Florence’s Palaces, a perfect blend of art and history

There’s a palace in Florence, the world knows well,
And a statue watches it from the square,
And this story of both do our townsmen tell.
Ages ago, a lady there,
At the farthest window facing the East,
Asked, “Who rides by with the royal air? -R. Browning

There are several hundreds of palaces in Florence. An incredible heritage that has its roots and foundation in the Roman era, but from the Renaissance until 1800 a plethora of other institutional and residential buildings were added to the city. The palaces of Florence are places where art and history have become a whole, and where life, politics, intrigue, conspiracy, love and discord have soaked walls, century after century. In all this time, Florence was kissed by luck.

No one has ever dared to wreak havoc in the city, plunder or destroy it, violate its artistic and architectural beauty. Not even the violence of World War II, the bombing, the ferocity of the armies of occupation and the anger of the following period have harmed the monuments and palaces of the city. Hitler himself spared Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge remained accessible over the Arno, because he was fascinated by its beauty.

Only nature has attempted the impossible: the flood of 1966 caused by the overflow of the Arno River seriously damaged the city so much that it still bears the scars. But thanks to the work of the army, the institutions but also young volunteers from all over the world, nicknamed the Angels of Mud, the city managed to emerge from the water and return to being the wonder that has always been.

Today, Florence is one of the most visited cities in the world. And its buildings are among the protagonists of this splendor, which annually brings millions of tourists from all over the globe in the Tuscan capital. And, each building has its own little story to tell.

The never ending project of Palazzo Medici Riccardi

The palace of the De’ Medici Family has a troubled history. When Filippo Brunelleschi presented his project to Cosimo De’ Medici, the latter considered it to be too fancy and gave up the idea. Then came the draft by Michelozzo Michelozzo, Donatello’s pupil, but this time the Florentines said ‘No’ to what at the time must have seemed an urban mess in the San Lorenzo district. Finally, the works began with the erection of the famous ashlar walls (with protruding stones), the small and narrow windows with grates, heavy doors, all aimed at intimidating everyone who passed or entered the building. However, beyond the heavy door, the building takes on a much kinder style, with a courtyard that is a real open-air museum with sarcophagi, inscriptions and statues. Including the bronze David by Donatello. In 1659, Gabbriello Riccardi, Marquis of Chianti, became the owner of Palazzo Medici and sold it (not in person) to the Lorenas, Grand Dukes of Tuscany, in 1814. After many renovations, it became the seat of the administrative offices and headquarters of the Interior Ministry, in the period when Florence was capital of Italy, between 1865 and 1870. Since 1874, the Medici Palace is the seat of the Province of Florence and also a museum with works such as the Magi Chapel with frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli.

Palazzo del Bargello, the Wall of the Hanged Men

Palazzo del Bargello, also known as the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, stands in Piazza San Firenze. It was the first seat of Florentine public institutions and was implemented in subsequent stages starting from the 1255: the Volognana tower, was pre-existent to the palace, and annexed only later. Between the XIII and XIV centuries, other sections of the palace were built and in 1540, after becoming the Headquarters of police (Captain of Justice or Bargello) it was also used as a prison until the XIX century. After several renovations, it was chosen as the seat of the Bargello museum, with works by Donatello, Michelangelo, Verrocchio and Della Robbia.
At the time of the Medicis, on the front of the Bargello were painted the portraits of wanted fugitives, often depicted already hanged. The portraits were assigned to fine artists, in order to be as faithful as possible to the originals. Andrea del Castagno, esteemed painter, having been commissioned by Cosimo de Medici to paint the faces of some hunted by the police, was then nicknamed “Andreino degli Impiccati” (i.e. Little Andrea of the Hanged Men)

Archbishop’s Palace and the Symbolic Wedding

Present in this area since the VIII century, the Bishop’s Palace was expanded in the 12th century. This house church was made up initially of two buildings connected by a suspended walkway. The oldest part was destroyed by fire in 1533, and following the restructuring wanted by Alessandro Ottaviano De’ Medici, the two buildings were merged. Over time, and thanks to other maintenance work, in 1615 the building took a final appearance for more than 200 years until it was completely renovated between 1893 and 1895.

At the time of the Florentine Republic, around the end of 1300, a special ceremony was held as the new Bishop was ordained, he had to symbolically marry the Abbess of the Church of San Pier Maggiore. After the exchange of rings, the Bishop and the Abbess, along with other Canons, slept in a bed that the following day was solemnly given by the Abbess to the new Bishop.

Palazzo Corsini: Monumental Staircases and Private Collections

The Corsini become a wealthy Florentine family in 1500: Palazzo Corsini, also known as the Parione, located on Lungarno Corsini, is still a family home. The building is the result of the acquisition and merger of many historic houses built by different architects: Alfonso Parigi the Younger, Ferdinando Tacca, Pierfrancesco Silvani – author of the beautiful spiral staircase, and Antonio Maria Ferri – who finished the project by drawing the current frame. In addition to the spiral staircase made by Silvani and the monumental one by Ferri, the interior of several rooms of Palazzo Corsini and its halls are filled with frescoes, decorations and period furnishings. The Corsini Gallery, inside the building, is the most important private art collection of Florence, with works dating back to the 1600s and1700s, both by Italian and European Renaissance artists. Palazzo Corsini is home to major events and conferences: among other events, it also hosts the Antiques Biennal. Palazzo Corsini is open by appointment only: call +39 055.212880, or email at: info@palazzocorsini.it

Palazzo Vecchio and Giacomini’s Dispatch

This is one of Florence’s symbols too, it is located on Piazza della Signoria and is the seat of the municipal administration of the city. Built in 1300 and, at the time, called Palazzo dei Priori, it became Palazzo della Signoria in the XV century, then Palazzo Ducale with Cosimo De’ Medici living within it in 1540, and Palazzo Vecchio in 1565, when Cosimo moved into the Pitti Palace. The palace hosts a museum exhibiting works by Bronzino, Ghirlandaio, Vasari, Michelangelo and Donatello.

The beautiful Salone dei Cinquecento (lite rally: The Hall of 500) is the work of several artists, including Simone del Pollaiuolo, Vasari, Leonardo and Michelangelo. On the walls of the Hall are depicted several battles. The fresco on the battle of Pisa, you can see a detail. Florentine leader Antonio Giacomini is depicted with a piece of paper stuck in the folds of his hat. Legend has it that during the siege of Pisa, the Signoria sent a dispatch that Giacomini decided to read later though, so he put it in the fold. After the conquest of Pisa, he remembered about it and read it: the order was not to shed blood, but rather to take the city by starvation. Since the city had been conquered by force of arms instead, through a breach in the walls of Pisa, on one side Giacomini got glory for the achievement, but on the other, he was relieved of all duties for insubordination against the Florentine Signoria. Vasari didn’t fail to describe this curious detail.

Palazzo Strozzi, the Best, the Biggest, the Most Impressive

Palazzo Strozzi is one of the most beautiful buildings in Florence. It is located between Piazza Strozzi and Via de’ Tornabuoni. It’s a Renaissance masterpiece built by Filippo Strozzi, the son of a prominent family of bankers and financiers. So important that although antagonists of the De’ Medici, they were never able to really outshine them as they would have liked. The obsession of the Strozzi against their rivals became dramatic at the end of 1460, when Filippo decided to build a palace more beautiful than that of the De’ Medici. Nicer, bigger, impressive. In line with this goal, he bought the land around existing building, demolished other buildings, called astronomers to study the most auspicious day to lay the first stone, and finally, in 1489, the work began. Filippo died two years later, and only in 1507 the building could be occupied, and finally completed in 1538. At that point, the Medici seized it, and returned it to the Strozzi family only thirty years later. Piero Strozzi died in 1907 without an heir, and in 1937 the palace became the property of INA, National Insurance Institute. In 1999, in addition to being the seat of the Scientific and Literary Cabinet GP Vieusseux and of the Institute of Renaissance Studies, it also became home to the Institute of Humanist Studies and to the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi.

On the corner of the wall that opens onto Via de’ Tornabuoni, there is a lantern. It was created by Niccolò Grasso, talented wrought iron craftsman of the Renaissance period. Grasso was nicknamed Caparra (deposit) because he always demanded to be paid half of the work at the time of the commission. It is said that at one point there was a dispute with the Captains of the Guelph party who had commissioned the andirons. Knowing that the work was finished, they sent messengers to pick it up, but Caparra said ‘no’, not without the money. The messengers insisted but he didn’t budge. Then they sent half the money, saying that they would have paid the rest later. So he sent them half the work, saying, “Here, take this, which is theirs, and if they like it, bring the rest of the money, and I will give the other half, which is mine at the moment.”

The Wool Art Palace and the uncertain origin of Via Calimala

Between Via Calimala, Via Orsanmichele and Via dell’Arte della Lana, stands Torre dei Compiobbesi, formerly known as Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana (i.e the Wool Art Palace), which currently hosts the headquarters of the Dante Society. The Compiobbesi were a Ghibelline family that after the battle of Benevento, in 1266, won by the Guelphs, had many of their properties confiscated. Since 1308, the palace is the seat of the Wool Merchants’ Guild, one of the richest Arts. Cosimo De’ Medici designed the palace to keep notarial archives. Since 1905 owner of the building is the Italian Dante Society: very interesting are the frescoes of the courtroom and those into a compartment on Via Calimala n. 16-18 which show the steps of wool processing.

And this is the more interesting curiosity: where does the word Calimala – the name of one of the busiest streets of Florence – come from? No one knows, there are only hypotheses. For example, it is said that it derives from callis mala, to describe an infamous road, due to the presence of a cathouse in the area, at the time; or perhaps from the Greek kalòs mallos, in the sense of beautiful wool; or, always from the Greek kalàs mallòs, which means “to lower hairs” that is, to stretch wool; there’s also a possible derivation from botany, soda kali is the name of the plant used in the processing of wool, but some say it comes from callis maia, i.e. major road, because in the past it was travelled by the Romans’ cardo maximus. All good guesses, each boasting many followers.