If you wish to visit the excavated ruins of the Roman theatre underneath the Piazza, they can be accessed from inside the Palazzo Vecchio.
Opening hours: April-September daily 9am-11pm except Thursday 9am-2pm.
Winter months daily 9am-7pm except Thursday 9am-2pm.
Extended opening for public holidays except closed Christmas Day.
Admission: € 4.00
Piazza della Signoria is so-called because of the Signoria, the ruling body of Florence's Republic from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The Signoria (not to be confused with signora, or “madam”!) was a group of nine men, known as priori, who were randomly chosen from a hat from the guilds of the city to rule Florence for two months at a time, locked inside the Palazzo Vecchio.
The area where we find Piazza della Signoria had already been an important square in the ancient Roman times, and was surrounded by a semi-circular theatre, Roman baths and later on, a church.
The unusual “L-shaped” piazza owes its form to a series of historical events starting from the second half of the 13th Century. At that time, two warring factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines were fighting it out all over Florence. And when the Guelphs finally took control, they razed 36 houses and towers of their rivals to the ground: on the so-called “damned” land, it was forbidden to build a single thing and salt was thrown all over the ground so that not even a blade of grass would grow. It was paved for the first time in 1385, officially making it the square that we essentially see today.
Ever since the early times when Florence began building that active and enterprising community that would characterize its long history, Piazza della Signoria has always been the symbol of civic life in the city, as opposed to the religious center which grew up around the cathedral. It has always been the focal point of the Florentine government and as such, this square has been witness to centuries of important events from public executions to visits by the most important Kings and Queens and leaders alike. At the ringing of the bells within the tower of Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentines would gather to listen and approve new laws or, perhaps to run, fully armed, ready to defend city institutions.
Some of the most significant executions of the city have taken place in this piazza. Some might recall a rather gory scene in the film Hannibal, which is set in Florence and plays on an actual historical event – in 1478 there is an assassination attempt on the Medici. Lorenzo the Magnificent escapes, but his brother Giuliano is killed, and the family responsible, the Pazzi, and their conspirators more than pay the price. Many – including some of the most well-known citizens of the city – are thrown out of the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio and left to hang for everyone to see and jeer at. Artists such as Botticelli and Da Vinci drew and painted the dangling corpses of the conspirators.
Florence in the 15th and 16th centuries found sculpture to be a very important way of promoting the government's image, representing the city's struggle for freedom, strength and courage, helping boost morale during times of unrest, or celebrate the victory of a new government thus creating what we see today as a magnificent open-air museum, with some of history's most important artists represented by their statues of heroic legends. The Loggia dei Lanzi is the arched, open fronted building next to the Palazzo Vecchio and is the perfect showcase for these sculptures although its original purpose was to be an elegant podium for public ceremonies.
The bronze statue of Perseus holding up the bloody head of Medusa is one of the best known sculptures in the loggia. Cellini recounts in his biography the trouble he went to for this sculpture, where, in the middle of a fever and running out of tin to bind the bronze to cast the statue, he begins to throw in pots and cutlery and anything else he can find from around the workshop, causing a fire along the way. In the end, several parts of the sculpture, which was being in cast in four separate pieces (Perseus, the head of Medusa, the body of Medusa and Perseus' sword) had to be recast several times before finally being fused together. Recent tests on the sculpture reveal that Medusa's head actually has a much higher percentage of tin than the rest of the figure.
Persus is accompanied by another masterpiece: The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna. The dynamic, intertwined figures of his most famous sculpture, the Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women were only named after he had completed the work, in fact the artist did originally intend to represent three interacting figures in movement, a mature man, a youth and a beautiful woman: taken by the younger man from the weaker older one. An impossibly beautiful and skillfully created work, carved out of just one single piece of marble, this sculpture competes with Michelangelo's David in being one of the most impressive studies of the human body in marble and a simple exhibition of the talent of the sculptor.