It is impossible to view this edifice without strong sensations; the imposing bulk, the gloomy grandeur of the architecture, with the noble antique tower, singularly combining to impress the imagination.
In the year 1298, this palace, then styled the National Palace, was erected by Arnolfo Lapo, and intended for the double purpose of a residence for the presiding magistrates, and a place of assembly for public deliberation. At this period the number in the magisterial department was augmented, being formed of a Gonfaloniere and eight Priori, to each of whom two attendants, or secretaries, were assigned, besides one notary, who assisted them all.
These ministers of state were elected every two months, during which period they shared the same table, which was served at the public expense; nor were they suffered to absent themselves, even for a single day, on any pretext whatsoever. It appears that the original plan designed by Arnolfo for this building was finer than that finally adopted. It united symmetry with grandeur, and would have enabled him to plant the building, which now stands obliquely, in fair and just proportion. But he met with insurmountable obstacles. Among the buildings to be thrown down to clear a sufficient space for this great fabric, the habitations of the Ubati, attached to the Ghibellini faction, were designated, and it was in vain that the architect reasoned or entreated; he could not prevail with the people to suffer that any part or portion of the National Palace should touch the ground which these habitations had occupied; and while thus obstinate in their antipathies, their predilection in favour of the antique tower of the Tirabosche della Vacha led them to insist on it being incorporated in the building. It may easily be imagined how vexatious such trammelling must have proved to the architect; but though his plans in other respects were injured by the decisions of the people, their interference in the preservation of this fine antique tower, constituting one of the grandest features in the general aspect of Florence, must be regarded as fortunate.
The entrance into the palace is through a superb but gloomy court, of an oblong form, supported on massive columns. These pillars, in the year 1798, were, with singular skill and science, substituted for those originally planted by Arnolfo. They are eight feet in circumference, of admirable proportions, with plain but varied capitals.
Two figures, or Termini of Marble, by Bandinelli, are painted in the entrance of the court, which is adorned by a number of statues of gigantic proportions.Among these, a Hercules slaying Cacus, by V. Rossi of Fiesole, a scholar of Bandinelli, is considered fine, and in many points certainly it may be regarded as having merit. But the Florentine school had fallen into the bad taste of representing strength by mere bulkiness, (witness their statues in the hall of this palace.) This is evidently an error; heroic strength does not consist in vulgar squareness, but in grandeur of form, in energy, in fine well-pronounced muscles, in putting the face in its right place, (especially when displayed in the action) a dignity of attitude, a consciousness, as it were, of irresistible power, should be discernible in the posture and form of every part and portion of the figure. Square forms and limbs, muscles crowded and knotted together, with a flat coarse face, and rough hair, go but a little way in expressing strength.
Passing along a gloomy staircase, leading to the great hall of this palace, you enter an apartment of vast and magnificent dimensions, of beautiful proportions, and fine architecture. The windows are noble, the light splendid, the walls richly painted, and lined with marble statues. A great flat form crosses the apartment, occupying nearly a sixth part of the whole floor, from which you look down on the greater part below. The general effect is singularly striking and grand. The mind involuntarily figures the vast space spread out before you, filled, as in the times when it was erected, with contentious nobles and turbulent citizens, each girded with his sword, and bearing his spear and shield; you imagine them in all the perturbation and fury of a revolutionary throng, rising into some deed of passion, and filling the city with tumult and slaughter. From this platform, which runs along the whole width of the room, you descend into the hall below, which is about 150 feet in length, and 60 in width, with a most magnificent height of ceiling.
The fresco painting on the walls of the hall are by Vasari, and produce a showy effect, although defective in composition as well as in design. The groups chiefly consist of ill-fashioned men, and of large horses, with vast white round hips. The artist probably thought that what might be wanting in beauty would be made up in interest, as they represent the battles and victories of the Florentines.
The ceiling is painted in oil by the same artist, but with more success; the colouring good, and the whole effect rich, from the gilding of the frames, beams, and joists. The chief talent possessed by Vasari seems to have been that of singular expedition in his work. He gives an account himself of six figures, the size of life, in fresco, which he finished in two days.
The statues, which are ranged along the walls of this palace, being all of tolerable composition, and when seen at a distance appearing without fault, produce a fine effect. Of these I shall select only a few for criticism.
On the platform opposite to the entrance of the great door stands a group by Bandinelli; where Pope Clement the Seventh is represented crowning Charles the Fifth; the Pope is sitting, and turns to the Prince, who kneels. The figure of the Pope is wanting in dignity, but the effect of the whole is very good.
A Group, by the same artist, representing Pope Leo the Tenth, with an uplifted hand, as presiding over the arts, is finely placed, seated as it were in a chapel, or recess, at the end of this great room, supported on either side by Pietro and Alessandro di Medici, but the figures are clumsy, heavy, and ungraceful.
Two statues in the garb of Roman Generals, representing Cosmo, Pater Patrice, and Cosmo, first Grand Duke of Florence, by Vincenzio Rossi, brother of the first mentioned artist, and a pupil of Bandinelli, have the merit of simplicity, which, however, is all that can be said in their favour.
We next find the Labours of Hercules, executed by a brother of the same family
The Hercules and Antaus are very poor; but Hercules and the Centaur are more worthy of notice. The body of the Centaur is admirably wrought, and he kicks well with his right leg against the knee of Hercules; but the whole is deficient in spirit and action. Hercules seems to pound with his club with the deliberation of one who is playing with a Centaur, not killing him.
Hercules and Cacus, by the same artist, are finished with exquisite skill and care; but still the demigod lays on with polite deliberation, and Cacus, half raised on his elbow, submits with commendable quietness of demeanour.
A statue, in the costume of a Roman General, by this artist, has considerable merit; the posture is easy, the limbs are large, full, and round, without being clumsy; the drapery too is good, and the helmet finely executed.
A Group, personifying Victory, by Michael Angelo, next demands notice. Every work in statuary by this great artist must be interesting; and this statue, though far from equalling some of his later productions, has yet many points of excellence. The group represents a youth turning half round and bending over a crouching figure. The right hand sustains a light thin drapery, which falls gracefully in slender folds, and the left knee is planted on the shoulder of the prostrate enemy. The limbs of the youthful figure are exquisitely formed; but he is represented of such a height, that eleven heads at least go to the length of the body. The crouching figure half kneels on the right knee, and entirely on the left, his head projecting from between the knees of Victory, while both his hands are tied behind his back. The shoulder, the bending posture, the standing leg of Victory, and the manner in which his left leg lies along the back of the crouching figure, are all fine, but the projection of the head has a most grotesque and ludicrous effect. It is unfinished; the block evidently being too small to furnish materials for the bulky limbs of the prostrate King or Prince.
There are four Grecian statues, good, but not excellent.
There are also a gigantic Adam and Eve by Bandinelli, in which he has given full scope to his passion for the colossal.
So many masses of marble, not meanly cut, and well placed, give a princely splendour to this noble hall; and the whole possess considerable interest, as proofs of the munificence of the Medici, and as offering specimens of art, in the school of which Michael Angelo was a pupil.