Mona Niccolosa came from one of the few lineages that could rival the Medici in the fifteenth century. The Alessandri dominated their neighbourhood by building a magnificent Renaissance palace on what was still called Borgo San Piero in Niccolosa’s day. Occupying almost an entire city block, this impressive residence—Niccolosa’s family home—was part of the building boom that transformed the face of fifteenth-century Florence.
Grand family palaces were designed to host a constant stream of visitors and the intense social activity sparked by ceremonies of all kinds. More than simple spaces for habitation, the interiors of Renaissance palaces included rooms and passageways that served as everyday theaters for the performance of honor and magnificence. Distinguished visitors were received with all the trappings of wealth, guests treated to sumptuous banquets. Little wonder, then, that Savonarola’s followers yearned for a simpler way of life.
The massive walls of the Alessandri palace, where Niccolosa grew up, provided a backdrop for one of the signature events in Florentine religious life—the performance of a healing miracle that became enshrined in local ritual. On the street fronting the Alessandri palace, Bishop Zanobi had miraculously raised a child from the dead some ten centuries earlier. This legendary moment was immortalized in Niccolosa’s day by the Renaissance painters Domenico Veneziano (c. 1445) and Sandro Botticelli (c. 1500), and would be given new life many times over as a mark of civic pride.
For all its architectural glory, Renaissance Florence was an urban honeycomb teeming with poor widows. In 1427, when the famous Catasto surveyed the entire urban population, one in four women was a widow—very few of them rich. Limited finances often forced widows to pool resources, setting up small households of three or four in an economy of makeshift.
Propertied widows like Mona Niccolosa found themselves in a different position. When their husbands died, they enjoyed the customary right of “tornata” or return to their father’s house. Brothers, uncles and cousins were duty-bound to offer them room and board, which sometimes led to fierce resentment on their part.
Mona Niccolosa was lucky. Her father Alessandro granted her control over a substantial dowry, along with a small supplement. As a widow of means, she had money left over to dispense charity, as well as the ability to choose her favourite causes. Last wills and testaments from Florence and other Italian cities reveal that lay women supported nuns and nunneries more than any other pious venture, mainly because these institutions proved so responsive to their needs.
Sharon T. Strocchia
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Sharon Strocchia, ‘Family matters’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/niccolosa/nicc6_alessandri/
Ann Crabb, The Strozzi of Florence: Widowhood and Family Solidarity in the Renaissance. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Nicholas A. Eckstein, “The Widow’s Might: Identity and Devotion in the Brancacci Chapel,” Oxford Art Journal 28 (2005): 99-118
Julius Kirshner, Marriage, Dowry, and Citizenship in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.