Standing 45 meters tall, it is not surprising that the Gate of San Niccolò is often mistaken for a tower. The gate was built around 1324 in what is now called Piazza Poggi located directly under Piazzale Michelangelo. It looks kind of lonely there and out of place, but in the 14th century, the gate stood at the beginning of the south circle of the city walls. Together with Torre della Zecca on the other side of the Arno, it was responsible for the defense of the east side of Florence. It was named after the San Niccolò quarter where it is located.
One of the entrance gates to the city as well as a watchtower, San Niccolò is the only ancient city gate of Florence that still has its original height. In the first half of the 15th century, with all the new developments in warfare such as canons, the high gates had become too vulnerable to artillery fire.
All the other gates were lowered during the Siege of Florence (1529 – 1530) when a large Imperial and Spanish army under the command of Charles V surrounded the city, captured it, overthrowing the Republic of Florence and installing Alessandro de’ Medici as the new ruler of the city.
Protected by the hill of San Miniato right in front of it, the gate of San Niccolò was safe from attacks and was left as it was. The merlons were not part of the original tower; those were added in the 18th century.
During the years that Florence was the capital of Italy (1865-1871), the whole city was renovated following the design of architect Giuseppe Poggi. Most of the old city walls were torn down making way for large ring roads around the old center. Only the gates remained.
On the side facing the city center, the Gate of San Niccolò consists of three large open arches, one on each floor, which were the rooms used by the guards. They didn’t have much comfort, but at least there was a restroom on the second floor.
The original wooden doors have long been removed, but the gate was closed and locked every evening and opened again the next morning. All the keys were kept inside Palazzo Vecchio and had to be picked up and brought back there every day.
The people leaving the city through the gate saw a fresco just above the arch of the door, of the Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and St. Nicholas of Bari (respectively the patrons of the city and the quarter). The coat of arms with the Florentine lily welcomed those coming into the city.
It takes about 160 steps to reach the top of the tower, where you can enjoy a beautiful 360° view of Florence.