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.
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.
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.