Quarters of the Elements - The “Heavenly Gods” of Ancient Mythology

Palazzo Vecchio Museum

The Quarters of the Elements on the second floor of Palazzo Vecchio, and the Quarters of Leo X below them, used for the court offices and for the guests of the principality, were built between 1551 and 1566 as part of the extension works ordered by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, under the direction of Battista del Tasso and, later, Giorgio Vasari. The Quarters of the Elements have the same layout as the Quarters of Leo X below. Both are connected with a unified, iconographic scheme designed by the scholar Cosimo Bartoli.

Each room is dedicated to a mythological deity and matches a room on the floor below devoted to a member of the Medici family. Giorgio Vasari explained the connection in his Ragionamenti (Reasonings), writing “There is nothing painted above which does not correspond to what is here below,” because “Those who through heavenly gifts have a great effect upon mortals on earth, are called Terrestrial Gods, just as those up in heaven have been called Celestial Gods.”

The overlap was therefore intended to celebrate the glories and virtues of the “terrestrial gods of the illustrious house of Medici,” comparing the dynasty’s ascent to power with the “origin of the celestial gods.”

The frescoes on the walls and the paintings on panels in the ceiling are the work of Giorgio Vasari and his associates Marco da Faenza, Cristofano Gherardi, and Giovanni Stradano. The quarters bear the name of the room dedicated to the four elements, which ancient mythology placed at the origins of the cosmos.

Room of the Elements
This room, dedicated to the four elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire, has the same proportions as the Room of Leo X directly below it. Just as the elements were at the origin of all things, Leo X laid the foundations of the de’ Medici Duchy of Tuscany. The cycle begins with the central panel on the ceiling, dedicated to Air, recounting the origins of the four elements created by the seed of Uranus, scattered by Saturn. The seed of Uranus fell into the sea and gave rise to Venus, goddess of Water, who rises from the waves surrounded by maritime deities on one of the walls of the room.

The sickle fell to Earth and formed the island of Sicily, where the scene on the wall opposite the panel of Venus is set. Here, the goddess of Earth, Ceres, gives her fruits to Saturn, protector of agriculture.

On the walls of the fireplace, Vulcan, the god of Fire, forges Cupid’s arrows, aided by his wife Venus and the cherubs. On the right, the Cyclopes (Vulcan’s assistants) make Jupiter’s thunderbolts.

Room of Ceres
According to mythology, Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, was the daughter of Saturn and Opis. Here, she is depicted in the center of the ceiling on a chariot pulled by dragons, looking for her daughter, Proserpina, who was abducted by Pluto, god of the Underworld. With the intervention of Jupiter, Ceres managed to obtain Pluto’s permission to allow her daughter to return to live with her mother for six months of the year. Legend has it that this alternation was the origin of the seasons, because Ceres made the earth barren during the months when she had to live apart from her daughter.This room stands above the room devoted to Cosimo the Elder, who achieved glory and prosperity for the city of Florence, just as Ceres provided for man’s wellbeing with the fruits of the earth.

From the Room of Ceres, we move into the Calliope Study—a small room devoted to the muse of poetry, who appears in the center of the ceiling surrounded by the attributes of her eight sisters, all protectors of the arts and intellectual pursuits. The muse is a recurring theme in the decor of such rooms, which were used for study and to house collections. Here, Cosimo I de’ Medici kept miniature figurines, bronze statuettes, and other small objects from his collection.

Room of Opis
This room is named after Opis, wife of Saturn and goddess of prosperity. It stands above the Room of Lorenzo the Magnificent, whose diplomatic talents were recognized and prized by many monarchs, just as Opis was worshipped by a great many people. The goddess appears in the center of the ceiling, on a chariot drawn by two lions, surrounded by allegories of the seasons and months of the year, along with the respective signs of the zodiac.
Room of Jupiter
This room, named after Jupiter—son of Saturn and Opis, and father of all of the gods—stands above the room dedicated to Cosimo I de’ Medici on the floor below. This juxtaposition is intended to celebrate the glories and virtues of the de’ Medici duke, equating him with the king of the gods. The decoration on the ceiling depicts Jupiter’s infancy, raised by Opis in secret and suckled by the goat Amalthea to prevent his father, Saturn, from devouring him like his siblings. Here, Amalthea appears as Capricorn, the zodiac ascendant of Cosimo I.
Terrace of Juno
Originally, this room opened onto a loggia with columns, built to provide Eleanor of Toledo, wife of the Duke Cosimo, with a view of the Santa Croce neighborhood. In honor of the duchess, it was dedicated to Juno, wife of Jupiter, who is shown on the roof riding on a chariot drawn by two peacocks. The niche in the wall was intended to house an ancient statue of the goddess brought from Rome, but it never reached its destination. The original design, which remains incomplete, included a fountain modeled on the one painted in monochrome on the wall.
Room of Hercules
This room is dedicated to the mythical hero Hercules, son of Jupiter and the mortal Alcmene. It was for this reason that Jupiter’s wife, Juno, tried to kill the young Hercules by placing two snakes in his cradle. As he was already endowed with a superhuman strength, he saved himself by strangling the snakes, as depicted in the center of the ceiling.

Hercules is known for his countless heroic acts and, in particular, his so-called “twelve labors,” eight of which are shown in the side panels of the ceiling.

These feats inspired the parallels between the Room of Hercules and the room beneath it, dedicated to the valiant mercenary leader Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, father of Duke Cosimo I.

Terrace of Saturn
This terrace, preceded by a small study dedicated to the goddess of knowledge, Minerva, is named after Saturn. As shown in the painting in the center of the ceiling, Saturn devoured all of his children, fearing that they would overthrow him, with the exception of Jupiter, who was saved by his mother Opis. The two scenes of the myth of Saturn in the upper panels on the sides relate to the room underneath, dedicated to Clement VII.
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