Michelangelo’s Graffiti and a Peeing Lion: Two Curiosities From Florence

Everywhere I go, I like to find little legends and oddities. Today I want to tell you about two that can be found in Florence. Palazzo Vecchio (which means Old Palace) in Piazza della Signoria is where the Medici used to rule from before they moved to the more modern palace on the other side of the river. The Old Palace is filled with amazing art, sculpture, and decorations, but  I want to talk about two little curiosities you can find on the outside of the building that are easy to miss.

Michelangelo’s graffiti – Image by CuriousRambler.com

Michelangelo’s Graffiti or L’importuno di Michelangelo

On the front of Palazzo Vecchio at the corner nearest to the Uffizi Gallery, you can find a small image of a man’s head in profile etched into the stone. Legend has it that this tiny portrait was done by the great Michelangelo himself. It’s known as Michelangelo’s Graffiti or L’importuno di Michelangelo in Italian.

The Annoyed Artist

The Italian name basically means, the one who importunes, or annoys, Michelangelo. It refers to one story about what might have caused Michelangelo to deface this public structure.

It seems that often when Michelangelo was in the piazza, he would be approached and trapped in conversation with a man who just wouldn’t shut up. The man would annoy Michelangelo to no end, but the great artist just couldn’t think of a polite way to make his escape.

One day when Michelangelo was so bored listening to this man drone on, he came up with a way to pass the time. He slyly pulled out his tiny chisel and hammer, and holding them behind his back, he carved the man’s portrait in the stonework. He never took his eyes off his importuner and the man was so interested in hearing himself talk that he was completely oblivious to the fact that he was being portrayed by one of the greatest artists in history. So that’s one legend…

This is where you’ll find Michelangelo’s graffiti – Image by CuriousRambler.com

The Compassionate Artist – or Not

Public hangings used to take place in this square, and another story says that Michelangelo was in the piazza when they were leading a man to the gallows. As he went by, Michelangelo was moved by his tormented face and quickly chiseled his image on the side of the building.

But in another version, the man being punished owed Michelangelo money and the artist wanted to make sure that his wicked ways were not forgotten. So he carved his face on the wall.

Whether this profile on the palazzo is graffiti by Michelangelo or just an unknown doodler, we may never know. There’s no evidence at all that it’s by Michelangelo, but this is Florence and you can find great art by great artists tucked into every nook and cranny, so why not?

Lion weathervane – not peeing today. Image by CuriousRambler.com
The original lion weathervane in Palazzo Vecchio – Image by CuriousRambler.com

Marzocco Lion on the Weathervane

Now, if you look all the way up to the top of the tower on Palazzo Vecchio, you can see a weathervane with a lion on it. This is a copy of the one which was put there in 1453 – the original is in Palazzo Vecchio in the salon of the 1500s (Salone dei Cinquecento).

Lions are a symbol of the power of the city, and you will see them all over Florence. They were also a Medici symbol. But one type of lion is special and it’s called the Marzocco. You can tell a Marzocco lion because it will have a fleur de lys. (Giglio in Italian).

You can see one of these in front of Palazzo Vecchio to the left near to the Neptune statue. Most Marzocco, like this one, have their paw on a fleur de lys (giglio) symbol showing the strength of the lion protecting Florence.

Marzocco lion protecting the giglio (symbol of Florence). Image by CuriousRambler.com

But the Marzocco on top of the Palazzo Vecchio is a special one. He not only protects the fleur de lys at the top of the pole, but he also tells us when it will rain. There is a local saying that when the lion on top of Palazzo Vecchio pees in the Arno river, it will rain in Florence. So when the wind blows so that the lion is facing the river, it will rain.

On the day this picture was taken, the lion has his back to the Arno. So if he needs to empty his bladder it will go into the Neptune fountain and Florence will have fair weather. And as you can see, there’s not a cloud in the sky and we didn’t get a drop of rain. So this Marzocco seems to be pretty good at his job.

More Florentine Curiosities

You can read about some other curiosities to be found at Palazzo Vecchio here: Palazzo Vecchio, Sailing Tortoises, and a UFO

Image by CuriousRambler.com

Giglio or Fleur de Lys

The fleur de lys of Florence (giglio) is different than the fleur de lys of France. The French symbol is traditionally gold on a blue background and the Florentine one is red on a white background. But the main difference is that the Florentine giglio has stamens between the petals. Both symbols are designed after the iris flower.

Read about the French fleur de lys here or in my book – Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond.

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BOOKS – You can find more of my curious histories in my books.

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Margo Lestz

Margo has authored four books about France. She has a BA in Liberal Studies with International Emphasis and enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

8 comments

  1. Have taken many pics of this carving and also told by a very old Florentine, that Michelangelo carved this face in the stone. I love the explanations here..as well!!! Few know about this carving so great that you pointed it out here. I love Florence lots and will pop in again soon to see the many exhibits!!! Enjoy.

    1. I think Florence is my favorite city. I always feel at home here and it is impossible to be bored – I think there are 72 museums – It’s just incredible.

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