Palazzo Medici is perhaps the best known of all Renaissance homes; its scale, materials, and design was so grand as to justify the widespread adoption of the term palatium (Latin for palace) or palazzo to describe a new residential typology that replaced the more humble casa, or house. This opulence was justified through the classically-inspired theory of magnificence – magnificenza – which claimed that private show should be understood as a civic virtue, contributing to the collective beauty of the city of Florence as a work of art. Indeed, Cosimo proudly recalls how Pope Pius II, a recent visitor, had considered it a building “fit for a king”, paying him the ultimate compliment of imitating its design for his own residence, built in the South Tuscan town of Pienza.
The Palazzo Medici was a highly influential building, setting out a blueprint for the classically inspired all’antica (in the manner of the ancient Romans) residence. It is laid out on a symmetrical plan with an axis from the main entrance towards the street, through an airy colonnaded internal courtyard to a small walled garden to the rear. The ground floor had public and official functions, providing spaces for visitors to assemble and await a meeting with Cosimo himself – a now-closed loggia on the corner closest to the Baptistery, stone benches around two sides of the façade, and large ground floor rooms furnished with benches. Instead, the residential quarters on the first floor (piano nobile) were reserved only for family and the most honoured guests. Inside, Cosimo’s house was lavishly appointed with sculptures by Donatello and a remarkable chapel decorated by Benozzo Gozzoli, depicting the Journey of the Magi – a subject dear to Cosimo – in which he is shown in the company of his son, Piero, and grandson, Lorenzo. Three generations of the Medici line are thus depicted through a filter of biblical royalty.
While Medicean political ambitions were overt inside the palace, especially in the chapel portraiture, the façade is a much more severe affair. The graded stonework of the massive rusticated stone base gives way to more refined cut stone blocks on the piano nobile, all of it hewn from the same local pietra forte stone used for government buildings such as the city hall and Bargello. Round-arched windows consciously evoked the forms of classical Roman architecture, but just as the stonework was symbolic of power, so Cosimo made the bold and much-imitated decision to place his family coat of arms in a prime spot on the most visible corner of the building that addresses the crossroad where you are standing.
Read about the panels by Filippo Lippi from the palace now in the National Gallery, London, here.
You can visit the Palazzo Medici and the chapel.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘Building magnificence’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/cosimo/2-building-magnificence/
Georgia Clarke, Roman House – Renaissance Palaces: Inventing Antiquity in Fifteenth-Century Italy, (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), 164-79
Emanuela Ferretti, ‘The Medici Palace, Cosimo the Elder and Michelozzo: a Historiographical Survey’, in A Renaissance Architecture of Power. Princely Palaces in the Italian Quattrocento, Silvia Beltramo, Flavia Cantatore, Marco Folin eds. (Brill, Leiden – Boston, 2016), pp. 263-289
Ernst H. Gombrich, ‘The Early Medici as Patrons of Art’, in his Norm and Form (London 1966), 35-57