Marzocco was commissioned by the Republic of Florence for the apartment of Pope Martin V at Santa Maria Novella, where this traditional insegna of communal republican defense stood guard atop a column at the foot of the stairs that led to the sale del papa ("Papal apartments") in the convent. The Pope lingered at Florence after leaving the Council of Constance during the Western Schism. The Donatello Marzocco was moved to its present location in Piazza della Signoria in 1812, the ancient original that had stood since 1377 in this spot at the end of the bench called the ringhiera, upon which speakers traditionally harangued the crowd, having weathered with time to an unrecognizable mass of stone. The ringhiera, once a platform from which the Signoria addressed the people, then a focus for popular tumult, was removed at the same time.
The obscure name Marzocco, unfathomable to some scholars, would by others derive from Marte (Mars), whose Roman statue, noted by Dante and carried away by a flood of the Arno in 1333, had previously been Florence’s emblem. The lion is seated and with one paw supports the coat-of-arms of Florence, the fleur de lys called il giglio, the lily. Marzocco was` invoked in the Florentine battle cry and figures in Gentile Aretino's poem "Alla battaglia":
"San Giorgio, Marzoccho Marzoccho
suona percuoti, forbocta rintoccholegagli strecti e pon lor buona taglia!"
Palle palle, Marzoccho Marzoccho
The Marzocco was such a powerful symbol of the Florentine Republic that the republican Florentine troops in the Siege of Florence (1529–1530) were known as marzoccheschi, "sons of the Marzocco", and pro-Medici besiegers of the city in 1530 held a funeral and ritually buried a representation of it, with bells tolling. At Anghiari, subject to Florence from 1385, the 15th-century Palazzo del Marzocco faces the church; at Montepulciano stands the Marzocco column; at Volterra the Marzocco stands against the Palazzo dei Priori, seat of government; at Livorno the 15th-century Torre del Marzocco (illustration, right) guards the harbor entrance; and at Pietrasanta there are a 16th-century Marzocco fountain and the Marzocco column, erected in 1513 when Pope Leo X awarded the commune to Florence.
In the subjected territory of Pisa, when Charles VIII of France entered Sarzana in 1494, the Pisans took the Marzocco, emblem of their subjugation to Florence, and cast it into the Arno. Live lions were kept at the commune's expense from the Middle Ages until they were banished in 1771.
"Corona porto, per la patria degna,
Acciochè libertà ciascun mantegna."
Donatello’s original, sculpted in the fine-grained gray sandstone of Tuscany called pietra serena, has been conserved in the Bargello since 1855. The version still exposed to weather in Piazza della Signoria is a copy.
Il Marzocco was adopted for the name of a progressive weekly literary review in broadsheet format published in Florence in 1896–1932.
- The Medici lions
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- McHam, Sarah Blake, Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture, ch. "Public Sculpture in Renaissance Florence" (Cambridge University Press, 1998; paperback edition, 2000)