All visitors coming to Florence for the first time want to see Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery, even if it means standing in line for hours to be able to get inside the museums.
The average tourist will go inside the Florence Cathedral (the Duomo) to admire the interior of Brunelleschi’s two-shelled dome with the frescoes by Vasari and Zuccari. Many will climb the 463 steps between the two domes for a breathtaking view of the city. A stroll through Piazza della Signoria is a must, in order to see copies of Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes. The square is the most incredible open air sculpture museum in the city, with the originals of masterpieces such as Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Woman and the Equestrian Statue of Cosimo I, just to name a few.
Besides the religious and government centers, one cannot leave Florence without seeing the Franciscan church Santa Croce, the city’s Hall of Fame, with the funerary monuments of the likes of Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and Machiavelli. Florence is also inevitably linked to the Medici family, whose crest can be seen all over the city. It is a persistent reminder to you, the spectator, that they financed the buildings you are admiring. As an expatriate living in Florence and teaching Renaissance Art and Florence of the Medici in the Gonzaga-in-Florence program, it is always wonderful to see the gradual transformation of the students as they absorb the art and history of the city and become, to quote them, “Renaissance savvy!”
There is another side to Florence, besides the Renaissance and the Medici family, that should be acknowledged. The city became the second capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865 to 1871, before Rome and the Papal States were annexed to the kingdom. In those six years, there was a radical urban transformation in the city.
The third and last circle of walls was torn down by Giuseppe Poggi and replaced by boulevards, forming a ring around the center of town, culminating in the Piazzale Michelangelo. Similar changes were taking place in Paris and Vienna. The city gates (porte) were left standing as decorative features of the newly built squares, still known to native Florentines as Porta a San Gallo (Piazza della Libertà), Porta alla Croce (Piazza Beccaria), Porta a Prato, Porta a San Niccolò with the ramps leading to Piazzale Michelangelo (Piazza Poggi), etc.
The walls had been planned by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, leaving ample space for the city to expand. For four centuries, Florence was comfortably contained inside its circle of walls with an inner ring of greenery formed by orchards, vegetable and flower gardens. The capital of the newly established Kingdom of Italy was transferred from Turin to Florence in 1865. New residences had to be built for the court nobility, senators, deputies and business tycoons that were coming from Piedmont or Tuscan entrepreneurs that were moving to Florence.
The green spaces between the houses and the city walls by Porta alla Croce and Porta a Pinti were expropriated. They were transformed into a residential area, with palaces facing a central garden surrounded by an iron fence with entrance gates, where only the residence owners had the keys. Piazza Massimo d’Azeglio was thus created. The concept of a residential square had started in London in the late 18th century with Bedford Square, an architectural unit around a central square with houses facing it on all sides. Giuseppe Poggi had been to London many times and Florence had a large British community. Piazza d’Azeglio is a prime example of the urban transformation projected by Giuseppe Poggi with the English residential square in mind.
The Palazzo Wilson Gattai is perhaps one of the few palaces in the square that is still owned and lived in by the descendants of Gaetano Gattai, who bought the palace in 1892. The original owner was the Englishman Frederick Wilson, who had settled in Florence when Leopold II was still Grand Duke of Tuscany, just like Robert Browning, his wife Elizabeth Barrett, and many other foreigners had done.
Wilson’s palace on the Corso dei Tintori had been expropriated to build the Lungarno della Torricella, when Florence was temporary capital of the Kingdom. The plans for the new palace were done by Wilson’s friend, engineer Orazio Callai, in 1870. The engineer was often in his Rome office since the capital would be definitely moved to Rome in 1871. It was Frederick Wilson himself who took care of the project, considering himself a “half artist” (mezzo artista) because he had participated in the 1860 Exhibition of the Circle of Artists in Florence. The palace (fig.1) was initially two stories high and was crowned by a terrace. It was strongly criticized by the local newspaper La Nazione in 1872.
The architecture is typical of the Romantic revival of Gothic and Renaissance motifs. The ground story rustication recalls Michelozzo’s Early Renaissance Medici Palace. The second story was faced with Carrara marble blocks and the stone neo-Gothic window frames were cut over the marble blocks.
Very similar window frames can be seen in the Early Renaissance Palazzo Corsi Horne, bought and restored by Herbert Percy Horne in 1912, twenty years after Gatti’s renovation. Wilson sold the palace to Giovanni Puccini in 1887, who had his architect, Guglielmo Galanti, remove the ground floor stables and turn them into apartments. An arched opening was built to the left of the entrance hall, as prelude to a grand marble stairway that was never done because of financial difficulties.
In fact, Puccini had to sell the palace in 1892. Gaetano Gattai, great grandfather of the present owners, bought it and appointed his son Eugenio as architect in charge of the structural works. Eugenio Gattai had received his diploma of Professor of Architectural Design from the Florence Academy of Fine Arts in 1884. The building was then given a third story, in the tradition of Renaissance palaces, by surmounting it with a loggia resting on Tuscan columns (fig. 2) . A tangible connection to the square was further emphasized by adding a stone balcony to the second story, thus linking the three portals of the central hall.
Gattai’s work inside the palace is an example of the period when wrought iron, sinuous curves, and floral patterns, combined with an abundant use of glass, dominated architecture all over Europe and the United States. In France and Belgium the style became known as Art Nouveau in 1895 because of a shop with that name, opened in Paris by Arthur Bing. In Germany and Austria it was described as the Jugendstil whereas it was the Modernista in Barcelona. In the United States it was labeled Tiffany for the New York store, famous for its iron and tinted glass works. Art Nouveau was called the Liberty or “floral style” in Italy, after the textile patterns of the London store that helped its launching.
Upon entering the palace, one is amazed at the beauty of the Liberty glass doors, with their intricate designs, created by Eugenio Gattai (fig. 3).
To the left, framed by an archway, is the hidden treasure of the palace: the curvilinear stairway that spirals up to the second story (fig. 4) and is covered by a glass and iron dome.
It recalls Victor Horta’s stairway in the Hôtel Tassel in Brussels, both built in 1892. They are early examples of Art Nouveau, or Liberty domestic architecture, where all spaces are connected by the sinuous, internal staircase symbolizing the forces of life.