The Renaissance in Italy saw the invention and rapid development of a new architectural type – the massive residential palazzo of the elite. Built in stone, adopting a sophisticated classicising style, occupying sites much larger than before and often housing far fewer people than the traditional residences of the medieval urban gentry – these buildings transformed the urban landscape.
We know quite a lot about how people lived in these buildings, and the changes to daily life they brought for the urban elites – music-making, dining, collecting are all accommodated by these vast buildings. But what effects did they have for the everyday citizen – at street level? For one thing of course, they ate up urban real estate. In fact we know that there was a relative crisis in the availability of centrally located affordable rental housing and shops in the later fifteenth century as a direct result of the so called “building boom.” Palaces like the Palazzo Strozzi contributed to this crisis in various ways. The sheer scale of the palace meant that it occupied space previously reserved for multiple houses, hogging that space for no more than two households, those of Filippo Strozzi’s sons. Moreover, the piazza onto which the palace faces was created from scratch by demolition of swaths of other property – again for no further reason than to create a good viewing area for the palace and its owners. And finally, the site was very close to the commercial heart of the city, but a conscious choice was made not to have shops on the ground floor, as a sign of magnificence. In so doing of course, commercial real estate was also reduced in this central location.
But the bid for show was not of course exclusively negative. First of all, the very size and architectural ornament of the palace contributed to an idea of collective splendour of the city – the so called theory of magnificence. Private show was theoretically framed as a civic virtue, contributing to the collective beauty of the city of Florence as a work of art. Furthermore, the piazza beautified the urban centre, creating a new location for pageants, both private and public. And finally, some new amenity was created – the huge stone benches that wrap around the exterior were “provided” for the benefit of users to enjoy the space.
Perhaps the most famous modern parallel for this is the Rockerfeller plaza in New York – a privately owned public space enjoyed by many. Increasingly, this is a model that has invaded many British city centres – where malls without walls provide an attractive amenity for shoppers, in a regulated and secured private-public space.
You can visit Palazzo Strozzi.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘Palaces and pavements’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/politics-and-people/9-palaces-and-pavements/
Caroline Elam, ‘Piazza Strozzi: Two Drawings by Baccio d’Agnolo’, I Tatti Studies, 1 (1985), 105-35
David Friedman, ‘Palaces and the Street in Late-Medieval and Renaissance Italy’, in Urban Landscapes, International Perspectives, ed. J. W. R. Whitehand and P. J. Larkham (London: Routledge, 1992), 69-113
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘Home Shopping: Urbanism, Commerce and Palace Design in Renaissance Italy’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 70.2 (June 2011), 153-73