Quattrocento palazzos

There’s a certain inevitability that today’s walk would follow on from yesterday’s. Having looked at the older towers and palazzos that mark the feuding times of pre-Renaissance Florence, today we stride confidently into the epoch where family pride was marked out by the size of your dynastic palazzo. We see how the various famous, and infamous, families of 15th century Florence vied to build higher, wider and more extravagantly in the game of one-upmanship that we rather sadly still practice today.

The sequence of our visits was chosen to make for a logical progressive route through the city rather than following any historical premise or appropriation of rank to a particular dynasty. In the heat and bustle of a Florentine summer, pragmatism has much to commend it.

So, first stop was Piazza di San Firenze and Palazzo Gondi. And a very impressive start too, setting the bar high for those to come. It was built for Giuliano di Lionardo Gondi, a merchant who gained fortune and the respect of King Ferdinand of Aragon by trading with Naples, who, on his return to Florence, was made a duke by Ferdinand’s son and heir, Alfonso. In Naples he had met Giuliano da Sangallo, there to work for the court of Aragon, who he commissioned to build his palazzo, which dates to about 1490, almost exactly contemporaneous with Palazzo Strozzi.

An all-stone façade is divided into three equal orders, each faced with a stone of a different gradation, capped by a little loggia, which has been modified several times and a monumental cornice. Originally there were six bays and two portals, before the façade was extended to its left by Giuseppe Poggi in 1874, adding a seventh bay and third portal and a façade to Via dei Gondi, with five bays and three portals, perpetuating the original rustication.

Now the ground floor on the piazza has a large central portal and small square windows to provide ventilation and light for storerooms. Both upper floors have relatively small arched windows and all openings are surrounded by radiating rustication. The ground floor has prominent rustication, the first floor less pronounced, the second floor smooth ashlar. This progressive smoothing of rustication as each order progresses will become apparent as a central tenet of Renaissance architecture.

Next, the short walk up Via del Procosolo to Palazzo Pazzi. Two things struck me as we walked; how narrow the street is (the facade can only be seen from an oblique angle) and the fact that, although we are focusing on particular important buildings, the architecture on most of the buildings in central Florence is spectacular and thought-provoking.

Part of my love of Florence comes from tying together its art and its history: this building is a perfect example. It was here that the infamous conspiracy of 1478 was hatched, where Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici were attacked in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Lorenzo narrowly escaped with his life whilst Giuliano was not so fortunate. Lorenzo immediately released seven levels of hell on the Pazzi, imprisoning and putting to death the conspirators and confiscating this family home.

Begun later than Medici palace, sometime between 1458 and 1462, the detailing is more restrained than on that building. Some doubt remains as to the architect, although the general consensus is for Giuliano da Maiano. The ground floor is boldly rusticated with nine bays, while the upper two storeys are simply detailed with two-light windows set in narrow stone frames. The general wall surfaces are completely plain.

Logic as well as geography now conspired to take us to the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Before describing it, a quick sharp rebuke to the authorities who have decided that now one must pay 10 euros to enter the courtyard. Ok, I get it, times are hard and if I wanted to go inside to the Capella dei Magi or other internal rooms here’s my cash but the courtyard is an integral part of the building, it used to be free and come on, we’re spending enough in your charming city merely to stave off dehydration. Rant over…and breathe…

The Medici gave the commission to their architect of favour, Michelozzo, after Cosimo il Vecchio returned from exile in Venice in 1437. Work began in 1444. The principal façade on Via Larga was originally only ten bays long with three giant orders and a huge, ponderous cornice on corbels

Graduated stone facing in pietra forte is, as on other palazzos, de rigueur. Powerful rough ‘cushion’ fenestration to ground floor is set against ashlar with prominent joints to second floor and smooth ashlar to third floor, creating a harmonious blended effect. These orders are defined by a prominent string course at sill level. Fenestration of the two upper storeys is regular, rhythmic and restrained, composed of the repetition of a single element, a two-light bifore window with a semicircular head. On the ground floor, large arches alternate with small, square, heavily barred windows; the larger arches define the central entrance bay and two of the flanking bays.

The two arches on the southeast corner adjacent to the baptistery were originally open, forming the typical Florentine covered loggia; this was filled in in 1517 by Michaelangelo, who set two classical windows in the now-blind arches. On the corner at piano nobile is a large Medici coat of arms. At present these features are covered by a facsimile sheeting, which presumably overlies restoration work.

The central cortile, three bays by three bays, has a strong, elegant ground-floor colonnade, with a solid wall on the first floor punctuated by the same two-light windows as on the façade and a colonnaded loggia on the second floor, later filled in. As alluded to, today it can be glimpsed through a gate, with 20 euros in your back pocket as compensation for the restricted view. The walls on the cortile are the first example of sgraffito decoration in Florence.

The palazzo remained the Medici family seat until 1540 when Cosimo I moved to the Palazzo Vecchio. The building was sold to the Riccardi family in 1659, at which time an additional seven bays on Via Larga were added.

The building passed to the house of Lorraine in 1814 and became the interior ministry of the United Italy in 1865.

And so we pass on too, albeit only 100 metres or so along Via dei Ginori, to Palazzo Taddei. It is one of the less grand palazzos for one of the less celebrated families. It was built by Baccio d’Agnolo for Taddeo Taddei, a rich wool merchant associated with the Medici and a companion of Raphael and Michaelangelo.

Simple façade, five bays and three orders, square ground-floor windows and two rows of arched windows with sunburst stone frames on string courses, interspersed with bare plaster background. The portal is centrally located with a stone frame similar to that of the windows. The smooth ashlar becomes less thick and more regular as height progresses.

Not much to see here, move along please…? The interest for me is a local one; Raphael painted the ‘Holy Family’ now in the National Gallery of Scotland and a favourite painting of mine to be able to drop in on whenever I want, for Taddeo.

Palazzo Antinori was next and met with much approval from Moira, who immediately appreciated the harmonious appearance. It has an open vista easily witnessed from a church across the street, which helps too. Regarded as the finest example of a highly disciplined ashlar façade, using a variety of treatments for the different orders, it is the paragon of the 15th century palazzo built as the residence of a wealthy merchant. It has an undeniable austere elegance, unostentatious appearance, well composed dimensions and geometric patterns and painstaking detailing.

Giovanni di Bono Boni from the Arte del Cambio demolished some houses he’d bought to create space for his own home. It was common practice in those days when levelling up was not really in the vocabulary. Construction was still underway when he died in 1466 and completion, in 1469, was overseen by his father. When completed, the palazzo was sold to Lorenzo il Magnifico in 1475. A month later he sold it on to two friends who in turn sold it to Niccolo di Tommaso Antinori, whose family lived in Santo Spirito; he became the first family member to live outwith the Oltrarno. One of his sons, Alessandro, married into the Tornabuoni family, purchased and tore down several adjacent properties and enlarged the palazzo to its current form.

No documents name the architect but clues suggest Giuliano da Sangallo. There are three orders with surmounting boldly projecting roof eaves. The ground floor portal is off-centre and has a stone panca di via (bench). Upper floors are regular, with six bays of arched windows and a central stone escutcheon of the family crest.

The internal courtyard has refined colonnades with foliage capitals in pietra serena on three sides and a fine coat of arms of the Antinori by della Robbia. It currently serves as a cantina serving family wines. Yes, we were tempted but it was only midday and we had the Donatello exhibition at 2pm. (Actually it was closed or else it might have got messy…)

Another short stroll took us to Palazzo Rucellai, one of the more architecturally interesting of those seen today. Again, it’s an angular view in a narrow street. Designed for Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai by Leon Battista Alberti, favoured architect of the family, between 1446 and 1451 it was built, at least in part, by Bernardo Rossellino in two phases, from 1455 to 1458 and again from 1465 to 1470. They intended eight or nine bays but the seven finished bays remain unfinished on the right side to this day; you can see part of the left hand side of radiating stonework from what is clearly intended to be a window but which simply comes to nothing. The completed building united a number of existing properties behind a new façade, one of the first facades to display the pilasters and entablatures in proportion that came to typify Renaissance architecture – an open, intellectual exercise in the application of Vitruvian principles, with no overwhelming rustications. Instead, the façade is a screen, with flat, subtly modulated stone coursing and three orders of pilasters – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian – set with friezes and cornices to form a regular framework of articulation.

First order: large square portals in third and sixth bays, small square windows at high level.

Upper two orders: bifore within rusticated arched heads.

A bold overhanging cornice tops the facade, which is indeed a marked contrast to the powerful facades of Palazzos Medici and Strozzi

The lower floor was used for business, the second storey was the main formal reception floor, the third storey was private family and sleeping quarters and the fourth ‘hidden’ floor under roof, with almost no windows, was for servants.

I recommend the book ‘House of Secrets’ by Alison Levy, which interweaves the history of the palazzo with her story of living in an apartment within. Excellent stuff!

The loggia dei Rucellai stands across from the palazzo in Via della Vigna Nuova. It was built in the 1460s, again probably to a design by Alberti and designed to display products of family’s mercantile and industrial activities and form a meeting place for family and associates. In the 17th century it was used as the studio of the sculptor Giovanni Battista Foggini. Now it is glazed and used as a shop.

For our final stop we crossed into the Oltrarno to Piazza Santo Spirito, one of my favourite locations in the city. Quiet, tree-lined and home to several excellent restaurants and cafes. After lunch, we looked at Palazzo Guidagni. Built in first years of cinquecento for Riniero di Bernardo Dei its design is attributed to Simone del Pollaiolo, often referred to as il Cronaca. His restrained styling reflects the growing influence of the philosophical precepts of Savonarola and the Republican interlude between the expulsion in 1494 and the return of the Medici in triumph in 1512.

The piazza façade has four orders and seven bays. The first order is clad in pietra forte. Six small rectangular lights flank the portal. Disciplined rustication confined to main portal, window surrounds and quoins; all other surfaces are plain plaster. The next two orders are similar, with seven arched lights; the first floor has rusticated surrounds. The covered colonnaded balcony on fourth level is the only note of lightness or relief; the façade is surmounted by massive overhanging eaves.

Moira in Piazza Santo Spirito

In 1863 the Dei became extinct and the building was acquired by Donato Maria Guidagni, whose name is associated with the building to this day.


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