The Old Palace And The Loggia – Florence, Italy

Every great capital has its eye; at Rome it is the Campo Vaccino; at Paris, the Boulevard des Italiens; at Venice, the Place St. Mark; at Madrid, the Prado; at London, the Strand; at Naples, the Via di Toledo. Rome is more Roman, Paris more Parisian, Venice more Venetian, Madrid more Spanish, London more English, Naples more Neapolitan, in that privileged locality than anywhere else. The eye of Florence is the Place of the Grand Duke—a beautiful eye. In fact, suppress that Place and Florence has no more meaning—it might be an-other city. It is at that Place, therefore, that every traveler ought to begin, and, moreover, had he not that intention, the tide of pedestrians would carry him and the streets themselves would conduct him thither.

The first aspect of the Place of the Grand Duke has an effect so charming, so picturesque, so complete, that you comprehend all at once into what an error the modern capitals like London, Paris, St. Petersburg, fall in forming, under the pretext of squares, in their compact masses, immense empty spaces upon which they run aground all possible and impossible modes of decoration. One can touch with his finger the reason which makes of the Carrousel and Place de la Concorde, great empty fields which absorb fountains, statues, arches of triumph, obelisks, candelabra, and little gardens. All these embellishments, very pretty on paper, very agreeable also, without doubt, viewed from a balloon, are almost lost for the spectator who can not grasp the whole, his height only rising five feet above the ground.

A square, in order to produce a beautiful effect, ought not to be too big; it is also necessary that it should be bordered by varied monuments of diverse elevations. The Place of the Grand Duke at Florence unites all these conditions; bordered by monuments regular in themselves, but different from one another, it is pleasing to the eye without wearying by a cold symmetry.

The Palace of the Seigneurie, or Old Palace, which by its imposing mass and severe elegance at first attracts the attention, occupies a corner of the Place, instead of the middle. This idea, a happy one, in our opinion, regrettable for those who only see architectural beauty in geometrical regularity, is not fortuitous ; it has a reason wholly Florentine. In order to obtain perfect symmetry, it would have been necessary to build upon the detested soil of the Ghibelline house, rebellious and proscribed by the Uberti; something that the Guelph faction, then all-powerful, were not willing to allow the architect, Arnolfo di Lapo, to do. Learned men contest the truth of this tradition; we will not discuss here the value of their objections. It is certain, however, that the Old Palace gains greatly by the singularity of this location and also leaves space for the great Fountain of Neptune and the equestrian statue of Cosmo the First.

The name of fortress would be more appropriate than any other, for the Old Palace; it is a great mass of stone, without columns, without frontal, without order of architecture. Time has gilded the walls with beautiful vermilion tints which the pure blue of the sky sets off marvelously, and the whole structure has that haughty and romantic aspect which accords well with the idea that one forms for oneself of that old Palace of the Seigneurie, the witness, since the date of its erection in the thirteenth century, of so many intrigues, tumults, violent acts, and crimes. The battlements of the pal-ace, cut square, show that it was built to that height by the Guelph faction; the trifurcated battlements of the belfry indicate a sudden change on the accession to power of the Ghibelline faction.

Guelphs and Ghibellines detested each other so violently that they exprest their opinions in their garments, in the cut of their hair, in their arms, in their manner of fortifying themselves. They feared nothing so much as to be captured by one another, and differed as much as they possibly could. They had a special salutation after the manner of the Freemasons and the Companions of Duty. The opinions of the ancient owners of the Old Palace at Florence can be recognized by this characteristic; the walls of the city are crenelated squarely in the Guelph fashion, and the tower on the ram-parts has the Ghibelline battlements of swallow-tail shape.

The Vecchio Palace has for its basement several steps which were used in former times as a species of tribune, from the top of which the magistrates and demagogs harangued the people. Two colossal statues of marble—Hercules slaying Cacus, by Bandinelli, and David the Conqueror of Goliath, by Michael Angelo—mount near the door their age-long watch, like two gigantic sentinels whom someone has for-gotten to relieve. The statue of David by Michael Angelo besides the inconvenience there is in representing under a gigantic form a Biblical hero of notoriously small size, seemed to us a trifle common and heavy, a rare defect with this master; his David is a great big boy, fleshy, broad-backed, with monstrous biceps, a market porter waiting to put a sack upon his back. The working of the marble is remarkable and, after all, is a fine piece of study which would do honor to any other sculptor except Michael Angelo; but there is lacking that Olympian mastership which characterizes the works of that superhuman sculptor.

One of the most curious features of the Old Palace is the grand salon, a hall of enormous dimensions, which has its legend. When the Medici were driven from Florence, in 1494, Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who directed the popular movement, proposed the idea of constructing an immense hall where a council of a thousand citizens would elect the magistrates and regulate the affairs of the republic. The architect Cronaca had charge of this task and acquitted himself of it with a celerity so marvelous that Brother Savonarola caused the rumor to spread that angels descended from heaven to help the masons and continued at night the interrupted work. The invention of these angels tempering the mortar and carrying the hod is all done in the legendary style of the Middle Ages and would furnish a charming subject for a picture to some ingenuous painter of the school of Over-beck or of Hauser. In this rapid construction Cronaca displayed, if not all his genius, at least all his agility. The work has been justly ad-mired and often consulted by architects.

When the Medici returned to power and transferred their residence from the Palace of the Via Larga, which they had occupied, to the Palace of the Seigneurie, Cosmo wished to change the Council Hall into an audience chamber, and charged the presumptuous Bacchio Bandinelli, whose designs had attracted him, with various alterations of an important character; but the sculptor had undoubtedly presumed too much on his talent as an architect, and in spite of the assistance of Giuliano Baccio d’Agnolo, whom he called to his aid, he worked for ten years without being able to conquer the difficulties which he had created for himself.

It was Vasari who raised the ceiling several feet, finished the work and decorated the walls with a succession of frescoes which may still be seen, and which represent different episodes in the history of Florence—combats, and captures of cities, the whole being a travesty of antiquity, an intermingling of allegories. These frescos, painted with an intrepid and learned mediocrity, display the commonplace tones, swelling muscles and anatomical tricks in use at that epoch among artists.

We have already called attention to the fact that colossal dimensions are not at all necessary to produce effect in architecture. The Loggia de Lanzi, that gem of the Place of the Grand Duke, consists of a portico composed of four arcades, three on the facade, one in return on the gallery of the offices. It is a miniature of a monument; but the harmony of its proportions is so perfect that the eye in contemplating it experiences a sense of satisfaction. The nearness of the Palace of the Seigneurie, with its compact mass, admirably sets off the elegant slenderness of its arches and columns. The Loggia is a species of Museum in the open air. The “Perseus” of Benvenuto Cellini, the “Judith” of Donatello, the “Rape of the Sabines” of John of Bologna, are framed in the arcades. Six antique statues—the cardinal and monastic virtues—by Jacques, called Pietro, a Madonna by Orgagna adorn the interior wall. Two lions, one antique, the other modern, by Vacca, almost as good as the Greek lions of the arsenal at Venice, complete the decoration.

The Perseus may be regarded as the masterpiece of Benvenuto Cellini, an artist so highly spoken of in France, without scarcely any-thing being known about him. This statue, a little affected in its pose, like all the works of the Florentine school, has a juvenile grace which is very attractive.