della Signoria, which lies almost at our feet. As you see by the clock on the palace tower, it is about an hour and a half past noon, not the best time for seeing the largest number of people congregated here. In the early morning, or an hour or two later than this, the square, which is the center of Florentine life, and which was once the Forum of the Republic, is an animated scene, brilliant with the costumes and variations of a fluctuating crowd of people in which the numbers of men invariably predominate. Hundreds of people stand on that smooth pavement for hours, or lounge beneath the wide arches of the Loggia, talking in deep, rhythmical Tuscan, with their long cloaks thrown over the left shoulder, revealing a brightly colored sash, and wearing high-crown, broad-brimmed hats, and looking for all the world as though they had just stepped out of the old paintings which fill the galleries in order to get an airing, and as if, presently, they will step back again and become as silent and motionless as ever.
It would be well, just now, for us to appreciate the fact that we are looking upon one of the most memorable spots in all Florence, the scene of the most thrilling and awful tragedy that ever was enacted within its walls. One name and one personality fill the square it is the name and personality of Savonarola. Just in front of the grand old palace of the Signoria, the great preacher and friar was hanged with two of his companions, and their bodies were immediately burned and the ruddy light of these ghastly torches reddened the front of the old palace with its fitful glare.
“When Savonarola had seen the death of his two companions, he was directed to take the vacant place between them.. He was so absorbed with the thought of the life to come that he appeared to have already left this earth, but when he reached the upper part of the ladder, he could not abstain from looking round on the multitude below, every one of whom seemed impatient for his death. Oh, how different from those days when they hung upon his lips in a state of ecstasy in Santa Maria del Fiore! He saw at the foot of the beam some of the people with lighted torches in their hands, eager to light the fires. He then submitted his neck to the hangman. There was at that moment, silence-universal and terrible. A shudder of horror seemed to seize the multitude. One voice was heard crying out : ” Prophet, now is the time to perform a miracle.” It was ten o’clock in the morning of the 23rd of May, 1498. He died in the forty-fifth year of his age. The executioner had scarcely come down from the ladder than the pile was set on fire; a man who had been standing from an early hour with a lighted torch and had set the wood on fire called out, “At length I am able to burn him who would have burned me.” The flames had caught the cords by which the arms of Savonarola were pinioned and the heat caused the hand to move so that, in the eyes of the faithful he seemed to raise his right hand in the midst of the mass of flame to bless the people who were burning him.”- VILLARI.
Savonarola’s ashes were gathered together at night-fall, after the execution, and were cast into the Arno, and they, like the ashes of the great English martyr Wycliffe, which were thrown into the river Swift, have gone ” into narrow seas, and then into the broad ocean, and thus become the emblem of his doctrine which is now dispersed the world over.”
The stone platform, or ringhiera, on which the officials witnessed the execution of Savonarola, stood here until 1812, more than three hundred years.
To the left of the entrance to the palace stood the David of Michelangelo, removed by the present government to the Accademia delle Belle Arti. On the right of the entrance observe the Hercules and Cacus of Baccio Bandinelli; that, you remember, was carved in 1546 out of a block of marble that Michelangelo had selected at Carrara, but which, since he was immediately afterward summoned to Rome to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, he was not able to use. In bringing the stone to Florence it fell into the Arno, from whence it was rescued with the greatest difficulty. This gave rise to the Florentine joke that it had sought to drown itself rather than to fall into other than the great master’s hands.
Now fix your eyes upon the Palazzo Vecchio. You can tell at a glance that it is a mediæval structure, half fortress, half palace. Its enormous mass of stone is pierced by trefoil windows, with a heavy cornice of projecting battlements, and the whole overtopped with a stern, high tower for strife or to serve as a beacon, for prison or defense. In 1298, when the cathedral and the church of S. Croce were being built, the Priori or Guildmasters of Florence, who ruled the city and who were known as the Signoria, commissioned Arnolfo di Cambio, who was already engaged in building the cathedral, to begin the erection of this massive palace as the castle of the Guilds of Florence and the stronghold of the commercial oligarchy. Such a structure could only be produced in crude and war-like days, and its solidity is accounted for by the fact that the Signoria held its supremacy by force, which was directed against the great nobles on the one hand and the popular uprising on the other, the whole city being in truth an armed camp.
The body thus installed in the Palazzo Vecchio retained its power over the city until the rise of the democratic despotism of the Medici, a wealthy commercial family, who eventually became the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and the castle from 1540-50 was the official residence of Cosimo I, one of their number. It is now used as a town hall. The palace in its general features is the same as when finished by Arnolfo di Cambio, with the exception of the rear buildings erected by Vasari and others, and the upper portion of the tower, which dates from the fifteenth century. This tower is built upon an older one, belonging to the Vacca family, and the bell from the older tower was used in the present tower. When it tolls the Florentines are wont to say ” La vacca mugghia “- (the cow -lows). As now completed, the tower is three hundred and thirty feet high. Observe that the square battlements on the main structure are typical of the Guelphs, to which party the Signoria belonged; but when, subsequently, their bitter opponents, the Ghibellines, came into power, they added the forked battlements seen on the tower.
On either side of the entrance of the palace are statues by Bandinelli and Rossi, which were intended for chain posts, a chain being stretched between them to guard the doorway.
Doubtless you have noticed that large marble tablet inserted in the wall over the entrance to the castle. If you have not already done so, it will be well to consider it closely, for it is one of the most interesting relics of mediaeval Florence. It contains the mono-gram of Christ, placed there in 1517 by the Gonfalonier Niccolo Capponi, beneath which is the inscription ” Jesus Christus Rex Florentini populi s. p. decreto electus,” which was altered by Cosimo I to ” Rex regum et Dominus dominantium.” The origin of this inscription was as follows : Capponi, in order to prove his attachment to liberty, proposed in Council that Jesus Christ should be elected King of Florence as a pledge that the Florentines would accept no ruler but the King of Kings. On the tenth of June in the following year, 1528, the clergy of the cathedral met in this square, where an altar had been erected in front of the palace and where the citizens were assembled, and Jesus Christ was accepted by them as their king. The shields of France and of Pope Leo were removed from their places over the palace door and this tablet was inserted in their stead. On the parapet of the tower, and placed there at the same time, is the following inscription :
“Christus Rex Gloriæ venit in pace, Deus Homo factus est, Et verbum caro factum est. Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat, Christus ab omni malo nos defendat. Barbara Virgo Dei, modo memento mei.”
To the left of the tablet over the entrance to the pal-ace is seen another, on which is recorded the result of the plebiscite of 186o, when Florence declared its allegiance to Victor Emmanuel and united Italy.
The magnificent hall of this palace was decorated by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci with frescoes representing incidents of Florentine history. It was used for the sittings of the Italian parliament from 186o-69. In one of the rooms of the palace is a bust of Dante, around which are grouped the banners of Italian cities.
Arnolfo, in utilizing the tower of the Vacca, filled the interstices in the wall with cement, so as to make it more solid, and it was long supposed that the upper part of the tower, which was added later, was treated in the same manner ; but in 1814 architect Del Rosso, who was employed in making some alterations in the building, discovered a dark chamber halfway up the tower, since called L’ Alberghettino (small hostelry), and a few steps below, in the thickness of the wall, another dungeon, La Barberia, with a small window and a stone settee for a bed. In these cells Cosimo Vecchio and Savonarola were imprisoned; and of the former Macchiavelli narrates, that the future Father of his Country, from fear of poison, refused all nourishment, except a piece of bread, for four days.
An opening has been discovered on one of the steps of this tower, about a third of the distance from the summit, communicating through the whole height of the structure with a well at the bottom, so that a prisoner descending the staircase could disappear and the manner of his death remain a mystery to his friends and the public. The large clock at the base of the tower is fitted with a contrivance to make its hands visible at night.
The chapel of S. Bernardo in this palace is a beautifully decorated apartment exquisitely painted by Ghirlandajo. Its ceiling is most gorgeous, having a representation of the Trinity in its center, painted on a gold ground. There Savonarola received the last sacrament before his execution.
At the right-hand corner of the Palazzo Vecchio, and across the narrow street, may be seen the northern end of the celebrated and spacious Palazzo degli Uffizi, which was erected by Vasari for the municipal government of Florence in 1560-74. This palace, which ex-tends to the Arno, contains the famous Picture Gallery, the National Library, the Central Archives and the Post Office. Notice that around the lower floor extends the handsome portico, in the pillars of which may be seen niches in which are marble statues of celebrated Florentines. We shall have the pleasure of examining a room in this gallery which contains the choicest gems of art in the entire collection, and the art treasures of the Uffizi are the most valuable in Florence.
Now let us turn our attention to the Loggia dei Lanzi, the sweep of whose large, round arches may be seen on the side of the square opposite us. Observe that it is a magnificent colonnade or open gallery consisting of only three pillars and three noble and spacious arches. As an exercise in seeing what is be-fore us, I will let you count the steps that lead up to the stone platform before the entrance of the Vecchio palace, but, as the light on the Loggia is not so good, I will tell you that five steps run across the front, on which you ascend to the raised stone platform. Four great columns – three of which we can see – stand there, each being composed of an immense shaft of marble thirty-five feet in height and crowned with a rich and elaborate Corinthian capital, the whole supporting an elegant frieze and cornice surmounted by an open parapet. Below the parapet are the arms of the Republic, and between the arches are allegorical figures representing Faith, Hope, Charity, Temperance, Fortitude. These, however, without the aid of opera glasses, cannot be identified, even from the pavement below.
This noble, vaulted arcade was erected for the performance of public functions in the presence of assembled citizens ; and such a structure is a frequent addition to Florentine palaces. The whole edifice is a remarkably successful combination of Greek and Gothic architecture, and it is not surprising that Michelangelo urged that it be continued around the entire piazza. It was called the Loggia dei Lanzi, from the German Lancers who were stationed here in attendance on Cosimo I.
We are too far away from the groups of sculpture, which may be seen vaguely between the arches, to admit of our recognizing many of them. Perhaps, however, your eyesight is sufficiently good to enable you to make out the group beneath the middle of the right-hand arch, and seen over the peak of that tiled roof. That is the Rape of the Sabines, by a young French artist, Giovanni da Bologna. Casting round for a type of vigorous young manhood, he encountered a nobleman of the Ginori family who was remarkable for his height and noble proportions. Sa earnestly did the artist stand and gaze at him that the young man asked what he wanted. Apologizing for his rudeness, Bologna requested him to stand as a model for one of his figures, and the young man good-naturedly assented, receiving in return for his services a present of a bronze crucifix, finely executed by Bologna, as an expression of the artist’s gratitude. The group is bold, forcible and beautiful. It represents three stages of life, youth, manhood and old age. After the artist had finished his work, he called his friends to tell him what name he should give it, and it was agreed to call it the Rape of the Sabines.
Observe on either side of the entrance of the Loggia two lions ; the one to the right of the steps is antique, and the other is an imitation by Flaminio Vacca.
The rest of the statuary cannot be distinguished at this distance, but one group at least we shall have the pleasure of seeing at close range.