Plenty of city halls were constructed in northern Italy by the late 1200s. In Florence, construction of the Palazzo del Podestà (later Bigallo) began in 1255.
The building is currently used as a statue museum and before that it was a prison. This explains its current name: Bargello, prison. This city hall was meant for the Commune Maggiore, which had need for a meeting place. A residential tower was already available, which was raised to fifty-four metres.
The building had a square shaped layout, but not a perfect one as the plot didn’t allow for it. The large hall has an interior that is more befitting of a gothic church than a town hall: with a rather large crossed vault. This eighteen-metre wide vault in the large hall was designed by Neri di Fioravanti. The same man who made the model for the Duomo dome. Of course, like a church, this building received a clocktower. That way it could summon all surrounding citizens. Like the layout, the exterior of Palazzo del Podestà is not entirely even. The windows are not the same size and the placement seems mostly random.
As a whole, it appears to have much in common with a keep, with battlements at the top and heavy rustication of the walls. Originally, there were two wooden walkways at the front of the palace, next to the tower. We can still see this today from the consoles and gates that served as the support beams for these walkways. In 1332, a fire broke out in the palace and a new first floor had to be built. The builders of the Opera del Duomo were summoned for this, who also worked on the Santa Maria del Fiore. They made the same bifore windows on the first floor as they had previously done with the Duomo.
The placement of the windows in the wall is sometimes rather messy. Something a Renaissance architect would not dare. The trichotomy in the facade is typical for the construction of Palazzi in Florence. The floors are clearly distinguishable from each other by a cornice, and each floor is slightly lower in height. The palace was also expanded in the same year of the fire. A second courtyard is added as we can tell from these layouts. This makes the original longer side the shorter one.
By 1574 the palazzo was being used as a prison. It was custom to portrait criminals in a fresco on the Bargello walls. One of these frescos can still be seen in the Bargello, namely: ‘The count of Athens is cast out of Florence under the watchful gaze of St. Anna’. The murderer of Giuliano de Medici and his brother Lorenzo, Bernardo Baroncelli, barely escapes, but was immortalised by Leonardo da Vinci in one of his sketches. The conspiracy of the Pazzi’s to get rid of the Medici reign failed. Baroncelli was hung outside a window of the Bargello, serving as an example to all those with nefarious plans. Leonardo made a sketch of this gruesome scene and noted, in mirror writing, the following in the margin of it: ‘Brown hood; black satin vest; black, lined, sleeveless jacket; a turquoise blue jacket with fox fur; and the collar of the jacket stitched with a black and red velvet; Bernardo di Bandino Baroncigli; black trousers’ Seemingly, Leonardo was more interested in the clothes than the executed criminal. Currently, the Bargello is a statue museum (Click here for the background of several statues in this museum) that we will visit on the day we discuss sculpting.