There are some places that seem to transcend history. The Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, with its maze of secret passages and rooms, is definitely one of them. Take the Secret Passages Tour and see it all for yourself. Discover the hidden Studiolo, and the Tesoretto. Marvel at the Hall of the Five Hundred ceiling. And explore the palace that was seat of Florentine government and private residence of the Medici family.
As a Florentine, I’d been here plenty of times before to get one official document or another. That’s because the Palace is in fact the city’s Town Hall. This time I’m here on a quest. I want to find out what exactly was hidden behind these impressive walls.
The guide meets us next to the ticket booth jangling a heavy set of keys that made her look like a jailor. She led us to a small, innocuous looking door and we duck into a tiny stone-walled room.
The hidden staircase that saved a Duke
I’m standing at the steps of a spiral staircase that runs inside the thick wall of the Palace, and leads to a small door in via della Ninna. It was an escape route: “This is what saved the Duke of Athens Walter of Brienne, ruler of Florence, when he fled the city after the rebellion in 1343. He had these stairs built as a way to save himself if the worst should happen. And it did. When the rebels came, he ran down these steps in total darkness and disappeared into the Florentine night”.
The guide explains that the building went through massive renovations more than once during its long, seven century history. Plenty happened inside these walls. Florence saw civil battles and family rivalries, republican devotees and a religious fanatic called Savonarola. Finally the Medici family took power and created their own empire – the Duchy of Tuscany.
Medici’s hidden rooms
The guide leads us into a very small room that I’ve been wanting to see for ages. It’s the Studiolo, the tiny, dark, casket-shaped studio where Francesco I de Medici used to work. But what exactly was that work? “He wasn’t very fond of political affairs. Instead he spent his time sitting in here, studying alchemy, mixing potions and collecting peculiar substances and precious objects. Every detail of the decoration of this room reflects his passion”.
The Studiolo’s walls are completely covered with paintings. Paintings that are in fact fitted cupboards. The paintings depict mythical figures and complex metaphorical scenes that symbolised the natural world. And Francesco used to keep his collections behind them. Shells would be filed in the Poseidon cupboard. And golden objects would go in the cupboard that showed Danaë under a golden rain.
“The whole room is organised according to the four elements, Fire, Air, Water, Earth. The decorations, done by Vasari and his school, follow this precise scheme. Francesco is in the painting too, working at an alchemist’s furnace. He’s the one with the red tights.”
Then the guide pushes one of the cupboards and…a door opens. We are led into another diminutive room, the Tesoretto, the place where Cosimo I hid his private collection. Apparently collecting precious and unusual object was a trend in the 1500’s.
The wonders of the magnificent Hall of the 500
When you enter this hall for the first time – it definitely has a wow factor. It is immense, with tall frescoed walls and a coffered ceiling alive with paintings. Savonarola wanted a big enough room for the members of his large government that would meet here 500 at a time. Later Cosimo I, the Duke of Florence and Tuscany had it refurbished. Everything had to be about him, his power and victories. Vasari raised the ceiling and put a God-like portrait of Cosimo at the very centre of it.
“The room is a geopolitical map of Tuscany at the time of Cosimo I”, explains the guide “we have the battles won against Pisa and Siena, the symbols of all the towns conquered, and Michelangelo‘s statue, the Genius of Victory.”
The tour ends above the ceiling of the Hall of the 500, a very special place. This part of the Palazzo Vecchio is featured in Dan Brown thriller “Inferno”, where the protagonists risk their lives and destroy Vasari’s ceiling in the process. Standing here we can see the whole complex system of trusses used to support the heavy weight of the ceiling. From here I feel I’m looking right into the ancient heart of the building.
More on the Medici and Palazzo Vecchio
Amongst many other things, the Medici were proof that money could buy anything, even a noble title. The Medici came from the rural area of Mugello originally, and became ‘noble’ in 1531, thanks to an Imperial dispensation. But before becoming ‘kings of Tuscany’, more than a century had to pass, not to mention many difficulties. Cosimo the Eldest was imprisoned right here, in Palazzo Vecchio’s tower. Lorenzo and his younger brother Giuliano were attacked in Florence Cathedral in 1478. Giuliano was stabbed to death, and Lorenzo took revenge hanging their enemies, displaying their corpses from the windows of this very palace.
Tickets for the Palazzo Vecchio Secret Passage Tour:
The meeting point for the tour is at the ticket booth inside Palazzo Vecchio. The cost is 4 euro plus 10 for visiting the rest of the palace. Booking essential. Official site: musefirenze.it