Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

The inescapable balls of Florence

The inescapable balls of Florence
They’re everywhere. Wherever you go in Florence, there’s no escaping the heraldic emblem of the ruling Medici family. It takes the form of a golden shield upon crossed keys, with red balls mounted upon it and a single blue ball bearing the insignia of the Royal Family of France (following a privilege granted by King Louis XI in 1465). It’s featured on postcards, signage and carved into the very stone of some of Florence’s most iconic buildings. But while the appearance of the emblem is constant, the number of red balls (or palle as they are called in Italian) featured on it is not. And nor is the story of their origin.
Officially known as ‘bezants’ in heraldic terms, these balls have a number of stories about their possible significance. One claims they represent medicinal pills, which used to be red, another states they’re the cups full of blood a Medici once used to cure Emperor Charlemagne, there’s the lofty claim they are the apples of demi-god Perseus and there’s the belief they represent blows to the shield of Florentine knight Averardo, by the fearsome giant Mugello.
Whatever the origin of the bezants/balls, they’re so intrinsically linked to the Medici family and the city of Florence that in times of war, their supporters would chant the rallying cry “Palle, palle, palle!” – which is quite literally, if you pardon the expression, a load of balls.