Renaissance Dissident

The Heraldry of the Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio

The Heraldry of Florence 1

This is the first in a short series of articles about the heraldry of Florence that visitors to the city will see proudly displayed all around them on the buildings in the historic centre, and on objects and paintings in museums. The articles are intended to serve as a quick guide to curious travellers who may find themselves staring at a coat of arms and wondering just what it is that they are looking at. For clarity, I am going to describe the various coats of arms as they appear, rather than using technical heraldic terms, although there is a brief note on colours at the end of the articles. I begin with one of the most iconic buildings of Florence, the Palazzo della Signoria, now better-known as the Palazzo Vecchio, which still dominates the heart of the old city with its imposing bell tower.

The heraldry painted beneath the battlements of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
The battlements of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Photo: Jebulon (CC-BY-SA 1.0).

The Palazzo Vecchio was constructed between the late-13th to the early-14th Centuries, to serve as the first purpose-built seat of the Florentine Government, the Signoria. In 1343, after the expulsion of the tyrannical Lord of Florence, Walter of Brienne, Duke of Athens, the façade of the Palazzo Vecchio was decorated beneath its battlements with a series of frescoes of coats of arms related to the government, the people, and the political affiliations of the city, all displayed on shields. I’ll describe them from left to right.

A Brief Word First on Guelfs and Ghibellines.
These were two political factions which grew out of the power struggles between the Popes and the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperors in Medieval Italy. In fact the names of both factions derived from the names of German families vying for the Imperial Throne: Welf (Guelf) and Waiblingen (Ghibelline). Waiblingen was a battle-cry of the troops of the Hohenstaufen Frederick II, crowned Emperor in 1220, while Otto IV Welf, who had abdicated the Imperial throne in 1215, sided with Pope Innocent III, who was hostile to Hohenstaufen ambitions in Italy. In time both factions evolved their own heraldic symbols, as you will see below. The two factions both had supporters within the city, and over decades they fought ferociously for control of Florence and other cities across Italy, sometimes in open, full-scale battles.

The Arms:

1. A Red Cross on a White Field.
This is the cross of San Giovanni (Saint John the Baptist), the patron saint of the city. It is also the symbol of the ‘popolo’, the government of the people of Florence, and was adopted in 1292 as part of the Ordinances of Justice, passed in an attempt to restrain the violent excesses committed against the ordinary citizens by the powerful. According to the Mediaeval chronicler Giovanni Villani, it was the symbol on the Gonfalone (standard) which was stored in the church of San Pier Scheraggio, and carried by the Gonfalionere di Giustizia (the Standard Bearer of Justice). It was also displayed upon the shields of the 1,000 elected citizens who could turn out as an armed militia under the command of the Gonfaloniere to maintain order. In time, this cross became associated with the minuto popolo, the common people.
Incidentally, during the Imperial siege of 1529-30, when Florence had expelled the Medici and was once more briefly a republic, these colours were reversed on the flags of the defenders of the city: a white cross on a red field.

2. A Red Lily on a White Field.
This is the most readily-recognizable symbol of Florence, the Giglio, or ‘Lily’. The colours were originally reversed as per 7 below, but Villani states that in July 1251, when the Ghibelline faction was driven out of the city by the Guelfs, the people and the Guelf faction decided to reverse the colours of the arms to disassociate the city from the Ghibelline faction. And so it has remained to this day. For the origins of the Gilglio itself, see 7 below.

3. A Shield Divided Vertically in White and Red.
Villani explains that in the year 1010, Florence besieged and destroyed its near neighbour and rival Fiesole. After the destruction of their city, many Fiesolani came to live in Florence, greatly swelling the population of the city. In an attempt to harmonise relations between the two populations now together within the city, it was suggested that the arms of the two cities be merged, and this was done, removing the pale blue moon from the white shield of Fiesole, and the white lily from the red shield of Florence, thereby creating these combined arms for the Comune of Florence and Fiesole. The original Florentine arms were re-adopted at some point, but these combined arms continued to be used on one of two banners carried on the Carroccio, a heavy cart painted red, which was hauled into battle by two white oxen, and which acted as a rallying point for the army. The other banner displayed was the Giglio, either as per 2 or 7.
In 1250 the government of the Primo Popolo of Florence included the office of Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the People), an officer who was senior to the Podestà (see 8 below). The Capitano del Popolo represented the interests of the people against the power of the nobles, who were represented by the Podestà. The banner of the Capitano del Popolo bore the same white and red arms as the Comune of Florence and Fiesole.

The Medieval heraldry of Florence.
Arms, from left to right: the Popolo; the Florentine Giglio from 1251; the Comune of Florence and Fiesole; the Capitano del Popolo. Photo: © Chris Dobson.

4. Two Crossed White Keys on a Red Field.
These are the Keys of Saint Peter: the arms of the Papacy. They demonstrate Florence’s political allegiance to the Guelf Faction (see 6 below).

5. The Word LIBERTAS Diagonally Across a Blue Field.
Florence had been governed by the Podestà Charles of Anjou (see 8 below), but his rule was increasingly resented. In 1282, when the people of Sicily successfully rebelled against Charles (the Sicilian Vespers), the Florentines took advantage of his difficulties to expel his officials and create an independent and stable constitution, headed by the Guilds, the trade bodies of the city, and led by Priori (Priors), elected from the Major and Middle Guilds. There were three Priori at first, and then six: one for each administrative district of the city. They were called the Priori di Libertà: the Priors of Liberty. Libertas is the Latin form of Libertà.

6. A Red Eagle Clutching a Green Fire-Breathing Dragon in its Talons, and with a Golden Giglio above its Beak.
These are the arms of the Parte Guelfa: the Guelf Faction. They are actually the arms of Pope Clement IV. Following their defeat by the Ghibellines at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, Villani says that the defeated Guelfs turned to Pope Clement. He received them warmly, giving them money and other aid, and saying that “for his love of the Guelf Faction of Florence, they should always carry his own personal arms on their standard and seal”. Villani goes on to say that the Guelfs added a red Giglio above the head of the eagle, but here it is rendered in yellow.

The history of Florence, Italy.
Arms, from left to right: the Papacy; the Priori di Libertà; the Parte Guelfa. Photo: © Chris Dobson.

7. A White Lily on a Red Field.
This is the original emblem of Florence, a white Gilgio on a red field, later associated with the Ghibelline Faction and reversed in 1251 (as per 2 above). Villani says that the image of a flower as the heraldic symbol of the city goes back to the founding of the Roman city of Florentia, and in fact this took place at the time of the spring festivities of the ludi florales (the games or entertainments of Flora, the goddess of flowers), it was from these festivities that the new city took its name. This ‘lily’ is actually an iris, the Giaggiolo: the Florentine Iris, or Orris Root. It is white with faint lavender colouring. It was cultivated in Florence during the Middle Ages, its root being used both for perfume and for its medicinal qualities.

8. Yellow Fleur-de-Lys on a Blue Field, with a Red Stripe with Four Pendants across the Top of the Shield.
These are the arms of Charles of Anjou (1227-85), King of Naples and Sicily. A Guelf regime was established in 1267 under the protection of Charles of Anjou, who was voted Podestà of Florence for six years. The Podestà was a foreigner rather than a Florentine (in an effort to ensure impartiality), who was chief magistrate of the city, and who led the army in war. He rarely visited Florence, instead governing through vicars. His unpopular tenure as Podestà ended Charles was the fourth son of King Louis VIII of France, which is why his shield bears the French Royal Arms with a red stripe (a label) with four pendants. NB: the arms of Robert of Anjou are also repeated above all the shields along the façade.

9. A Shield Vertically Divided into Black and Yellow Horizontal Bars and Yellow Fleur-de-Lys on a Blue Field.
These are the arms of Robert of Anjou (1277-1343), grandson of Charles, King of Naples and leader of the Guelf faction in Italy. As an ally of Florence, the Guelf leaders of the city made Robert Signore (Lord) of the city in 1313, granting him significant military and political powers, but his Lordship actually lasted eight years.

The Medieval coats of arms of Florence
Arms, from left to right: the original Florentine Giglio; Charles of Anjou; Robert of Anjou. Photo: © Chris Dobson.

A Note on Heraldic Colours.
Strictly speaking the colours white and yellow do not exist in heraldry, and instead these are the ‘metals’ silver (argent) and gold (or). The chronicler Giovanni Villani describes the red used in the arms as “vermiglio”: vermillion.

Chris Dobson

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