Photo by Ben Rimmer
By Jessica Card.
The Florence of Michelangelo, of Lorenzo the Magnificent, of Machiavelli looked much like the city you and I see today – narrow, cobblestone streets, shops lining the main roads, and around every corner the palazzo of one of the great families of Florence. Today, many of these former havens have been converted into modern shops or have simply faded into the surrounding buildings, a mere memory of their former grandeur. Besides the grandiose Pitti Palazzo or the austerely beautiful Medici-Ricardo Palazzo, few of these former residences command the public’s attention as they were meant to and once did. Perhaps a piazza or street will bear the name of Ricasoli, Peruzzi, or Albizzi in their memory, but few people now stop to marvel at the grand dimensions and perfect proportions of these expensive investments.
To the benefit of Florence, the wealthy merchants and bankers who rose out of the Commercial Revolution of the 13th century began to assert their elevated status through patronage and building. The seemingly heightened religious fervour of the early Renaissance, as seen in the innumerable churches, chapels, and religious artwork of the city, was just as much a result of the desire to establish the prosperity, prominence and legacy of a family as any sense of religious duty. Monumental palaces bearing the family name or crest began to appear on a larger scale after the year 1400 as this desire spread into building in the private sector.
So who were the men who, between the 15th and 17th centuries, rebuilt the streets of Florence with their ever larger homes, if so modest a term may be used? Generally speaking, they were the investors and entrepreneurs, the bankers and merchants, dabbling in the booming textile industry or in various banks across Europe, with a little capital spread over a range of activities. They were the Medici, Strozzi, Rucellai, and Davizzi, the Pitti, Bartolini, and Neroni. A 1470 estimate puts the number of newly erected palaces at thirty and within another fifty years, another twenty-five were added to the list. Keep in mind, these palaces sprang up in the city proper, close to the center of the political and religious activities of the commune, not in the surrounding countryside where land was plentiful. The placement is significant for two reasons; large street blocks had to be cleared to make room for these ever-larger palaces, which translated to the buying up and destruction of existing homes and businesses. Secondly, the desire to build within the city marks a difference in Florence’s social and political life from other major European cities at the time, where the wealthy sought refuge in their beautiful country villas rather than within the city walls.
These palaces were the havens for the rich and powerful, separating them from the noisy streets below and widening the gap between them and the less fortunate. Perhaps more importantly, they were symbols of prominence and prestige to the masses and a form of family legacy to be handed down through succeeding generations. But, if they were meant to impress, why the simplistic facades? Style is not the only reason. In brief, the answer dates back to the Middle Ages. Coming out of the 13th century and up to the 15th century, laws and religious stigma prevented conspicuous consumption, or the public display of wealth through material possessions; the wealth needed to purchase such luxury items was assumed to be gained through immoral business practices and was, therefore, socially condemned or even punished. Though attitudes slowly began to change in the 15th century, limits still existed as to what displays of wealth were acceptable. The Medici, as they precariously took and held power, were aware of and sensitive to this limit in the construction of their palace, when they rejected a grander plan proposed by Brunelleschi. Form, size, and classical proportions replaced exterior decorations and extravagance as public exhibitions of wealth and power.
However, the simplistic facades certainly belied the lavishness within. What the seemingly simple exteriors lacked in beauty and appeal, the decorations inside made up for ten-fold. The wealthy paid dearly to adorn their grand rooms with frescoes and paintings by the best artists of the era, to decorate their arcaded interior courtyards with sculptures and moldings, to fill the new, larger spaces with monumental furniture, all of which we can still appreciate today in the Palazzo Vecchio or Palazzo Pitti. Some even had their own plumbing systems and wells from which water was drawn and provided to the entire house. The palace interior became the proper, private space for the exhibition of wealth. And what took place behind those thick stone walls? Early palaces combined private and public life; the men of the family conducted business in the open loggias in front of the houses, as in the Davanzati Palazzo, and family celebrations were conducted in the open air loggias and courtyards. However, beginning in the mid-15th century, the rich began to retreat within their houses and these grand abodes became just that – private homes where the family enjoyed the luxurious environment they built for themselves, away from the hustle and heat of the streets.
The palazzos dotted throughout Florence, like one of Seurat’s pointillist paintings, represent another form of patronage, alongside churches, chapels, paintings, and statuary. They are just as much a product of the artistic mindset that burned within Florence’s elite during the Renaissance as any other form of art. Seeing the full range of this patronage, learning who built what and why, helps shape a better understanding of the construction of the beloved city so dear today, which still has much of the same character as it did hundreds of years ago. Next time you stroll through the winding streets of Florence, pay attention to the buildings you pass. Though stores and businesses now occupy many of the former palazzos, most likely a plaque commemorating the grand family who once lived inside hangs near the entrance. You may be surprised how many former havens for the rich of Renaissance Florence that you pass every day.