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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Florence: Palaces: Photo 1

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It can be unsettling to Americans to wander around Florence all day without seeing a single police car.  A thousand years ago, however, this place, like the rest of  Europe, was dangerous.  That's why the city by 1200 had some 150 tower houses, whose doubled walls may have been filled with gravel but whose towers symbolized family power and prestige.  In 1250, the city limited the towers to 50 braccia, about 100 feet. At about the same time, a more effective limit was imposed by the warfare between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, which reduced most of the towers to ruins.

So much for the rationale behind the Palazzo Vecchio, or "old palace," which combines the elements of a fortress with those of a house, for example with its fair-sized windows.  It was begun in 1292, when the tower-house had already run its course and when building one was more an appeal to tradition than functional necessity.  The architect was Arnolfo di Cambio, who previously had begun Santa Croce. At various times, the building has had other names, including the Palazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Ducale, a name adopted when it became the residence of Grand Duke Cosimo I.  The name Palazzo Vecchio came into use after 1549, when the Medicis moved across the river to the Pitti palace.

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