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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Architect for the Medici

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy

“For, to tell of this house, for whomever might want worthily to discuss it and describe its parts, not my tongue, not the space of one day, and not of one month, but many - and the eloquence of many orators - would be necessary.”

Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Count of Pavia, 1459, regarding the Palazzo Medici

Cosimo de Medici was renowned for his patronage of the arts and scholarship. He amassed a vast library of manuscripts and personally funded many manuscript acquisitions through individuals like Niccolo Niccoli and Poggio Braccioloni, as discussed in Episode #29 of the I Take History With My Coffee podcast. He also patronized some of Florence’s most renowned visual artists, including the great Renaissance sculptor Donatello, as explored in Episode #30.

However, like other influential figures of his time, Cosimo recognized the importance of leaving a legacy through grand public works and enhancing existing buildings. He understood that architecture could define a city and shape one’s legacy. Cosimo’s father, Giovanni de Medici, sat on the commission that selected Ghiberti to create the new doors for the Baptistry. He also funded the construction of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the hospital for foundlings, and the restoration and enlargement of the Church of San Lorenzo. Giovanni paid for a Medici chapel and the sacristy; the church would be the family church and the site of the Medici tombs. Both the Ospedale and San Lorenzo would be the work of Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi had just returned to Florence from Rome after studying classical architecture among the Roman ruins.

Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy

Following his father’s footsteps, Cosimo continued to invest heavily in the construction, restoration, and embellishment of churches, convents, and charitable institutions across Florence and Tuscany. He told his friend, the bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, that he knew “the humors of my city. Before fifty years have passed, we shall be expelled, but my buildings will remain.” He was actively engaged in projects like a chapel at Santa Croce, a choir at Santissima Annunziata, a San Bartolommeo library, and the San Domenico di Fiesole monastery, where he even had a private room. Additionally, Cosimo played a role in restoring the college of Florentine students at the University of Paris, renovating the church of Santo Spirito in Jerusalem, and expanding the Franciscan monastery at Assisi. Notably, he invested substantial resources in rebuilding the Dominican monastery of San Marco. The prior, Antonio Pierozzi, was one of Cosimo’s closest friends and a spiritual advisor. At San Marco, Cosimo had a private room for reflection and quiet. It was to San Marco that Cosimo donated the bulk of Niccolo Niccoli’s extensive collection of manuscripts.

Cosimo inherited his relationship with Brunelleschi from his father, and the great architect was counted among the artists and scholars in the Medici circle. When Cosimo was solidifying his power in Florence, Brunelleschi was in the final stages of completing the dome atop the Florence Cathedral of Santa Maria di Fiore. The dome would be Brunelleschi’s masterpiece. I will discuss the construction and significance of this iconic part of Florence’s skyline in Episode #31 of the podcast.

Once the San Marco Monastery was completed, Cosimo decided to build a new family residence. At that time, the term “palazzo” referred to a large house or mansion of a wealthy individual, not necessarily a palace as we understand it today. Before this, the Medici had been living in the Palazzo Bardi. Cosimo had recently relocated the family to his father’s former house on the Piazza del Duomo, suitable for the family but inadequate for the growing needs of the Medici business. They required new storage rooms and countinghouses, leading to the decision to construct a new palazzo at the corner of Via Larga and the Via de’ Gori.

For this project, Cosimo tasked the brilliant but temperamental Brunelleschi. As related by 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari, the story says that when Brunelleschi presented his design, Cosimo felt it too ornate and splendid. Cosimo had specific preferences for architectural restraint and modesty, avoiding ostentatious displays of wealth and power that might provoke envy and opposition. And this had to be more so for his family residence. He tactfully declined Brunelleschi’s design, and according to Vasari, the great architect, in anger, smashed his model “into a thousand pieces.” Instead, Cosimo decided upon a younger architect, Michelozzo Michelozzi.

Portrait of Michelozzo by Fra Angelico

Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi, often called Michelozzo, was born in Florence, Italy, around 1396. Little is known about his early life. In 1410, he was working as an engraver for the Florentine Mint. This is where he probably learned the skills to cast, chase, and gild copper and bronze, the two primary metals that metalsmiths worked with. He became a member of the stonemasons guild, and beginning in 1420, he apprenticed under Lorenzo Ghiberti. Like the artist Donatello, he received his early training as a sculptor and architect under the guidance of Ghiberti, presumably working in some capacity on the bronze doors for the Baptistry. This foundational education in sculpture and architecture would later influence Michelozzo’s innovative approach to design.

The choice of Michelozzo was not too surprising. His talent as a designer and sculptor shone through in his collaborations with Donatello, who had a close relationship with the Medici. Together, they created impressive sculptural works such as the tomb of the anti-pope John XXIII in the Florence Baptistry. This collaboration demonstrated his versatility and ability to seamlessly integrate sculpture into architectural contexts. He also contributed to the construction of the San Marco Monastery in Florence, working on renovating the convent’s living quarters. His design for the monastery reflects his ability to blend the practical needs of the space with the aesthetic ideals of the Renaissance. The layout and proportions of the monastery’s cloister showcase his mastery of architectural composition. Later on, Michelozzo would also design two country villas for the Medici family.

The Palazzo Medici, also known as the Medici Palace or Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, was constructed between 1444 and 1484. It is a quintessential example of Renaissance architecture. Michelozzo’s design incorporated classical elements such as rustication, pilasters, and a harmonious sense of proportion. The palace served as a residence for the Medici family and a symbol of their wealth and power, setting a precedent for Renaissance palace architecture.

The design of the palazzo retained some medieval elements while incorporating new components. The emphasis was on simplicity, yet it managed to convey the wealth and stature of the Medici family through the choice of materials, the interior layout, and an elegant simplicity that set it apart. The design was instrumental in establishing Michelozzo as a prominent architect, and the palazzo itself became a prototype for the Tuscan Renaissance palace style, influencing his later works.

From a modern perspective, the Medici Palace is notable for its fortress-like appearance, achieved through roughly cut stones on the ground floor. This design choice, characterized by the rough surface of these stones, was inspired by ancient Roman monuments like the Forum of Augustus in Rome. While this rustication might not have served a defensive purpose in the turbulent atmosphere of 15th-century Florence, it likely aimed to convey the Tuscan dignity and antique strength associated with the Medici family.

The grand room of the piano nobile, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

Internally, the palace has undergone modifications, but the overall plan’s clarity and the regularity of its shape were innovative for Florentine palace architecture. These design elements may have been influenced by descriptions of ancient Roman houses provided by Vitruvius, the first-century BCE architect and theorist. Examining plans of the ground floor and piano nobile (the principal floor of a palazzo) reveals the original locations of significant family rooms, including the chapel and the study (“scrittoio”). The symmetrical arrangement of rooms flanking the main entrance on the ground floor is a distinctive feature. On the piano nobile, the sala or grand room served various functions like receptions, dining, or dancing. It enjoyed a prime corner facing south toward Brunelleschi’s now-completed cathedral dome.

Externally, the palace exhibits distinct features. Stringcourses separate the three stories, with the lower story showcasing pronounced rustication, the second adorned with trimmed blocks and deep joints, and the third almost concealing the joints between its blocks. The upper-story windows are mullioned, a characteristic feature of Florentine Quattrocento palaces, supported by Corinthian colonnettes derived from Gothic structures. Medici emblems and symbols adorn the lunettes above the windows, and a prominent coat of arms identifies the owners. The cornice motifs draw inspiration from Roman models, contributing to the structure’s block-like appearance.

Like many medieval palaces, the Medici Palace centers around a courtyard with a square plan and regular design. The ground story comprises a continuous arcade, the second story features windows resembling those on the exterior, and the third served initially as an open loggia. While the arcade of the ground story resembles Brunelleschi’s buildings, it possesses more substantial proportions, suitable for columns that functionally and visually support the enclosed second story.

Interior courtyard of Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

While Brunelleschi is better known, Michelozzo was pivotal in shaping Renaissance architecture. His ability to blend classical elements with innovative design significantly impacted Florence’s architectural landscape. His collaboration with the Medici family and other prominent artists solidified his legacy as a visionary architect and designer. Michelozzo’s influence extended beyond his lifetime, serving as a foundation for future architects and contributing to the development of the Renaissance style.


Further Reading:

Palazzo Medici Riccardi official website

Palazzo Medici Riccardi: Valentina Zucchi

All episodes of the I Take History With My Coffee Podcast can be found on popular platforms like Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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