Turtles in Piazza Santa Maria Novella
It’s always the small things that stir my curiosity and make me wonder. Like the Turtles in Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
Piazza Santa Maria Novella is one of largest squares in Florence surrounded by a former hospital, various hotels and palaces and the characteristic Santa Maria Novella church. In fact it was the church that led to the construction of the piazza in the 13th century, because the Dominican preachers were so popular, they had to make room for the crowds assembling outside the church.
After they had cleared the square for houses, they found that they might as well use it for other mass events like games and celebrations, and two marble obelisks were placed in each end of the square to mark the boundaries of an oval race course.
Palio de ‘Cocchi,
One of the events was a chariot race called Palio de ‘Cocchi, where four neighbourhoods competed for a banner and the bragging rights, not unlike the still popular Palio di Siena.
The scene would have looked like something out of Gladiator, if it hadn’t been for the stout obelisks with the Florentine fleur-de-Lis on top. And on closer inspection you’ll see that each obelisk is carried by four small turtles or tortoises.
Why turtles on a race course
This puzzling detail is probably the work of a Flemish sculptor known as Giambologna (1529–1608), but no one knows for sure why the tortoises were placed in this squeeze or what they represent. Some claim the slowness of the tortoise is a contrast to the speed of the chariot race. Other theories dwell on Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare. And still others see the turtles in Piazza Santa Maria Novella as a tribute to Cosimo I, who instituted the Palio de ‘Cocchi.
Cosimo I’s motto was festina lente or to hurry slowly and he illustrated it with the image of a tortoise pushed forward by a sail. For this reason there are flying turtles all over the ceilings, walls and floors of Palazzo Vecchio.
That said, the idea of placing an immense load of heavy stone on the back of a small tortoise is not highly original. World turtles, cosmic turtles and world-bearing turtles are recurring themes in oriental and native American mythology. And around 1563 the notion somehow spread to Florence.