Tucked away within the medieval Palazzo Vecchio in Florence is a tiny chapel (barely 150 feet square) completed in the early 1540s that stands as a symbol of the city government’s radical transformation in those years. For most of the preceding four decades, Florence had struggled to retain its independence and ancient republican traditions. In 1537, after a succession of popular revolts, hostile occupations, and political realignments, Cosimo I, a descendant of the cadet branch of the Medici family, was installed as the city’s second duke. His predecessor and cousin, Duke Alessandro, had been assassinated.

Cosimo had learned from Alessandro’s misfortune—subservience to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and alliance with the papacy would be essential to the stability of the dynasty he intended to found. Cosimo swiftly...


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