Palazzo Medici

Florence, begun 1444

Architect:  Michelozzo





Cosimo de' Medici, who established his family's political dominance in the region, commissioned Michelozzo to build the Palazzo Medici in Florence in 1444.  At that time, it was the finest private palace in the city.


Rejection of Brunelleschi's Design

There is a story in Vasari's Lives that states that in the 1430s Cosimo rejected a design for a new palace by Brunelleschi because it was too grand, and he did not wish to advertise his wealth for fear of encouraging envy.  Supposedly, Brunelleschi responded by smashing his model for the palace to the ground.


Selection of Michelozzo

In 1444 Cosimo engaged Michelozzo, who had fulfilled a number of other commissions for him, to build his palace.





Introduction of Cornice at Roofline

The introduction of a giant classical cornice as a crowning feature at the roofline instead of traditional crenellations was a milestone in palace design that influenced the design of palaces and other buildings for centuries.


In making the cornice ten feet high, Michelozzo adjusted its scale to the height of the whole building rather than to only its top floor.


Removing a cornice from its usual context as part of an entablature and adapting it to serve a different purpose in a contemporary structure is typical of the Renaissance approach to adapting classical architecture.


Horizontal Emphasis

In being three stories high and ten bays wide, the palace was considerably wider than it was tall.  The presence of strong horizontal features, such as the roofline cornice and the stringcourses between stories, adds to the palace's horizontality.


Lack of Symmetry

The entrance and the central axis are not in the center, and this lack of symmetry is reflected on the façade by the presence of two versus three small rectangular windows on the left and right sides of the entrance.


Major Changes to Exterior

Appearance-altering changes to Michelozzo's original design were made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


1517:  Placing windows in arches. When Giovanni de' Medici became Pope Leo X in the early sixteenth century, security was improved by filling the arches with windows set in masonry infill.  Michelangelo was commissioned to design the new windows, which are the probable models of windows that were designed for the ground stories of the Palazzo Farnese by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and the Palazzo Pitti, whose original arches were filled in by Bartolommeo Ammannati.  


17th century:  Adding seven more bays. Seven more bays were added on the right side of the main façade in the seventeenth century when the palace was acquired by the Riccardi family.  Their name has been included in the palace's modern name, the Medici-Riccardi Palace. 





Differences in Openings

The ground story is distinguished from the upper stories by differences in the types, shapes, and sizes of the openings, and the distinction is accentuated by their lack of correspondence with each other in size, shape, and spacing.


Use of arches on the ground story. On the ground story, the openings consisted of large arches and small rectangular windows.  Before the arches on the southeast corner were filled in, they formed a loggia that was sometimes used for ceremonies. 


Use of identical windows on upper-stories. On the upper stories, identical, biforate windows are regularly spaced. Like the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio, mullions in the form of colonettes divide side-by-side lights.  The windows of the Palazzo Medici are more modern in having Classical moldings and rounded arches instead of Gothic arches with three-lobed tops.  Windows of this form were also used on the second story of the courtyard.  


Differences in Texture

The textures of the three stories change from very rough to very smooth as they progress upward.  This use of graduated stonework can also be seen on the fourteenth-century Palazzo Davanzati.


Rusticated stone on ground story. Large rough-surfaced stones, which are reminiscent of medieval fortified palaces like the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, give the ground story a look of impregnability.  In addition, rusticated stone was costly, and its use on the façade of the Palazzo Medici announced Medici wealth and power. 


Dressed stone with joints on second story. Dressed stone with pronounced joints gives the second story a look of refinement. 


Dressed stone without joints on third story. Ashlar, smooth-faced stone with flush joints, gives the third story a look of lightness. 


Differences in Story Heights

As the stories rise, each successive story is shorter than the one below.





Insula-Tradition Plan

The squarish, courtyard-centered plan and multi-storied height of the Medici Palace follows the building type established by Roman insulae.


Commercial Use of Ground Story

As was common in the fifteenth century, part of the ground story that faced the street was used for commercial purposes. Because banking was the Medici family business, banking transactions would have taken place there.


The benches between the arches would have accommodated waiting customers.  Although physically linked to the palace, the benches were part of the public domain and connected the Medici family to the citizens of Florence.


Disposition of Rooms

The entrance portal opens into a tunnel-like vestibule leading to a courtyard.  As illustrated by a section taken on the entrance axis, the courtyard is surrounded by loggias on the ground story and third story.  Most of the family’s residential quarters were located on the second story.


A garden was located behind the palace.



After the palace changed hands in the seventeenth century, the interior was partially remodeled and changes to the staircases were made.  A large grand staircase was added on the right, and the original two-flight staircase on the left was replaced by a smaller, spiral staircase.





Functions of the Stories

The courtyard, which was far larger than those of earlier palaces, functioned primarily as a private space for the family but also as a place for conducting business.


As on the façade, the three stories of the courtyard differ from one another.


Ground story. The ground-floor loggia mainly served as a covered outdoor space for the family. 


Second story. The area above the loggia on the palace's front and right wings functioned as hallways connecting the apartments of the different family members. 


Third story. The third-floor loggia served as an open-air hallway connecting the third-story rooms. 


Classical Features

The new taste for Classical antiquity is exemplified by several features of the courtyard.


Corinthian columns. The supports used for the ground-story loggia were Corinthian columns instead of octagonal pillars like those used at earlier palaces.  At odds with the ancient Roman Classical tradition, however, was the use of the columns instead of piers to carry the arches. 


Entablature. Horizontal moldings above the arcade created a decorative form of an entablature.  


Decorative Forms on the Frieze

The frieze of the entablature is decorated by stone and plaster forms.


Tondi. Marble tondi were placed over each arch.  The tondi are carved in relief with either the Medici coat of arms or mythological images copied from ancient cameos in the Medici collection of antiquities. 


Sgraffito. The area of the frieze between the roundels is decorated by sgraffito and depicts garlands and ribbons, popular motifs in ancient times.  


Comparison with Foundling Hospital Loggia

The arcade of the ground floor resembles Brunelleschi's arcade for the Foundling Hospital in Florence in that both have widely spaced Corinthian columns carrying round arches.  Michelozzo's columns differ from Brunelleschi's in being thicker in relation to their height.


The two structures also differ in their use of terminating features.  At Brunelleschi's loggia, the ends of the loggia were originally terminated by pilasters whereas at Michelozzo's courtyard, the corner columns are identical to the other columns in form and spacing, which makes the spacing of the windows and roundels at the corners cramped.


Statue of David

To decorate the courtyard, Cosimo commissioned Donatello to make a bronze statue of David, who was popularly identified with the cause of Florentine liberty.  By commissioning such an image, the Medici family identified themselves as supporters of that cause.





Selection of Civic Themes

The selection of art objects and the decoration of the interior reflected the Medici's wish to identify themselves with the state.  They selected themes of civic pride such as battles between Florence and enemy territories or legendary figures who had become symbols of Florentine liberty through their victories over tyrants.


Commissioning the Art and Decoration

The splendor of the decoration of the interior was on a par with that of European monarchs.  Cosimo's son Piero the Gouty, who was far more interested in the arts than his father, commissioned most of the decoration of the interior.  He employed many of the most important artists and craftsmen of the day to create lavish interior treatments such as coffered ceilings.


Inventory in 1492

Much of what we know about the original furnishings is known from an inventory made after the death of Piero's son Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492.  Two years later, the Medici were overthrown and exiled.  Their possessions were looted in the 1494 riots or seized by Florence's new government, which was formed after the French invasion of Italy.  Donatello's David was moved to the Palazzo Vecchio (the Palazzo della Signoria then), and many works were auctioned in 1495.


"Lorenzo's room"

A three-part cycle of panel paintings by Paolo Uccello survives from the ground-story room, referred to as "Lorenzo's room" in the 1492 inventory. The paintings depict a 1432 Florentine battle, The Battle of San Romano, subject matter appropriate for town halls and princely palaces. The three paintings are now separated and located in the Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre in Paris, and the National Gallery in London.


The Chapel

One of the special areas of the palace was its chapel, which is located on the piano nobile.  The presence of a chapel in a private palace reflects Cosimo's influence with the pope, whose consent would have been needed.


The chapel walls are decorated with a continuous fresco depicting the Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli.  Some of the figures in the procession are believed to depict members of the Medici family and other important personages.


Reception Room

Piero commissioned three canvases from Pollaiuolo on the subject of the Labors of Hercules for the main reception rooms.  Pollaiuolo's small panel of Hercules and Antaeus is believed to be a copy of one of these lost paintings.  The Medici also commissioned Pollaiuolo to cast a bronze statuette of this subject, which would have been used on a desk or table. Like David, Hercules had become a symbol of Florentine liberty.


Terracotta Room

Piero commissioned Luca della Robbia, who specialized in glazed terracotta decorations, to make a terracotta ceiling and floor for his study.


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Palazzo Medici, Florence, 1444