From secret passages to 500-year old graffiti, and from ghost stories to medieval UFO sightings, these oddities are a part of Florence magic that deserves to be discovered.
The Vasari Corridor
This one isn’t a secret anymore, but it certainly was born as one. To be exact, the corridoio was built under Duke Cosimo de’ Medici as a secret, elevated walkway connecting Palazzo Vecchio (then the government headquarters) to Pitti Palace (the duke’s residence), letting the ruler and his family to move freely across town, without having to mix with the populace (the Medici had many enemies, and the risk of assassination was always on their mind). At the same time, with its many small windows, the corridor allowed the ruler to secretly monitor the city, from a strategic vantage point and without being noticed.
Today, a section of the corridor is part of the Uffizi Gallery, and houses the museum’s renowned collection of self-portraits. The full corridor can only be visited upon reservation, usually in small groups. But even if you don’t make it inside, see if you can spot all of its visible parts from the streets!
The Horned Bull of the Duomo
The exterior of the Duomo is so rich in details that it’s virtually impossible to notice them all. There is one decorative element, however, that routinely catches the eye of tourists: an angry-looking bull that seems to be staring downwards. The story behind this odd sculpture is straight out of a Boccaccio novella, but to be fully appreciated you should first note this linguistic peculiarity: in Italy, a man or woman whose spouse is cheating on them is known as “having horns”.
Back in the 14th century, as the story goes, one of the master builders working on the Duomo’s construction began an illicit relationship with the young and pretty bride of a baker who had his shop on the square. When the baker found out, he notified the ecclesiastical court and had the usurper put in jail. But when the master builder finally returned to his work, he decided to take his revenge, with a proper dose of typical Florentine humor: he had a horned bull placed on one of the cathedral’s doccioni, sculpted at an angle, so that it was looking exactly in the direction of the cuckold’s shop, thus providing the “horned” baker with a daily reminder of his wife’s infidelities.
It actually depicts a wild boar, but everyone calls it “il Porcellino”, or the Little Pig. This porky bronze fountain was placed by the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo in the 1630s, when it was used by the silk merchants who operated in the building. Today it no longer serves this purpose, but has become the object of Florence’s most beloved superstition.
For reason unknown, a curious ritual has developed that involves rubbing the animal’s snout (no wonder it has stayed so shiny), then place a coin inside its mouth and let it slide down, without pushing it or trying to direct it: if the coin falls inside the drainage grate below, it’s happiness and wealth and all those good things. If not… well, you can always try again! P.S. Heavier coins have a greater chance of falling inside the grate. Besides, all of the fountain’s “proceeds” go to support a local orphanage.
The window that’s always open
In Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the top right window of Palazzo Grifoni, a beautiful red-brick building at the corner with Via de’ Servi, is open. Nothing out of the ordinary. Other than the fact that it’s been open, uninterruptedly, for about 400 years. Why? Nobody knows for sure, but there are a few theories…
As one legend has it, that room once belonged to a young bride whose husband went off to war, and never returned. The woman spent her whole life waiting and waiting, looking out from that very window. When she eventually died, someone tried to close the window, and a kind of medieval Poltergeist event ensued. Books started flying, furniture was shaking, all the lights in the palace inexplicably went dark. Clearly, the woman’s ghost didn’t want anyone messing with her window. So everyone figured it was best to just leave it open…
A different legend, however, claims that the window led to the bedroom of Archduke Ferdinand’s secret mistress. Since the duke would climb up the wall at night to carry out his affair with the woman, he officially ordered that the window always be kept ajar. And apparently, the ordnance was never repealed… Interestingly, Ferdinand’s equestrian statue, located in the square below, seems to be looking exactly in the direction of the open window.
Hidden faces in Piazza Signoria
On the base of Palazzo Vecchio, right at the corner of Piazza Signoria and Via dei Neri, you’ll notice a simple profile of a man’s face, carved into a stone about 5 feet from the ground. This crude “graffiti” was made by none other than Michelangelo, and it’s definitely the world’s only work by the great artist that you can actually touch… without getting arrested. The story behind the odd “doodle” is that Michelangelo used to be stopped every day by one very chatty fellow at that precise corner. The man would simply not stop talking, so one day, the bored artist decided to sculpt the man’s portrait while carrying on with the conversation… and he did it behind his back!
Just a few steps away, the most admired statue under the Loggia dei Lanzi is surely Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze masterpiece Perseus and Medusa. But not everyone knows that Cellini, as a sort of clever signature, inserted a portrait of himself into the back of Perseus’ head. Can you find it?
Florence’s Roman Amphitheater
Via Torta is a narrow alley in the Santa Croce area whose name means “Crooked Street”. Indeed, when looking from the piazza, you can clearly see the street swerve away as it circles the buildings to its left. The reason for its unusual shape is that it follows the perimeter of the Roman Amphitheater constructed in the 1st century A.D. In the early middle ages, houses were built on the foundation of the disused stadium, but this unusual city block preserved the shape of original structure. When looking from above (on Google Satellite, for example), you can still clearly make out the full oval outline of Florence’s long-gone Coliseum.
Circles on the Ground
If you’re a fan of Dan Brown, you already know that walls, pavements and streets can be replete with symbols and coded messages. That is certainly true in Florence, though not everything has to do with the Illuminati…
The so-called “stone of shame”, for example, is a bi-colored circle located under the Loggia del Porcellino. It gets its name from a practice that began in the 17th century, where insolvent debtors would be placed with their naked behind on that exact spot, and lashed publicly as punishment for their crime.
Another seemingly-random circular marble slab can be found behind the Duomo. Its meaning? It commemorates the exact spot where Verrocchio’s Ball (the golden sphere placed atop the dome) had come to a rest in 1601, after being struck by lightning and falling to the ground.
The most interesting of Florence’s “floor circles”, however, is probably the one inside the Cathedral. This concentric double slab goes mostly unnoticed by the average tourist, but every year it becomes the centerpiece of a spectacular 500-year old light show! Indeed, the marble disc was placed on the Duomo’s pavement in 1475 by mathematician Paolo Toscanelli as part of his elaborate gnomon, which through a small opening in the dome’s lantern, projects an image of the sun onto the cathedral’s floor. And every June, at the exact moment of the summer solstice, the circle of light lines up exactly with the marble disc. The amazing phenomenon can be witnessed in person, but reservations are required.
The UFO in Palazzo Vecchio
Jacopo del Sellaio’s 15th-century painting Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John is a fairly unremarkable work, one of thousands of nativity scenes that crowd the halls (and storage rooms) of Florence’s museums. Except for one bizarre detail: high in the sky, you can see an Unidentified Flying Object that is remarkably similar to the stereotypical alien saucer, while in the background, a shepherd and his dog are looking up in amazement at the mysterious aircraft. Could this be proof of a “close encounter” in Renaissance Florence?
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