This is by far the most striking square in Florence. It was here, in 1497, that the famous "bonfire of the vanities" took place, when the fanatical friar Savonarola induced his followers to hurl their worldly goods into the flames; it was also here, a year later, that he was hanged as a heretic and, ironically, burned. A bronze plaque in the piazza pavement marks the exact spot of his execution.
The statues in the square and in the 14th-century Loggia dei Lanzi
on the south side vary in quality. Cellini's famous bronze Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa is certainly the most important sculpture in the loggia. Other works here include The Rape of the Sabine and Hercules and the Centaur, both late-16th-century works by Giambologna (1529–1608), and in the back, a row of sober matrons dating from Roman times.
In the square, the Neptune Fountain, created between 1550 and 1575, takes something of a booby prize. It was created by Bartolomeo Ammannati, who considered it a failure himself. The Florentines call it il Biancone, which may be translated as "the big white man" or "the big white lump." Giambologna's equestrian statue, to the left of the fountain, portrays Grand Duke Cosimo I. Occupying the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio are a copy of Donatello's proud heraldic lion of Florence, the Marzocco (the original is now in the Bargello); a copy of Donatello's Judith and Holofernes (the original is in the Palazzo Vecchio); a copy of Michelangelo's David (the original is in the Galleria dell'Accademia); and Baccio Bandinelli's Hercules (1534). The Marzocco, the Judith, and the David were symbols of Florentine civic pride—the latter two subjects had stood up to their oppressors. They provided apt metaphors for the republic-loving Florentines, who often chafed at Medici hegemony.