The statue of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere

Deirdre Pirro
April 26, 2012

No other outdoor monument in the historic centre of Florence represents it neighbourhood as much as the statue of Ludovico di Giovanni de' Medici, known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, situated in piazza San Lorenzo. Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici commissioned the statue in honour of his father, the last of the great mercenary military captains, and sculptor Baccio Bandinelli began working on it in 1540. Uncharacteristically, Bandinelli presented his subject seated on a throne-like chair. He doubtlessly thought this was appropriate: the statue was to rest on a pedestal inside the Basilica of San Lorenzo. But Cosimo I changed his mind and had the statue installed in Palazzo Vecchio, in the Sala dell'Udienza.



Bandinelli also decorated the massive marble pedestal on which the statue was to rest, carving a relief celebrating the clemency shown by the victorious Giovanni dalle Bande Nere to his prisoners. However, the pedestal proved too large when Cosimo changed his plans, so instead of going with the statue to Palazzo Vecchio, it was placed in piazza San Lorenzo, where it stands today, and soon became popularly known as the Base of San Lorenzo. In 1812, Giuseppe del Rosso designed the public drinking fountain, also for use by animals, which was added to the base.


When, in 1850, the two pieces of the monument were finally united in the square, the locals were so bemused by the fact the fierce warrior was sitting in a chair rather than standing or on horseback that they made up a satirical verse about it. ?Messer Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, so bored and tired from his long ride, had to dismount and sit down to rest his backside.'


They were also puzzled about what he is holding in his right hand. In another Bandinelli statue (in the Salone de' Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio) he is holding a baton of command, and in a statue by Temistocle Guerrazzi (under the portico of the Uffizi) he holds a sword. But this object is thicker than a baton or sword, is tapered at each end and has a groove running around it. Today, it is believed that he is grasping a broken lance, a symbol of his untimely death.


The turbulent life of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere was indeed a short one, for he died at 28. Born in Forl? on April 6, 1498 to Caterina Sforza (the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan) and her third husband, Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de' Medici (called il Popolano), Giovanni dalle Bande Nere was baptised Ludovico, in honour of Ludovico il Moro. However, after his father's death in September that same year, Caterina renamed him Giovanni and moved her family to Florence. Giovanni, the youngest of her many children, proved to be a handful even for this resolute and resourceful woman.


After his mother Caterina's death in 1509, Iacopo Salviati and his wife Lucrezia de' Medici, daughter of Lorenzo il Magnifico, became the guardians of this dissolute youth who lived to gamble, womanise and pick fights. (Bored with his schooling, he was so violent and rebellious that at the age of 12 he was banished from the city for murder: he killed a boy his own age.) It was only with the return of the Medicis to power in 1512 that Giovanni, thanks to Salviati's influence, finally found his calling at the service of the Medici pope, Leo X, as the commander of a cavalry company of mercenaries during the battle of Urbino (1516-17). In 1517, he married Maria, Salviati's daughter, who gave birth on June 15, 1519 to their only child, Cosimo, whose future reign-in stark contrast to his father's life-brought wealth, power and enlightenment to Florence. 


Continuing to serve Leo X, in 1521, Giovanni took part in the Italian war to oust the French from the Duchy of Milan. An aggressive tactician, by employing his light horse brigade in rapid skirmishes and ambushes, he was instrumental in the victory of the joint forces of the pope and Emperor Charles V. As a sign of mourning following the sudden death of Leo X on December 21, 1521, Giovanni and his men added bande nere (?black bands') to their armour, hence his nickname.


After serving briefly as head of the troops of the Florentine Republic, Giovanni changed sides. Chronically in debt, this was something that he would continue to do frequently. He joined the French, only to be on the losing side at the battle of Bicocca in 1522.


Next, he sold his services to the Sforza family, but after a failed attempt to set up his own fiefdom at Aulla, in the Lunigiana, he was once again on the battlefield, this time on the side of another Medici pope, Clement VII, owing to his wife's intercession.


In May 1526, an alliance, the League of Cognac, united France, the Duchy of Milan, Venice, Florence and the pope, with the support of England, fought against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. On November 25, 1526, during a battle to hold back the advance of Georg Frundsberg's Imperial forces into Lombardy, a canon ball hit Giovanni above his right knee. His leg was amputated, but he died of septicaemia four days later. Buried in Mantua wearing his signature armour, he was not returned to Florence until 1685 to be entombed in the Chapel of the Princes in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a stone's throw from his statue.



The armour in which Giovanni dalle Bande Nere was originally buried was retrieved from his grave in 1857 and is on display at the Stibbert Museum (Ataf bus 4).



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