When you hear ‘Palazzo Vecchio’ what comes to mind? The Medici? Power? Beauty? Palazzo Vecchio is the symbol of civil power in Florence, yet it is also a palace full of history, action–filled portrayals of epic battles, secret doors, maps and hidden cabinets. It is a place where we get the chance to compare the past to the present. And thanks to the programs featured at the Children’s Museum, the past real does come to life. Let me tell you what I learned on my visit there.
Palazzo Vecchio was built in 1299 to hold the city’s legislative council–namely the Priors–who lived and gather there to govern Florence. Later, in 1540, Cosimo de’ Medici, who had been elected Duke of Florence by a decree from the Emperor, moved his family into the palazzo and began extensive remodelling. Strangely enough, Cosimo’s wife, Eleonora di Toledo disliked the palazzo: she thought it was too small for the couple and their 11 children. Eleonora loved nature and very much desired a garden. Their new palazzo had no garden and so, in 1565, they moved across the river to Palazzo Pitti. In this way, Cosimo’s palace became known as the Old Palace, or Palazzo Vecchio.
Frescos by Giorgio Vasari, statues by Michelangelo and Bandinelli: the Hall of Five Hundred was one of the most important rooms in the palace. When Florence was a republic, this was the room in which the Priors and the citizens met. When Cosimo became Duke, the hall was converted into the throne room. Cosimo’s most trusted artist, Giorgio Vasari, frescoed the hall with battle scenes between Florence and its traditional rivals, Siena and Pisa (all of which, of course, Florence won). On the ceiling of the Hall of the Five Hundred are painted stories honoring the powerful duke. In the front center of the room stands a statue of Pope Leo X, a Medici. To his left is a statue of Cosimo’s father, and to the right, his eldest son, who would succeed him as duke. The entire presentation was meant to show how powerful (and how totally cool) Cosimo was.
The tour I took through the Children’s Museum taught me all of this history and concluded with an appearance by Cosimo himself! My tour guide, Ilaria, was excellent. She gave an informative tour without overwhelming us with too many dull facts. Instead, she kept the group intrigued by asking inviting questions about the animated history of the City Republic and the enthralling Medici dynasty. After learning about the Medici in the Hall of Five Hundred and winding through other family rooms, the group began a search for the ‘time machine’, which would take us back in time to the 16th century to meet Cosimo. I don’t want to ruin the experience for you, but I’ll give you a hint: we found the time machine in a room full of hidden cabinets and concealed doors.
The ‘Cosimo’ we met was certainly authentic. When we arrived, he emerged, wearing stockings and elegant velvet clothing. He surveyed us, completely baffled, and initially questioned our strange clothing. Asking my age, he suggested that I begin preparing for marriage. It was really riveting: a professional actor, ‘Cosimo’ never broke character. I was especially surprised at all the information I absorbed, but also at how much fun I had had while doing it.
The Children’s Museum in Palazzo Vecchio offers many other entertaining tours. You can sign up to meet Eleonora di Toledo and learn about the everyday life of Florence’s most powerful family. Giorgio Vasari leads a tour of the palace, while noting his own contributions to its art and architecture in ‘Guidati da Giorgio Vasari’. Museum Mice is another special tour, where the mice, who have lived in the palace for centuries, tell visitors about a theft which took place in the study of Cosimo’s son, Francesco. And in the Children’s Museum, you can even learn to paint frescos!
I also enjoyed the secret passage tour, a tour designed for adults and therefore slightly less engaging for younger kids. During the tour we discovered Cosimo and Francesco’s studies, reachable by hidden passageways and steep, narrow, winding staircases (those Medici must have been fit!). At the end of the tour, w
e climbed to the top of the building, to walk above the Hall of Five Hundred and observe the wooden structure of the ceiling, an architectural wonder designed by Vasari.
The Children’s Museum transforms a huge, imposing palace into understandable, fun doses of history. For kids of all ages, the Children’s Museum definitely brings Palazzo Vecchio to life.
Activities must be booked in advance (free of charge).
Information and bookings: tel. 055 2768224 – 055 2768558, daily from 9am to 6pm.