The Statues of Piazza della Signoria August 5, 2015 · 26 min. read
I'll never forget the first book I read by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. This novel, Brimstone, focuses on several businessmen who supposedly sold their soul to the devil to gain wealth and power. Things take a turn for the worst, however, when the businessmen begin to be killed off by some kind of demonic force. This thrilling mystery novel takes the heroes to Florence, Italy where they uncover something as dark as hell itself: the human soul.
I hadn't realized it while reading Brimstone, but Preston was actually writing two novels while living in Florence. While one was about a fictional devil, the other was about a real devil, "The Monster of Florence". The Monster killed for 17 years, and had almost twenty victims. He would kill lovers, mutilate the females and occasionally send pieces of them to the police. The Monster was never caught.
While living in Florence, Preston teamed up with Florencian journalist Mario Spezi, a man who had followed the killings since the beginning and knew more than anybody else about the Monster. Together, the two journalists uncovered vast amounts of shady police work, missing evidence, unreliable witnesses, false testimonies, blatant accusations, innocent imprisonments, corrupted politics and Satanic rituals.
As I finished reading Preston and Spezi’s novel, The Monster of Florence: The True Story, I found myself thinking back to my time in Florence. When I was there, I had no knowledge of the crimes that had been committed, nor of the horrors the city found itself plagued by. I am even too young to know the name Amanda Knox. My guide had no mention of the Monster, and to me, the most grotesque events occurred at Palazzo Vecchio, a tower on the edge of Piazza della Signoria. This was the location where the fictional serial killer, Hannibal Lector, gutted and hung the Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi. This, I believed, made this the most interesting location in Florence.
I was wrong.
Out the windows of the towering Palazzo Vecchio, just a block away from where Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti rivaled for the greatest painter in Europe, lies the expansive Piazza della Signoria. The piazza is always full of tourists, gawking at the myriad of Renaissance statues. From David to Hercules to Neptune, this plaza captures the minds of humanities most illuminated few, and displays them for all to gaze at in astonishment.
But behind these statues there are their stories, and while these stories are just as interesting as that of Monster of Florence, they do not have films starring George Clooney in them. Instead, most of these stories are forgotten by ages past. In remembrance of this, I bring you their stories: ones of war, murder, rape and religion – things Florence knows all too well.
You will see David when visiting Florence. You will see him perched on the cliffs outside the city, you will see in him in the Piazza della Signoria, and you will see him in the museum. David is the most iconic statue in Florence, and one of the most recognizable.
While statues of David have been created before, this masterpiece by Michelangelo is unique for several reasons. One reason in particular is the stance David is standing in. While other artists show David slaying Goliath, or standing over the corpse of the giant, this one is different. In this statue, David is just standing there, looking over his shoulder. Unlike the others, Michelangelo sculpted David the moment directly after challenging Goliath, at a moment prior to one of the most defining points in history.
Stories tell us that Saul ruled over Israel at this time. He was told by the prophet Samuel that God had abandoned him, and soon got sick and was afflicted by an "evil spirit of the Lord". It was discovered that music would scare the spirit away, so Saul had his arm-bearer David play for him on the lyre. During war, David would carry provisions out to the soldiers. This is how he met Goliath.
Saul's kingdom was under attack by the Philistines, and after weeks of fighting, the Philistines’ greatest warrior, the seven to ten foot tall Goliath, put out a challenge. He asked for Israel to choose their best warrior to come fight him and end the conflict. If Israel lost, Philistine would conquer them, but if the Philistines lost, they would be servants to Israel. With Goliath being twice as tall as most soldiers, none of the Israelites dared to take up the challenge.
Once David heard of this challenge however, he appealed to Saul to let him fight. Saul agreed and David entered the battle with only five stones and a slingshot. It was this moment of David approaching Goliath, before the battle begins, that Michelangelo captured forever.
David would win this battle, and would punctuate the victory by slicing off Goliath’s head and showing it to his enemies. In time, he would become king of Israel, bringing forth the most prosperous time in Israeli history. Through this act, he would also create the bloodline that Jesus Christ would later be born from, and in turn give birth to the world’s largest religion.
And you thought people just liked David because of his small penis!
Just outside Palazzo Vecchio is the statue of the Roman god Neptune, the equivalent of the Greek god Poseidon. Neptune had two brothers, Jupiter (Zeus) and Pluto (Hades). Once the three gods defeated their father Cronus (Saturn) and became the most powerful beings in the universe, they each took different roles. Jupiter was the god of the sky, Neptune the god of the water and Pluto the god of the underworld.
Neptune is known for his lust, which led him to have many wives and lovers. One story revolves around a woman named Medusa, who was the most beautiful woman in the world. Although she had many suitors, she denied them all, including Poseidon. However, Poseidon didn’t take no for an answer and proceeded to rape Medusa inside the temple of Minerva (Athena). Minerva, upon seeing what happened in her temple, cursed Medusa for her beauty and vanity and transformed her hair into snakes, and made it so that if any person looked upon her, they would turn to stone. It would seem almost poetic that the stone statue of Poseidon in the Piazza della Signoria is looking directly at Medusa, only yards away.
Although there are many statues built throughout Italy of Neptune and Poseidon, the one in Florence was seen as one of the worst. In the years after it was built, instead of being respected, the fountain was used as a washbasin. Later, sections of the fountain were stolen, smashed and vandalized, with occurrences being as recent as 2007.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa
By far my favorite statue in Piazza della Signoria is that of Perseus and Medusa. This statue was created by Benvenuto Cellini in 1545, but unlike the other statues, this one was created from bronze, not marble. At the time of creation this statue would have been a brilliant orange color, giving Perseus a godlike persona. Now, however, the statue is a dark green, reflecting that of Medusa’s serpent hair. In a way, this statue is a continuation of Neptune’s story with it picking up just years after Minerva curses Medusa.
One day, an Italian king named Acrisius received a prophesy that his not-yet-conceived grandson would kill him. Terrified of the possibility, he locked his daughter Danae into a tower. One night, Jupiter (Zeus) appeared to Danae and told her he could make the dark, dank room into a bright pasture of flowers if she married him. Danae agreed. Acrisius saw the light of the pasture from the room’s windows and sent soldiers to break down the door and kill whoever was inside. However, once they did, they discovered Danae alone, holding a newborn baby.
Furious, Acrisius locked both Danae and her son Perseus into a chest and threw it into the river. The chest washed down stream and eventually landed on the island of Seriphos, where Polydectes ruled. Polydectes’ brother, a fisherman, found them and helped raise Perseus. Several years later Polydectes heard about Danae and asked her marry her, but she declined. To get back at her her, Polydectes pretended to marry another woman and invited everybody to the wedding, with the requirement they bring gifts. Danae and Perseus came, but were too poor to buy gifts, so Polydectes teased Perseus, asking if his dear nephew didn’t appreciate all that had been done for him. Perseus said he appreciated it all, and would do anything to repay Polydectes. Perseus was then given the task of retrieving the head of Medusa.
Upon beginning his journey, Perseus met the god and goddess Minerva and Hermes. They informed Perseus that they were siblings, and would help him on his quest. Hermes provided him with winged shoes and a sickle, and Minerva, the god who cursed Medusa to begin with, gave him a reflective shield. Then they gave him directions to Medusa’s cave.
Arriving several days later, Perseus snuck up on the cave during the night while Medusa slept. Using his shield as a mirror, he slowly crept into the cavern towards the demon. Once close enough, he brought down the sickle onto the back of her neck and decapitated her. He then picked up the head by the hair and held it proudly before him, like an Islamic extremist showing off his most recent beheaded victim to a crowd, and that moment of power, victory and bloodshed was captured forever in bronze a millennium later.
While the story is interesting, the real fascinating part about this sculpture is the heads of Perseus and Medusa. Needing a woman as a model, Cellini tricked his lover into posing for him and used her face as that of Medusa – the most beautiful woman that ever was, but also the hideousness. Perseus’s head is also unique, but you have to stand behind the statue to see it. Between the wings of Perseus’s crown, among his hair, is another face, not of Cellini’s lover, but that of the bearded Cellini himself!
Hercules and Cacus
Hercules in Roman, or Heracles in Greek, was the son of Jupiter and the mortal Alcmene, and daughter of Perseus. Because he was a demi god, Hercules’ life was full of adventures that showcased his incredible strength. Some of his adventures involved slaying golden lions, defeating terrifying sea serpents and returning the three-headed dog Cerberus back to Hades. While not his most common story, one adventure Hercules had was killing the fire breathing monster Cacus.
The story goes that after slaying the giant Geryon, the grandson of Medusa, Hercules took his cattle and was pasturing them in a field near the Seven Hills of Rome, long before Rome was founded. He stopped the journey here and decided to rest for the night. While sleeping, Cacus emerged from his nearby cave and discovered the cattle. Cacus favored human flesh, and was known for decapitating his victims and using their heads as decorations, but he couldn’t resist the cattle and stole eight of them, dragging them back to his lair by their tails.
When Hercules awoke, he discovered his cattle missing and had followed the tracks to Cacus’ cave. Cacus, once he saw Hercules coming, sealed the cave with a large boulder. Angered with Cacus, Hercules proceeded to tear off the top of the mountain and confront Cacus from above by throwing massive stones down upon him. Cacus countered by billowing smoke at Hercules, making his offensive nearly impossible. Hercules then jumped down into the cave, threw Cacus onto the ground and chocked the monster until his eyes popped out and he bled to death.
This statue in Piazza della Signoria shows the moment after Hercules throws Cacus to the ground, and is right before he slays the beast. This statue was created to be a counter of David, as David was a spiritual warrior while Hercules was a physical one. Sculpting began in 1523 but due to wars, the removal and return of the Medici family and the imprisonment of the Pope, the statue took over a decade to finish. Almost 500 years later, in 1994, it was discovered the original club Hercules was holding has been stolen and replaced with an aluminum duplicate. Nobody knows when in the five centuries this occurred.
The Rape of the Sabine Women
Sitting inside the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria is a statue of three people, two men and one woman, all carved from a single piece of marble. The marksmanship is incredibly detailed, and shows the reactions of Rome’s first ever conquest.
With Cacus defeated, the pasture between the Seven Hills of Rome was for the taking. Romulus and Remus, both sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars (Aries), decided this area would be a good place to set up their own city. However, the two brothers could not decide on where to build it, so Romulus killed Remus. While establishing a very early Rome, Romulus quickly realized a fatal flaw in his plan; his army were all male soldiers! Even if Romulus did build a beautiful city, without women his city would fall. Romulus tried to negotiate with the nearby Sabine to give him some of their women, but Sabine refused. So, Romulus and his army charged Sabine stole the women from their husbands.
It should be noted that at the time of creating this marble masterpiece, "rape" in Italian did not mean the same as it does today. Instead, "rape" simply meant to "abduct". The Roman historian Livy says that, unlike later raids, these women were not sexually assaulted and were instead seduced with stories of wealth and power, something that Rome did not yet have. Once brought back to Rome, the women were offered the choice to return or to marry their handsome captors. Later, when the Sabines attacked Rome to reclaim their women, the women stood in the way of their weapons and said "that as fathers-in-law and sons-in-law they would not contaminate each other with impious blood, nor stain their offspring with parricide [...]. If you are dissatisfied with the affinity between you, if with our marriages, turn your resentment against us; we are the cause of war, we of wounds and of bloodshed to our husbands and parents. It were better that we perish than live widowed or fatherless without one or other of you."
This statue shows the moment one of the women were stolen from their apparent husband, with the captor crushing him against a rocks while the woman struggles to be free. While according to Livy such a violent event most likely didn’t occur, this statue nevertheless marks the beginning of the Roman Empire, one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.
Girolamo Savonarola's Execution Plaque
The Renaissance is known for its beauty, artwork and nudity. It ended the so called "Dark Ages" and brought humanity back into the realms of science, astrology and physics. However, not all men loved the idea of naked statues dotting his city, and one of these men was Girolamo Savonarola.
Savonarola was a Roman Catholic preacher in Florence who began to preach that Christianity needed to be revived and the artwork created by the Renaissance masters were that of sin and impurity. Savonarola also claimed another biblical flood would strike the world and that a new church would be founded in the north. In 1494 Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, and many Florencians began to believe in Savonarola’s teachings.
With Florence under siege, Savonarola pressed Charles VIII to spare the city, promising Charles that he would become a leader of his reformed church. Charles agreed and carried south, leaving Florence intact. This, Savonarola claimed, was evidence that Florencians were the chosen people and would birth a "New Jerusalem".
Now popular and very powerful, Savonarola began to push for new laws to be created in Florence, with the primary law being the destruction of anything that invoked "vice", including the nude artworks of the Renaissance. His request was for it all to be burned and destroyed. The artists of Florence had no choice and handed over their collections. They even approached the Medici family and asked to have their work back, but the Medici refused, saying they now owned the artwork. Thanks for the Medici, this is all we have left of the beauty of the early Renaissance, with the rest being burned at the Bonfire of the Vanities.
Savonarola then made the mistake of saying he could perform miracles, and a fellow preacher in Florence asked him to put it to the test. Savonarola agreed, and the first trial by fire in over four hundred years was set. The Piazza della Signoria was full of people to witness this event, but Savonarola kept delaying it, making the crowd angry. Suddenly, the skies opened up and the burning was called off, with Savonarola saying it was proof of his divinity. In frustration, a mob arrested and imprisoned Savonarola and his fellow friars for two weeks before putting them on trial for heresy. All four were found guilty and were hung in Piazza della Signoria, with fires ignited below to consume their bodies. As expected, Savonarola burned.
The spot where he died is marked with a plaque, but this is not where his story ends. While the Renaissance carried on without him, his teachings also carried on, especially in northern Europe. They would fuel the Protestant reformation, which would form a new church and ultimately end the Renaissance several centuries later, completing Savonarola’s prophecy.
Piazza della Signoria
Today, to the average tourist, Piazza della Signoria is nothing more than a square full of statues. Yes, the statues are beautiful, but they pale in comparison to the millennium old Duomo. To the average tourist these statues are nothing but stone artworks of people and places from a time gone by. What they – and myself upon visiting them – do not realize is that these statues are moments of history where the world changed. These moments might involve killing a giant, or raiding a nearby city for their women, but their ramifications have rippled throughout history into the present day, leaving the crimes committed by the Monster of Florence to seem almost expected in a city showcasing history’s battles, rapes and bloodshed. These statues are a testament of time, of mankind, and of you and me, bringing us into the past so we can reflect onto the future, and to the beauty of what Piazza della Signoria really is.
Thanks to Greg O'Beirne who took the image of Girolamo Savonarola's Execution Plaque taken in 1999. Image borrowed from Wikipedia.
Thanks to WalkAboutFlorence for their beautiful picture of Piazza della Signoria shown above.
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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