A much larger palace can be seen to the southeast, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, designed by Michelozzo for Cosimo il Vecchio de' Medici, and built between 1444 and 1484. The palace’s plain exterior was desired on purpose by Cosimo so he could keep a low profile and exercise his power behind the scenes (he had refused a previous project by Filippo Brunelleschi for being "too sumptuous", fearing this would "bring him envy among his citizens rather than greatness”). Its stone masonry is characteristic, with its contrasting elements of rustication (rough finish) and ashlar (smooth finish):
Michelozzo was influenced in his design by both classical Roman and Brunelleschian principles: the rusticated masonry and the cornice had precedents in Roman practice, yet the palace’s tripartite elevation expresses the Renaissance spirit of rationality and order, emphasized by horizontal string courses that divide it into stories of decreasing height, which makes it look distinctly Florentine overall, unlike any known Roman building. The transition from the rusticated masonry of the ground floor to the more delicately refined stonework of the third floor makes the palace look lighter and taller, as the eye moves upward to the massive cornice that caps it and clearly defines its outline.
The once open corner loggia and shop fronts on the street were walled in during the 16th century, and replaced by Michelangelo by "kneeling windows" (with scrolling consoles appearing to support the sill) framed in a pedimented aedicule or tabernacle. The main doorway is also framed in the same way:
The palace’s sober exterior contrasts with the elegance and luxury of its interior, which reflects well the wealth accumulated by the family. The interior is famous in particular for the beautifully frescoed Magi Chapel, completed around 1459, that owes its name to the portraits of members of the Medici and their allies parading through Tuscany in the guise of the Three Magi.
The palace was sold in 1659 to the Marquis Gabriello Riccardi, who immediately undertook major expansion works, respecting the Renaissance character of exterior and adapting the interior to taste of the times. It was acquired by the Prefecture in 1874, and hosted a dinner between heads of state Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in 1938. It serves today as the seat of the Metropolitan City of Florence, as well as a museum.
Above Palazzo Medici stands the large and elegant Palazzo Pucci Sansedoni (or Palazzo Servadio), built in the 18th century on the site of the so-called “old house of the Medici”, demolished after the assassination of Duke Alessandro. It was purchased by the Italian government when Florence was the country’s capital. Its façade unfolds on ten so-called axes, with windows interspersed with pilasters and neoclassical medallions presumably dating from the early 19th century. On the sides are the two access doors, both surmounted by a balcony on which a large window opens, crowned by the coats-of-arms of the Pucci delle Stelle and the Sansedoni families surrounded by a floral pattern. The palace houses today the Employment Center of the Region of Tuscany:
Across Via Cavour is the equally large Palazzo Capponi-Covoni, built in 1623 for Piero Capponi, treasurer of Pope Paul V. It was joined in the 18th century to the adjacent 16th-century Palazzo Milanesi; the interiors were unified, but the façades were left uneven (as can be seen in the string courses of both the first and second floors) and with a different style of windows on the first floor: with stone ogival rings on the right, and with semicircular pediments on the left. The right façade bears the coat of arms of the Covoni (a moon crescent surmounted by a rake), while the left one bears the coat of arms of the Risaliti (two crossed branches surmounted by an ecclesiastical hat). The ground floor however is uniform, with “kneeling windows” surmounted by semicircular pediments. The building hosts today some offices of the Tuscany Regional Council, whose seat is in the nearby 18th century Palazzo Bastogi (the large building with the flags faintly visible in the back, on the same side of the street):
Of particular interest in Palazzo Capponi-Covoni is its main entrance, leading onto a vaulted gallery. It is flanked by two pilasters with Corinthian capitals, and crowned by a corbel table supporting an elegant balcony:
There seem to be a number of interesting palaces on Via Cavour, but I have limited time on my hands and still haven’t seen most of the city’s famed landmarks, so I decide to head south, with the Cathedral as my next important stop. I pass next to the small church of San Giovannino degli Scolopi, which is being restored. It was originally (from 1351 to 1554) an oratory dedicated to San Giovanni Evangelista, until Cosimo I decided to erect a church for the newly arrived Jesuits, which was completed in 1661. When the Jesuit Order was suppressed in 1775, the church passed on to the Piarist Fathers or Scolopi. The façade is rather simple; the door and the window in the upper part are both flanked by two pairs of columns with composite capitals, and two empty niches open in the lower part above commemorative plaques. The frieze below the pediment bears an inscription reading: MICHAEL IUNTINUS EQ STEPHAN PR FRONTEM REFECIT A. MDCCCXLIII (which tells the façade was renewed in 1843 at the expense of Michele Guntini, Cavaliere di Santo Stefano), and a solar emblem is carved at the center of the pediment between two small volutes:
Shortly afterwards, I arrive to Piazza San Giovanni, adjacent to Piazza del Duomo where the Cathedral stands, and my heart skips a beat at the sheer size of the church’s dome and the amount of decoration on its façade, even though I’m looking at it from a distance.
But in the center of Piazza San Giovanni stands another landmark in its own right, the Baptistery of Saint John (Battistero di San Giovanni), which is one of the oldest buildings in Florence and probably served as its first church. It is an octagonal building whose east door stands directly opposite the west entrance to the Cathedral; its two main levels probably date from late Roman times (4th or 5th century), while the uppermost level and the pyramidal roof date from the 12th century. It was also in this period that the external revetment of the Baptistery’s sandstone façade was started. The geometrically designed cladding in white Carrara marble with green Prato marble inlay already shows signs of the search for spatial delimitation that was to lead to the Perspective of the Renaissance. The final result became a prototype for Romanesque architecture in Florence, and was used as a model for the completion of the facade of Santa Maria Novella in 1470. On the other hand, the eight corner ribs decorated with strong green and white stripes were more typical of the Romanesque style in use in Lucca, Pisa and Pistoia. Three tall blind arcades on each side articulate the main two levels of the structure, and bear windows with alternately pointed and semicircular tympani, a classical decoration that was used throughout the Renaissance.
The Baptistery is famous for its three great doors of gilded bronze of the 15th century, carved with narrative panels in Renaissance style. In particular, the Gates of Paradise on the east side by Lorenzo Ghiberti (who died just 3 years after their completion) are widely acclaimed as the structure’s greatest masterpiece. Their nickname is attributed to Michelangelo, who is said to have proclaimed upon seeing them: "They are so magnificent they could adorn the gates of Paradise". There were many annoying tourists standing next to the gates, so I couldn’t take a decent picture.
Visible near the north door is the Column of Saint Zenobius (San Zanobi), who was Bishop of Florence in the 5th century; it was placed here in 1384 to mark the site of a dead elm tree which is said to have sprung back to life when the coffin containing the body of the sainted bishop passed by during its transfer from San Lorenzo to the new cathedral of Santa Reparata in the 9th century:
Inside the Baptistery, no surface is left undecorated. The walls are covered in marble in geometric designs dating from the 11th century, and the floor is paved with intarso marble designs (made of stones of different colors joined together) begun in the early 13th century, including a magnificent Oriental-style zodiac rose. The monumental tomb of Antipope John XXIII, carried out by Donatello and Michelozzo in the 1420s, stands in the middle. The eight-part vault is coated with glimmering golden mosaics of the 13th century, depicting biblical scenes in exquisite detail. Sadly the Baptistery was closed, despite being one of the city’s most important landmarks.
Before taking a detailed look at the Cathedral, I wander a little in the area around the square searching for other interesting structures. My eye is caught by a grandiose building a little west on Via de' Cerretani, known alternatively as Palazzo Cerretani, Bobrinskij or Ruspoli after its various owners. It was originally created between 1721 and 1724 by the unification of a palace owned by the Cerretani family and of other houses, and notably housed the New York Hotel in the late 18th century. In 1861, wanting to enlarge the street connecting the railway station with the city center, the City of Florence purchased the building and gave it to Russian countess Julija Bobrinskij, under the condition that she would take charge of the demolitions needed for the recession of the front part, and of the reconstruction costs. The countess commissioned a work in neo-Renaissance style that was built between 1861 and 1864; it is the main wing we see today on Via de' Cerretani. The ground floor and the corners are covered in fake ashlar, and the first floor has a number of balconies onto which open elegant arched doors, while the remaining door-windows have “false balconies” incorporated in their design. On the right corner is a marble niche with the image of the Redeemer, housing a bust that came from the old Palazzo Cerretani, however the bust had been removed before my visit, probably for restoration works:
The back body was initially a completely independent building, built in 1912 for the Banca Mutua Popolare. In 1915, the Bobrinskij Palace was acquired by prince Camillo Ruspoli who undertook expansion works, essentially welding the two buildings through low lateral wings with a design similar to that of the façade. These lateral wings were raised in 1947 and 1982, and are the ones we see today on Via de' Conti and Via Ferdinando Zannetti respectively. A notable difference compared to the design of the façade is that the wings have a mezzanine floor also covered in fake ashlar, and feature more ornamented window frames:
In the back is visible the severe stone façade of Palazzo Bezzoli, one of the buildings that still preserve intact the character of the Florentine patrician residences of the Middle Ages. Works had started in the 15th century to add decorations to the arched windows, but they were quickly interrupted, and the palace has thus come to us in its original 13th century form:
On the other side of Via Ferdinando Zannetti is an interesting building with an unknown name. Its façade bears a carved protrusion and motifs of artificial stone alluding to the Vienna Secession movement, which shows the building is the fruit of a reconfiguration in the early 20th century, something very rare in a central area. Above the ground floor is also a wrought iron lamp with a stylized lion head from the same period. The design of the central “axis”, marked by tripartite windows, is another one of the building’s particularities.
Next to it can be seen a part of Palazzo Martelli, the result of the unification in the 17th century of several houses purchased by the Martelli at different times as the family’s wealth increased. Further transformations in the 18th century gave the building its current form; following the extinction of the last branch of the Martelli family, it was acquired by the State together with its furnishings and collections, leading to the establishment of the Museo di Casa Martelli. The palace houses today one of the city's most important private art collections, and preserves almost intact interiors of great wealth and splendor:
To the east, the spot where Piazza San Giovanni and Piazza del Duomo meet leads onto Via de' Martelli, named after the Martelli family who owned various properties in that area. It is lined with buildings in neo-Renaissance style, quite different from the ones I saw earlier on Via de’ Ginori. The first one from the front is Palazzo Ruspoli, whose current shape is the result of a radical reconstruction in the 19th century. In the middle of the façade is a large balcony supported by corbels with lion heads, with a window door crowned by an empty escutcheon. On the main floor are the coat-of-arms of the Arte di Calimala (one of the Guilds of Florence), and a tabernacle with a fresco depicting the Madonna with the Child, both from the 15th century.
Next to it stands Palazzo Martelli; it is organized on four floors crowned by Roman eaves and a balustrade. Its current shape is also due to the 19th century transformation, in a measured neo-Renaissance style, of an old dwelling of the main branch of the Martelli family. The windows, from the bottom to the top, are successively crowned by circular pediments, then triangular ones, and finally simple molded architraves, a feature common to many Florentine buildings of the same period. On a shelf above the main access door is a bust depicting Francesco I de' Medici, the second Grand Duke of Tuscany.
The large building with a simple façade next to it is the Liceo Classico Galileo, established in 1884, and where some of the most representative cultural figures of the 20th century were formed. The building was initially a convent owned by the Jesuits together with the adjacent church of San Giovannino degli Scolopi. After the Jesuits were suppressed, the convent was given to the Piarist Fathers who established their college in it, and the definitive configuration of the complex took place in the 19th century. On the second floor of the façade there are still four oval escutcheons bearing the coats-of-arms and the insignia of the Martelli family, of the Commune, of the Gori Ciampelli family, and of the Piarists.
The corner of Piazza del Duomo and Via de 'Martelli is occupied by the elegant Palazzo Gamba, also known as Palazzo Viviani or Palazzo del Bottegone. A 14th century house owned by the Viviani previously stood there, of which nothing remains; the current building instead was erected in the mid-seventies of the 19th century, concurrently with the rectification of Via de' Martelli in 1871. The ground floor, marked by a series of arches leading to various commercial establishments, is clad in fake ashlar, characteristic of that period. The upper floors and the mezzanine are noticeable for their extensive terracotta decorations; the windows of the first floor are crowned by molded ribs decorated in Renaissance style, while those of the second floor are crowned by triangular pediments. On the angle of the building is an escutcheon, also in terracotta, with the coat-of-arms of the Gamba family. Until the 1950s, the ground floor housed a famous cafe called the Bottegone, unique in the city for staying open until late.
To the right of Palazzo Gamba stand two equally noticeable buildings. The largest one is Casa Giuntini, built at the beginning of the 18th century by the Giuntini family on the site of two 14th century houses. The facade unfolds on seven narrow axes over six floors, with the doors and windows of the main floor connected by a balcony with an elegant and airy iron railing. The building is highly unusual in the Florentine urban space in that it preserves an 18th character with its unique ornamented window frames in baroque style. Indeed, such elements were too often eliminated or modified during the 19th and 20th century interventions on the facades of buildings, aimed at recovering their image as it was in the medieval or Renaissance period. In particular, the frames of the penultimate floor are decorated with the stylized image of a bat, placed to protect the house according to a tradition already well established in the 16th century.
Squeezed between Palazzo Gamba and Casa Giuntini is a narrow building with only three axes for five floors. The continuity of its eaves line with that of Casa Giuntini and the alignment of their windows would seem to indicate that the two buildings were once part of a single property, however, its façade is autonomous and appears to be the result of a 19th century reconfiguration, aimed at the recovery of a 16th-17th century architectural style. Its main feature is a balcony with a curved iron railing spanning the width of the first floor.
The last structure on the left is Hotel Duomo, housed in an 18th century building without any decoration excesses:
To the other side of Palazzo Gamba, along Via de 'Martelli, is another series of palaces all remodeled in neo-Renaissance style when the street was rectified in 1871. They are, from right to left: Palazzo Testa, owned from the 17th to the early 19th century by the Testa counts, whose coat-of-arms still stands at the center of the façade; Palazzo Treves, whose windows are crowned by alternating curved and triangular pediments; and a palace of unknown name with a similar design, but with a low mezzanine located under the Roman eaves.
Having seen its surroundings, it is finally time to have a detailed look at the Cathedral itself. Formally called the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the massive church is known for its distinctive Renaissance dome, and its appearance today is the end result of years of work that covered over six centuries of history. The third and last Florentine cathedral, it was given the name of Santa Maria del Fiore (Holy Mary of the Flower) in 1412 in allusion to the lily, symbol of the city. It was built on top of the previous cathedral, dedicated to Santa Reparata, which remained in activity for nine centuries until the Florentine Republic decided to demolish it in 1293 and replace it with a larger and more magnificent structure, prompted by what Pisa and Siena had done, "so that the industry and power of man are unable to invent or ever attempt again anything that is larger or more beautiful". Considerable remains of Santa Reparata, which was about half the size of the present church and flanked by two bell towers, can be seen today in the archeological site underneath the Cathedral (accessible from inside it).
The project was assigned in 1294 to Arnolfo di Cambio, head architect of the City Council, who designed the cathedral to be the largest Roman Catholic church in the world, and ceremoniously laid the first stone on September 8th 1296. He conceived a basilica of overall Gothic style yet of classical grandeur, with three wide naves meeting in the vast chancel (where the high altar stands), surrounded by a trefoil-shaped tribune representing the petals of a flower, on which the dome would rest. Arnolfo worked on the Cathedral from 1296 to 1302, the year of his death, and only had time to decorate and complete the lower half of the façade; works came to a halt after his death.
Giotto was appointed as overseer for the work in 1334, but he died in turn three years later, having only built the first floor of the campanile. Work on the Cathedral was halted again in 1348 due to the Black Death, and was not resumed until 1355, under a series of architects. Santa Reparata was pulled down in 1375, a sign that Santa Maria del Fiore was now ready to be the new cathedral of Florence. The nave was finished by 1380, while work on the external marble revetment continued, as well as on the decorations around the side entrances. The revetment was made of alternating vertical and horizontal bands of white Carrara, green Prato and red Siena marble, which, according to the directions of Arnolfo, were to repeat the facings of the Baptistery and the Campanile and give uniformity to the style of the square.
By 1418 only the dome was left uncompleted; however, the cathedral had become so large after the modifications brought to Arnolfo’s original design that the usual methods of fixed scaffolding from the ground could not be used to close the chancel with a roof large enough. The challenge was solved by architect Filippo Brunelleschi, drawing inspiration from an attentive study of the cupola of the Pantheon in Rome, which had also been carried out without scaffolding and with a double wall. A competition for the project was held in 1418, and Brunelleschi won it outright with his octagonal design. Construction of the dome began in 1420 and was completed in 1434; the final structure consisted of a double cupola of brick, 91 meter high, completely self-supporting and using a horizontal reinforcement system. It was the largest dome built at the time, and is still the largest masonry dome in the world. Two years later, the lantern was placed in position, taking the dome from 91 to 114,5 meters in total height. The "Cupolone" (Great Cupola) as the Florentines have called it ever since became the symbol of the new, revolutionary Renaissance architecture, of Florence itself, and of the whole of Tuscany.
The Cathedral was finally consecrated by Pope Eugenius IV on March 25 (the Florentine New Year) 1436, 140 years after work on it first started. It is today the third largest cathedral in the world after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London. The final touch still awaiting completion was the decoration of the lantern; it was begun a few months before Brunelleschi’s death in 1446 and completed by his friend Michelozzo in 1461, and the great copper sphere on the top was positioned in 1471:
On each side of the church, set between mighty buttresses, are six mullioned lancet windows notable for their delicate tracery and ornamented cusps; however, only the three windows closest to the transept admit light, while the others are merely ornamental. The two windows closest to the transept are also wider than the other four; started after 1357, they exemplify the more relaxed rhythm of the Florentine Gothic style, compared to the classic Gothic style of the others. The clerestory windows (those in the high section of the walls) are round, a common feature in Italian Gothic:
In the middle of the northern flank opens the Porta di Balla (or Porta dei Cornacchini), dating from the end of the 14th century, and which takes its name from an ancient city gate in the early medieval walls. It is flanked by two helical (twisting) columns, supported by stylophores in the shape of lions, and culminating with pinnacles on which stand two statuettes. The center of the cusp is occupied by a Blessing Christ bas-relief set inside a round medallion, while a niche above it contains another statuette, probably of Saint John the Evangelist, and the lunette contains a Madonna with the Child between two angels:
A popular legend tells that in the early 15th century, a certain Anselmo, living nearby in front of the houses of the Cornacchini family (from whom the door takes its second name), had a recurrent of being bitten and killed by a lion identical to the one sculpted on the right side of the door, in front of which he passed every day on his way to work. To exorcise his fear, Anselmo decided one day to challenge the lion by putting his hand inside its jaw. Unfortunately, a venomous poisonous scorpion was nestled inside the jaws of the statue and stung him, killing him within 24 hours and making the premonitory dream come true!
Further towards the transept, at the level of Via Ricasoli, opens the famous Porta della Mandorla (“Door of the Almond”), which owes its name to the representation in the tympanum of the Assumption of the Virgin within an almond-shaped nimbus. It’s the fruit of the work between 1391 and 1423 of various sculptors, including Donatello and Nanni di Banco, and its sculptures have a remarkable relevance in the History of Art, because they were made during the transition between the last Gothic and the first Renaissance phases, and constitute the very first examples of the strictly classicist Florentine taste, which soon became predominant:
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