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Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Piazza della Signoria: Late Medieval Politics in Florence

This long post examines how monuments can reflect ideas and also a political situation. You might print it out and read it while in Piazza Signoria, in front of the building that is called both Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo della Signoria. Sections of this building are presently used for government, which was its original purpose as well. You can visit the more “historical” parts though as they are open as a museum.

 

The Florentine Republics and the seat of government

Florence’s Republics were attempts at democracy. Similar to Greek democracy, this was not a true rule by the people: no women were included, and out of 40,000 men, there were about 3000 eligible for politics. Eligibility was related, amongst other things, to guild membership. The First Republic (1250) built themselves a seat of government, which got the name “Bargello” in the sixteenth century (it’s a museum now). This building had many problems. Since nobody knew how to build such a thing (other cities did not have Republics like Florence’s), it was quickly found to be insufficient for needs. It was problematic both aesthetically and in terms of city planning. Firstly, they based concept on hilltop castle. Buildings can communicate thoughts, and this type of building signifies protection and rulership, but also weak rulership that has to defend itself against its people. In fact, this relates precisely to the second issue: the streets around the building were narrow, which was bad for riots, of which there were many (Florence was a pretty violent place).

The Second Republic was formed in 1281 in the aftermath of a very important problem. There was tension due to overcrowding of the medieval city; people were fighting left right and centre, and they divided into two factions, partially as an excuse to know who was on the opposing team. These are called GUELF and GHIBELLINE. The factions allied themselves, the Guelphs with the Pope and the Ghibellines with the Emperor. Florence was traditionally an ally of the Pope, and hence can be considered a Guelf city. Siena and Pisa were Ghibelline-ruled, which made for lots of wars.

After a period of crisis in 1250, the Guelfs decidedly prevailed, and they exiled some important Ghibelline families in 1258. Most especially they disliked the Uberti family, whose palace they knocked down. The Guelf-ruled Second Republic passed a law prohibiting building anything on this space: it was to be left empty as a reminder to rebels.

The Second Republic realized that the first seat of government was no good, and they wanted something better. In order to be safe against riots it had to have a large space around it. They also wanted it to be cheap, although the city’s Medieval center was very full. They built it beside the empty lot left by knocking down the Uberti’s palace a few years before.

They built the Palazzo della Signoria (now sometimes called the Palazzo Vecchio) in just two years. They were limited not only by time but by the irregular space upon which they were building – the Uberti lot and the old streets. They built a castle-like, protective building with no exterior decoration (the windows you now see are not original), which was surrounded by the rubble of destroyed homes. The building was to be an assertion of force, though as mentioned above, the castle-look was more characteristic of a weak government than a strong one with nothing to hide. The building also has a tall tower. In the medieval city, all major families had a tower, in which they could hide during riots. The taller your tower, the more powerful you were (remnants of a similar practise are found in San Gimignano). So, the government ordered all towers taller than theirs to be cut down.

In the centuries to come, attempts were made to enlarge the piazza in front of the seat of government. During the rule of the duke of athens (1342), he started demolishing some buildings in the area, including a church!, so that he could fortify the Palazzo della Signoria. He built a wall and a moat around it. The Black Plague (1348) was also helpful in creating more space for the piazza, because half the population died. Since the city was now less crowded, the government got people to move and then they could knock down more buildings. The other 2 churches that were in the way were knocked down and rebuilt a bit further back from the square. Since it took so long to get Papal permission to do this, for one church they simply did it in the middle of the night when nobody was looking. By the 1380’s the piazza was basically this shape. We know that by the late 14th century, however, this kind of unplanned and non-uniform space was not “in style”, and people were ashamed of this piazza. So began attempts to improve it. One thing they did was to require all buildings in the piazza and adjacent street to have a uniform front – the first floor had to have uniform stonework and arches. If you take a look around you, you can see that not many people actually obeyed this law.

From 1374-1382, the architect Talenti was hired to build the LOGGIA DEI LANZI, the triple-arched loggia that faces the Palazzo. By this time, families were building loggias instead of towers to assert their power, so the government decided to have one too, and built the largest one possible. Under this loggia, government ceremonies, which were to be visible by all, took place. The odd thing about this loggia is that, by definition, a loggia is at the front of your building, but this one is not. As a great professor of mine always says, “it’s like putting your front porch on the other side of your garage.” This is because it was not part of the original plan of the building. It also comes from a period almost a hundred years later, when the city and the government were running out of money. All the great buildings of Florence were built before 1400. By the turn of the century, all they could afford was sculpture and painting – things we appreciate today, but that cost certainly less than building huge structures. Hence the Loggia dei Lanzi was decorated with sculptures, but that would be a story for another day.

Timeline of dates and events in Florentine medieval history

This timeline shows the struggle between REPUBLIC (the people) and ABSOLUTE RULE by the Medici family. Eventually, of course, the people lost.

1250-60 PRIMO POPOLO – first florentine attempt at democracy.
1281 SECONDO POPOLO – Second peoples’ Republic, with standard system of government and a constitution that they called the “ordinances of justice”.
1342 YEAR OF CRISIS, the Republic made the mistake of calling in a foreign dictator, the Duke of Athens (who was really French) to rule them. He didn’t want to relinquish power, but they managed to get him out.
1348 The black plague
1378 CIOMPI REVOLT. Urban proletariat wanted political power. Supressed almost immediately.
1433 After a period in which the Medici banking family was gaining power, this year marks their FIRST EXILE.
1434 Medici were allowed to RETURN which was the Republic’s biggest mistake! They take control from within for the next 60 years.
1494 SECOND EXILE: The Medici once again exceed what people will tolerate, and they are exiled.
1512 Medici return from exile again.
1527 THIRD EXILE: Thus, at this point Rome is sacked by German and Spanish troops, while there is another Medici pope, Clement VII, was on the throne. The Florentine people see that the Medici are weakened and take advantage of the situation by exiling them once again. Thus began a 3 year period known as THE LAST REPUBLIC.
1530 The Medici return once again, this time with the support of both the Pope and the German Emperor. Florence is powerless against this and can’t even get France, their traditional ally, to help.
1540 The Medici move from their palace (near duomo) into the palazzo della signoria, the Republic’s seat of government as a symbolic take-over and an outward manifestation of their rule.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.