Florence and the symbol of the Lion

Statues of lions have been seen around Florence since the Middle Ages and today you can spot them just about anywhere. Although they are a symbol of power all over the world, they have a particular connection to this city.

Lions at the main entrance of Palazzo Vecchio (Credit: Gabriel Reyes)

The heraldic lion – also known as the Marzocco lion – is the animal symbol representing the free Republic of Florence. As the legend goes, the Florentine Republic chose the symbol of the lion over other animals because lions are able to tear apart the eagle, which is the symbol of imperial power.

The most famous Marzocco is in piazza della Signoria. Sculpted in grey pietra serena by Donatello in the early 15th century, this Marzocco lion protects the red lily, the symbol of the city. The Marzocco we see in piazza is a copy, the original has been conserved in the Bargello since 1855.

Donatello’s Lion (Credit: Gabriel Reyes)

There are several versions of the Marzocco from varying eras in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. Not only statues of lions, but the real creatures themselves also form part of Florence’s history.

Lion at the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (Credit: Gabriel Reyes)

Around 1280, Florentines kept a real lion in a cage by the Baptistery. According to legend, it escaped one day and snatched a child, but gave it back unharmed to its mother. Since then, lions have been also been seen as a symbol of good luck for the city, and their numbers around town increased.

Their cages were moved here, behind Palazzo Vecchio, to what is now via dei Leoni, or Street of the Lions. In the fifteenth century as many as 24 lions were kept here.

Via dei Leoni (Credit: Gabriel Reyes)

This lion, holding up the flagpole on top of Palazzo Vecchio, turns according to the wind.

Flagpole of Palazzo Vecchio (Credit: Gabriel Reyes)

These two lions guard the entrance to the Loggia dei Lanzi in piazza Signoria.

Lions at the Loggia dei Lanzi (Credit: Gabriel Reyes)

They are known as the Medici Lions, because they once belonged to Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici and adorned Villa Medici, his home in Rome until they were moved to the Loggia in 1789.

There are many more statues of the Marzocco around the city. See how many you can spot as you walk through the centre.

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