THE COATS OF ARMS OF PALAZZO VECCHIO
If you are in Piazza della Signoria, in the center of Florence, and look up at Palazzo Vecchio (the “Old Palace”), you can immediately notice that on the façade, just below the brackets, there are some coats of arms. They are nine altogether, and once their sequence is completed, they are again repeated in the same order; they date back to the Medieval times, in particular to 1343, and are the result of the main historical events of the city of Florence.
And they are, in order:
The first emblem is the so-called “cross of the people” or “flag of the people”: it dates back to 1250, when the political figure of the Capitano del Popolo (“Captain of the People”) was created: a man with the city government, representing the people as opposed to another political figure, the Podestà (“Chief Magistrate”), who was instead a representative of the noble class. Of course, the word “people” doesn’t indicate the lowest and poorest layer of the society at the time, but the middle class consisting of the members of the Guilds, the bankers, the merchants, and so on. Giovanni Villani (1276-1348), a Florentine historian, claims that this symbol appeared on the banner of the Capitano del Popolo. It seems, however, that this banner was later assigned by the Capitano himself to a further political figure, born in 1292: the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia (“Standard-bearer of Justice”), an office assigned for the first time to Baldo Ruffoli. It seems that this coat of arms was also taken into battle on the carroccio fiorentino (“Florentine war altar” : a great, four-wheeled cart), along with the other standards related to the city of Florence.
The lily is the symbol of Florence: its origins are uncertain, and what we have today are mainly theories. One of these claims that this flower represents an iris, that, especially in the past, grew in large quantities around the city. A second theory, instead, goes back to the time when the Romans founded the colony of Florentia in 59 BC, an event that coincided with the celebrations for the arrival of Spring, in honor of the goddess Flora (“Ludi Florales,” or “Floralia” – public games and competitions). Originally the symbol of the city was the white lily on a red background, until, in the 13th century, the lily was adopted as symbol also by the two main political parties opposing each other to obtain the control of the city government: the Guelphs, supporters of the Pope, and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Emperor. The Ghibellines used the white lily on a red background as their emblem, while the Guelphs kept the same symbol, reversing the colors: a red lily on a white background. In 1266, in the Battle of Benevento, the Guelph troops of Charles of Anjou (brother of King Louis IX of France) defeated the Ghibelline Troops of Manfred of Sicily (son of the Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen): in Florence, as in other cities, this led to a total supremacy of the Guelph faction on the opponent, and from this moment on, the red lily on a white background became the emblem of the city of Florence.
The lengthwise bipartite shield, white on one side, and red on the other side, ratifies the alliance between the city of Florence and the nearby city of Fiesole, after the latter was conquered by the first in 1010, or more likely in 1125. The emblem represents the union of the flags of the two cities, where both central symbols have been removed: the white lily of Florence, and the blue crescent dominated by a red eight-pointed star of Fiesole. This leaves only the red background for Florence, and the white background for Fiesole, vertically matched together.
The two golden keys on a red background are the emblem of the papacy, adopted also by the city of Florence after the victory of the Guelphs, supporters of the Pope.
The word Libertas (“Liberty”) was the motto adopted by the Priors of the Guilds. These were born as representatives of the guilds, which were the main commercial and industrial associations, that as of 1282 became also the leaders of the municipality of Florence; these were the same that were later called “Signori” (“Lords”) and that therefore turned Florence into a “Signoria” (“Lordship” or “Government of the Lords”).
The shield with a red eagle on a white background, with a little golden lily on its head, holding a dragon in its claws, was granted to the Guelph party by Pope Clemens IV, as a recognition for their participation in the Battle of Benevento of 1266, supporting the papal troops led by Charles of Anjou against the imperial troops led by Manfred of Sicily.
The golden lilies on a blue background, with a red rake on the top part, refer to Charles of Anjou, who, after the Battle of Benevento, was entrusted with the Government of Florence for about ten years. The lilies, in fact, are the symbol adopted by the King of France, while the rake was given to the second-born of the Reign.
Finally, the last lengthwise bipartite shield, with horizontal black and yellow stripes on one side, and golden lilies on a blue background on the other side, belonged to the King Robert, son of Charles of Anjou, who, as of 1313, was entrusted with the Signoria of Florence for five years, so to protect the city from the threats of the Emperor Henry. However, some claim that this shield is connected to Charles Duke of Calabria, son of the King Robert, who, as of 1325, was entrusted with the Government of Florence for ten years.