On a trip to Firenze, Saritha Rao Rayachoti learns that pizzas aren’t the only thing wood-fired at the Piazza della Signoria

On our last evening in Firenze, we race across the Ponte Santa Trinita before the take-away pizza goes cold and the white wine goes warm. We rush past touristy eateries with menus in English, street performances too zippy for our taste and finally reach the Piazza della Signoria where the sketch artists are packing up for the day. Settling on the steps of the Loggia dei Lanzi, we listen to the street musician playing his guitar for those of us still too aroused by the splendour of the city to call it a night. This would be a good way to die — with food, wine, music, and surrounded by Renaissance sculpture at a piazza I have come to love.

Firenze is a giant museum in the guise of a city. While the dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is breathtaking in its enormity and detail, and Michelangelo’s David and his Slaves series look like marble come to life, every chance I get, I return to this Piazza that throbs with the formidable presence of the Medicis, the patrons of the Renaissance.

From the Loggia Dei Lanzi, I get a fantastic view of the piazza with its souvenir shops, al fresco restaurants and gelaterias. Take these out of the picture and the piazza seems pretty much as it was in the days of the Renaissance.

The Loggia dei Lanzi is a hall open on three sides, whose graceful arches and trefoils are barely noticed in the presence of sculpture as engaging as Benvenuto Cellini’s work of art in bronze — Perseus with the head of Medusa, Pio Fedi’s Rape of Polyxenaand Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Womenand Hercules beating the Centaur Nessus.  

Both the piazza (square) and the adjoining palazzo (palace) are named after the Signoria or Priori of nine members who formed the governing council during the Medieval and early Renaissance period. The statues of Hercules and Cacus and a replica of Michelangelo Buonarroti David flank the entrance to the palace. The original stood at this very spot until 1873 when it was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia, a km away. But this replica is just as riveting and costs nothing to behold.

Originally used as a town hall, the Palazzo Signoria went on to become a palace for the Medicis during the time of Cosimo I. The task of converting it into a palace befitting the ambitions of the Medicis was entrusted to the talented Giorgio Vasari.

With a little advance planning, The Secret Passages tour is a better way to see the palace, particularly to understand the threats that necessitated private hiding places and passages for a quick escape, and for an ‘above-the-scenes’ look at how Vasari went about restructuring the 39-panelled ceiling of the magnificent Salone dei Cinquecento.

With the same entry pass, you can also access other parts of the palace like the modest private chamber of Cosimo I’s wife, Eleonora of Toledo, the Room of Maps and The Old Chancellery that was at one point, Niccolo Machiavelli’s office. It is presumed that at Eleonora’s urging, the family moved across the River Arno to the Palazzo Pitti in 1550. Palazzo della Signoria soon came to be known as the Palazzo Vecchio or ‘old palace’.

A little to my right, stands the Uffizi (offices wing), that brought the region’s administration under one roof, also during the time of Cosimo I. Today, the rooms leading off the corridor showcase a staggering collection of art and sculpture including Botticelli's Primavera and Birth of Venus, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, Caravaggio’s Bacchus, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Michelangelo’sDoni Tondo and Leonardo Da Vinci’sThe Annunciation.

An interesting story that I came across at the Uffizi was that of the Carmelite monk Filippo Lippi whose paintings, Madonna and Child and Coronation of the Virgin were modelled on a nun called Lucrezia Buti. Filippo is said to have fathered Lucrezia’s son, Filippino Lippi, also an artist, whose paintings are on display at the Uffizi.

We walk towards the middle of the Piazza in search of a gelateria that is still open, passing Ammannati’s Fontana del Nettuno, a marble fountain glorifying Neptune on a chariot of rearing sea-horses. Not far from it, stands Giambologna’s elegant bronze of Cosimo I on horseback. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to find that Neptune’s well-built frame with rippling muscles was perhaps originally modelled after Cosimo I.

With the Piazza nearly empty, we reluctantly begin to retrace our steps to the B&B when we come across a plaque underfoot with a familiar name.

The phrase ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ came about when the followers of the monk, Girolamo Savonarola burned objects that were presumed to lead one to sin, including musical instruments, art and books considered too immoral for the time. Savonarola himself was hung and then burned at the stake and this plaque marked the spot where the monk met a grisly wood-fired end.

The consumed pizza from earlier does a little flip inside me. There were worse ways to die in this piazza.