What do the statues tell us? During the 1500s Cosimo I de Medici created a real open-air museum in Piazza della Signoria, for his own pleasure, but above all to impress with the statuary of the Medici collections. They are almost all originals, works of great value that we find in front of the Palace and in the adjacent Loggia della Signoria, also called “Loggia dei Lanzi”. The Loggia was in fact built between 1370 and 1380 to organize public assemblies and ceremonies, but in 1500 it completely changed its function. Cosimo I used it to quarter guards and it seems that some of them were Landsknecht (German-speaking mercenaries) or Lanzechenecchi in Italian. Hence the name “Loggia dei Lanzi”.
The statues that we can still admire today constitute a real secular allegorical cycle and many of these are inspired by the mythical tales of the Greek civilization.
The ancient Greeks had their own conception of the world: they animated and personified natural phenomena through their own imagination, thus giving rise to myths and legends.
The many stories featuring heroes, humans, gods, and demigods have been handed down over the centuries, retaining their charm, and are still deeply rooted in the memory of modern society. During the Middle Ages, the barbarian invasions were not sufficient to erase pagan antiquity and in the Renaissance, classical civilization was rediscovered and used as a model of the highest human values.
So what are the statues in the square that represent mythological figures and what do they tell us?
Neptune (Ammannati, 1574)
In 1559 Cosimo I de’ Medici launched a competition to create the first public fountain in Florence, in which the most important Florentine sculptors of the time participated. Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Neptune was chosen, judged more suitable to enhance the glorious maritime achievements of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany’s rule.
The sculpture was executed between 1560 and 1565 and was inaugurated on the occasion of Francesco I de’ Medici and Grand Duchess Giovanna of Austria’s wedding on December 10, 1565. However, the main statue was surrounded by temporary pieces, and only in 1574 was the fountain completed in its architectural and decorative order according to Ammannati’s design.
The figure of Neptune, the god of the sea, is made of white Carrara marble and incorporates the features of Cosimo I de’ Medici. Neptune stands on a pedestal decorated with the statues of Scylla and Charybdis in the center of the octagonal basin, which contains the four horses of the chariot. At his feet are three tritons and at each corner, there are groups of marine deities, each of whom has a procession of bronze nymphs, satyrs, and fauns at his feet.
Marble sculpture however was not appreciated by the Florentines, who jokingly gave Neptune the nickname “Biancone” and mocked the artist with their well-known sarcasm: “Oh Ammannato Ammannato what beautiful marble you have wasted!”
The Marzocco Lion
The Florentine Republic has always had two very ancient symbols: the lily and the “Marzocco”, or a heraldic lion that holds the shield with the lily with its right paw.
Dante tells that the city was initially dedicated to Mars, the god of war, in his Divine Comedy. The name “Marzocco” would, therefore, derive from the Latin martocus, translatable as “little Mars”.
The lion was chosen by the Florentine Republic to demonstrate political power. This animal would have been the only one capable of killing the eagle, then an imperial symbol, as well as the hated Pisa.
Today, we find a beautiful copy of the sculpture in pietra serena that Donatello made in 1419 (the original is at the Bargello Museum). The artist represented him in an attitude of vigilant quiet in the so-called political center.
The lion with its symbolism of strength, courage and sovereignty, came to impersonate the Florentine people in arms. So much was the affection of the citizens for this image that, at times, they were called marzoccheschi by their enemies.
Hercules and Cacus (Bandinelli, 1534)
This work was commissioned to Baccio Bandinelli by Pope Clement VII (former cardinal Giulio de’ Medici) to exalt the strength of the new Medici government in an allegorical way, represented at that time by Alexander I. We find it right in front of Palazzo Vecchio, to the right of the copy of Michelangelo’s David.
Hercules is the hero par excellence: one of the most famous and popular figures of all classical art, the personification of courage and physical strength.
He was born from the union of Alcmena with Jupiter, when Jupiter seduced her by taking on the appearance of her husband, Anfitrione. For this reason, Juno, Jupiter’s bride, will always hold a strong grudge against the hero who would seek revenge many years later.
Once an adult, Hercules marries Megara, daughter of the King of Thebes, Creon, and three children are born from their union. One day, while he is in the grip of an attack of madness, caused by Juno, Hercules kills his entire family. When he regains his wits and realizes what he has done, he decides to atone for the terrible guilt and, also at the behest of the Delphi oracle, places himself under the control of Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, who imposes on him the famous “Twelve Labors”.
Hercules was already a symbol of intelligence combined with strength in 1400; a symbol alluding to the qualities of the Medici family, so Bandinelli decided to represent one of these labors, more precisely, number ten: stealing the oxen of Geryon.
Legend has it that Hercules had just stolen the oxen from the monster Geryon and was taking them to Argos, when he was attacked by another monster, Cacus. Cacus took part of the livestock from him and brought the beasts into his cave, but one of them answered the call of Hercules. The hero found the hiding place and attacked Cacus, who tried to defend himself by spewing smoke from his mouth, but it was all in vain.
Bandinelli represents the moment when Hercules, after jumping through the fire, grabs the monster and squeezes it so as to make its eyes come out of their sockets, killing it.
The artist was a huge admirer of Michelangelo but, according to some critics, in this work, he imitates him only in “gigantism”. Benvenuto Cellini, for example, his antagonist at the court of Cosimo I, said of the statue: “if his hair is removed, only his little brain remains and if leaned against the wall it looks like a sack full of melons.” This is to emphasize the excessive importance given to the muscles.
Hercules and the Centaur Nessus (Giambologna, 1599)
Another work that we find in the Loggia dei Lanzi is Hercules and the Centaur. The artist is Giambologna (the Italianized name of Jean Boulogne), who was from Flanders and moved to Rome in 1550 to study the ancient statuary and the works of the modern ones, in particular those of Michelangelo.
Michelangelo was known to be very critical of colleagues and aspiring artists. He did not have much trouble in declaring that he did not appreciate Giambologna’s style at all, considering it too approximate. The Flemish artist, however, continued to emulate him and by the end of the 16th century, he became the greatest mannerist sculptor in Florence, also winning the praise of the Medici court.
This too is a work inspired by the myth of Hercules and one of his famous labors: the Augean Stables. The hero diverted the waters of the rivers Alfeo and Peneo, pouring them into the stables of the king of Elis, where manure had been accumulating for about thirty years. The stables were immediately cleaned up and Hercules was successful. On the way back, however, he saw a young woman in danger in the clutches of a centaur and decided to help her.
Giambologna captures the moment when the hero bends the centaur with his strength, who is trying to escape him with a strong twist of his torso. Looking at the work you immediately notice the incredible plasticity of the bodies and a strong propensity for the dynamic tension of the figures, clearly inspired by Michelangelo.
The Rape of the Sabine Women (Giambologna, 1583)
Another masterpiece of Giambologna, this sculpture is considered the first European sculptural group to offer a perfect perspective from any angle. It was placed in the Loggia dei Lanzi in 1585 by the Grand Duke Francesco I (first-born of Cosimo I). Giambologna created it without thinking about a specific subject, but wanting to show off his skills in rendering human anatomy and movements. Only later was the title Rape of the Sabine given.
In fact, the sculptural group recalls a well-known Roman myth: after founding Rome, Romulus wanted to ensure the city’s future. He tried to establish new alliances but was unsuccessful, so he organized solemn celebrations in honor of Neptune and invited the Sabines and neighboring populations. During the celebrations, at the agreed signal, the young Romans kidnapped the Sabine girls by chasing away the relatives of the young women and an inevitable war ensued between the two sides.
Giambologna captured the intense moment of the kidnapping with a young Roman grabbing and lifting a young Sabine. Below, an older man, probably the girl’s father, tries to stop the kidnapper. On the girl’s face and on that of the old man’s, we see the same desperate expression, the same sense of helplessness. But above all, the three bodies are intertwined with each other and seem to create a spiral that rises upwards, a truly remarkable dynamic effect.
Perseus With the Head of Medusa (Cellini, 1554)
Another famous hero of classical mythology is Perseus, son of Danae and Jupiter. The king of the gods fell in love with Danae and impregnated her in the form of a golden shower. The girl’s father ordered Danae and Perseus to be put into a chest and thrown into the sea because an oracle had predicted that his own grandson would kill him. They reached the island of Seriphos where the two were saved by the brother of King Polydectes. Polydectes fell in love with Danae and, to get rid of Perseus’ uncomfortable presence, ordered him to bring him the head of Medusa.
Who Was Medusa?
Medusa was one of the three famous gorgons, the only one considered deadly. In the oldest representations, she was hideous, while in more recent versions (Cellini’s head is an example) she was described as a beautiful yet frightening creature at the same time.
The myth tells that Poseidon had fallen in love with her when she was still a beautiful girl and one night seduced her in the temple of Athena. The goddess was deeply irritated by the affront she suffered and this turned the girl into a monster. A creature with hissing snakes on her head, Medusa’s gaze was so terrifying that anyone who looked into her eyes would turn to stone.
With the help of Athena, who gave him a shining shield, Perseus approached Medusa without looking into her eyes and managed to cut off her head.
The bronze masterpiece that we admire in Piazza della Signoria was commissioned by Cosimo I after his installation as Duke of the city and was built between 1545 and 1554. It was immediately placed in the Loggia dei Lanzi, where it could be in the company of Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith, but above all, it acquired a strong political significance.
Perseus is standing on the newly decapitated body of Medusa, with the sword in his right hand, while the left triumphantly raises the head of the monster held by its hair.
It is clearly a warning to the Florentine people, a work that must have aroused fear: the Duke, represented by Medusa, who would punish anyone who decided to rebel against his power.
Patroclus and Menelaus (artist unknown)
Another character of Greek mythology is Menelaus: he is the king of Sparta and the husband of Elena, who Paris brought to Troy causing the Greek expedition against the city. During the Trojan War, Achilles retired from the battle and Patroclus put on his armor, managing to reverse their fortunes. But he did not stop at beating the Trojans and this decision led to his death by the fatal blow of Hector. The two sides fought to grab Patroclus’ corpse and Menelaus battled for possession. He defended the body until sunset, and finally managed to bring it safely to the ships.
The statue in the Loggia de’ Lanzi is a copy of a Greek original from the 4th century BC. and was given by Pope Pius V to Cosimo de’ Medici. It arrived in Florence in 1579.
The Rape of Polyxena (Pio Fedi, 1866)
As long as we’re discussing the Trojan War, we cannot fail to mention the Rape of Polyxena, the only modern work among the ancient and Renaissance masterpieces in the Lanzi loggia.
Polyxena was the younger daughter of Priam who was kidnapped to be sacrificed and propitiate the favor of the gods. Pio Fedi emphasized the violence of the kidnapping in an almost theatrical way: below the body of Polites, who fell to defend his sister. Above him, the dominant figure of Pyrrhus, who with his sword in his right hand, is about to deliver a blow to Hecuba, Polyxena’s mother, and she in turn attempting to hold him back.
So these are the legends and mythological figures that inspired some of the most illustrious artists in the history of Florence. Very often, the patrons, especially the Medici, used artists to enhance their virtues. Knowing these stories, therefore, allows us to get to the heart of the sculpture and understand its purpose.
Obviously, biblical stories are also represented in Piazza della Signoria, such as David and Judith and Holofernes. These are both copies of two masterpieces by Michelangelo and Donatello … but that’s another story.
Article by Diletta MassiRedattore
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