Between 1229 and 1315, Arnolfo planned the building of the Palazzo dei Priori, in a location not far away from where, in 1255, the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo (Representing the Comune del Popolo or delle Arti, elected by the people), later called the Bargello, was built. Before these buildings were erected, the seats of the city’s administrative offices had been located in place that were supposed to have other functions (rented houses or churches). Before the marquisate of Tuscany moved to Florence (in approx. 1058) the “Magravio” only occasionally visited the city to hold the court of justice on the balcony in front of the Baptistery. In his absence, the only real authority of the city was the bishop, who also had ruling powers for non-religious matters. The bishop’s palace could therefore be considered the actual seat of government. The first foreign chief magistrate called to Florence (in 1207) resided, in fact, in the bishop’s palace. It seems possible that some of the elements of the majestic public buildings of the city, dating back to the fourteenth and fifteenth century, could be related to the bishop’s Palace, also residence of the Margrave, which included a yard, external staircase and balconies. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the two magistrate’s councils of the town started meeting in what was, for the first time, called the Palazzo del Comune (Council building) not far from where now stands the Palazzo Vecchio. Meetings went on in Palazzo del Comune until 1235, when the building was destroyed by a popular rebellion. Records from 1240 show council meetings also being held in buildings in Piazza di Orsanmichele, in rented private properties, where the high magistrate held office, in the cathedral of Santa Reparata, in Santa Trinia and in the Abbey.
The erection, completed in a very short time, of two such imposing buildings like the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo (today Bargello) and the Palazzo dei Priori (today Palazzo Vecchio), may seem strange. But during the second half of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century, “it was normal for Tuscan cities to have more than one public building, sometimes even three or four. It helped the renovation process of the buildings themselves and the restructuring of the magistracies, which seemed to take different names, depending on the needs: of the Comune (council), of the Priori (Priors), of the Podestà (High Magistrate), of the Popolo (population) of the Capitano di Giustizia (Chief of Justice) and the likes, without nevertheless defining a net differentiation because of the unclear and inconsistent definition and allocation of the powers, a need which only came about in the eight century” (G. Marchini, N. Rodolico). As it was the case for many Council buildings around Italy, the real façade of the Florence Palazzo dei Priori was the short (north) side, running parallel to via delle Farine. The façade was symmetrical and the portal was wider than the current main entrance, which was built at a later stage, following the building of the Loggia della Signoria and the widening of the building itself.
The Palace represents a fusion of three main elements normally present in different types of buildings in the medieval architecture, and already included in the Bargello after the first two construction phases: the group made by the hall with its cross vault split in two naves on the ground floor (supporting the Council hall of the top floor), the tower, the internal courtyard with its arcade and external staircase.
This Palace by Arnolfo represents an improvement and a simplification of the model on which Palazzo del Popolo on via del Proconsolo was built, and it is the prototype for the council buildings in many other Tuscan cities (Volterra, Montepulciano, Scarperia, and so forth) Many of its features are characteristic of military architecture, such as the projecting embattled eaves galleries. But all the elements are perfectly combined, and even the position of the tower itself, dictated by the presence of the foundation of the previous tower degli Uberti, fits perfectly in the general architecture of the building.
The courtyard with its portico, the rustic façade and the structure of the three superimposed floors with a central arched door and the shape of the window are all elements that will feature strongly in the city architecture until the fourteenth century and the construction of the Medici Palace. It is worth mentioning that differently from the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, the Palazzo dei Priori was not furnished with wooden overhanging structures.
Before the imposing work of Brunelleschi came about, the Palazzo Vecchio was the highest structure in the urban area (Height of the tower: approx. 95m; height of the building up to the embattled balcony: approx. 43m). The tower is completely full except for a narrow shaft, which according to Vasari, was left for seismic reasons and to grant access to the top part. As a consequence, all the windows of the tower are blind.
Article by APT Firenze