Palazzo Medici-Riccardi: Michelozzo’s cortile, the façade; Palazzo Strozzi and Palazzo Rucellai

Timetable Entrance Address

The layout is almost a square, surrounding a central courtyard. This creates a strong symmetry. The staircase that was still part of the courtyard at the Davanzati or Bargello has been removed. This enables a truly symmetric cortile. Michelozzo’s cortile was the first courtyard that looked genuinely classic. Still, Michelozzo’s method for the courtyard was no different from what builders of the Baptistery used in the eleventh century. Work started from a flat surface. After designing or building one bay, it was simply multiplied. This explains the strange corners of the Baptistery that we’ve seen before. Michelozzo designed one bay and multiplied it by four. He would then bend the whole construction back three times, creating a square courtyard. In doing so, he cared little for the strange corners he was producing. The collar pillars appear much too small, though they have the same diameter as the other columns.

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
Palazzo Medici-Riccardi courtyard

Photo: Hen-Magonza


two sides of the courtyard
corner of the courtyard
courtyard Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Florence

foto: mouseover Angie

Furthermore, the windows above the cornice are nastily close together in the corners. It is evident that Michelozzo designed buildings from a two-dimensional surface and not as three-dimensional  block-shaped constructions. Other architects in Florence did do the latter, like Maiano in 1490 for his design of the cortile of the Palazzo Strozzi.

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
Palazzo Medici-Riccardi  garden

The back of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi first had open arcades, in the spot that now a museum store, but it was walled shut around 1517. The first staircase to the right leads to the Medici chapel, where Gozzoli painted a fresco cycle and Filippo Lippi painted an altarpiece, but we will examine this in more detail on the day we cover painting (click here for the story about the frescos and the altarpiece).

Medici chapel Gozzoli Florence

The facade of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

Like the facade, the layout is symmetrical. The windows and arcades have rounded arches rather than a pointed one like at the gothic Davanzati. The windows and arches are placed in a rhythmic manner. Each of the three floors is slightly lower in height. The rustication adds to the visual effect. The ground floor uses rough rustication.

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
piano nobile and top floor
Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Florence

On the piano nobile, the beautiful floor that was the residence of the head of the family, has more delicate rustication and the seams are noticeably more narrow. The top floor uses smooth stone without seams. The whole construction is crowned with a heavy and strongly protruding cornice for some alleviating shadows in hot summers. That said, this cornice did have its share of technical difficulties. With how strongly it protrudes, the difficulty was in ensuring there was sufficient counterweight. The ten bifore windows no longer have a quatrefoil like in the Davanzati, but a middle style shaped like a narrow column. Michelangelo later made a drawing for a window that was actually constructed. As a young boy, Michelangelo Buonarroti spent several years living in the palace under Lorenzo il Magnifico. Under Lorenzo, a grandson of Cosimo, the palace was a centre where great poets, philosophers and artists convened, but we will discuss this in more detail when we cover Michelangelo.

Palazzo Strozzi

We continue our way and walk towards the old city centre, where the cardo and decumanus roads met and which is now called the Piazza della Repubblica.

Giovanni Stradano
The old city centre
Mercato Vecchio

The old city centre Mercato Vecchio Florence Giovanni Stradano


Current square
Piazza Repubblica
City Centre in Antiquity
Piazza Repubblica Florence

Close to the nineteenth century square, Piazza della Repubblica, lies the Palazzo Strozzi.50  This palace is the apotheosis in palazzi development we have seen thus far. The original plan was based on an enormous freestanding plot. Filippo Strozzi, a rich merchant, commissioned Benedetto da Maiano in 1480 to build the largest palace in Florence. The cost was over two hundred thousand florins. Filippo had already purchased sizeable plots in the city centre, including a plot with the graves of Poppi.  Some fifteen homes were demolished before construction could start. Shop owner and diarist Landucci complained about the noise and dust levels when the enormous terrain was being prepared for construction.

Palazzo Strozzi
at the Piazza Strozzi and the Via degli Strozzi
Palazzo Strozzi at the Piazza Strozzi and the Via degli Strozzi Florence

picture: Andreas Jungherr

Palazzo Strozzi
at the Piazza Strozzi
Palazzo Strozzi at the Piazza Strozzi Florence

Da Maiano likely based himself on a wooden model by Giuliano da Sangallo that has remained preserved. The construction, which has been documented remarkably well, lasted for over fifty years from 1480 to 1536. When Filippo dies in 1491, he leaves behind a wall that states how the family palace should be expressly finished according to the existing plans. It was also expressly mentioned that the palace had to remain in family hands at all costs. The family did just that until 1937. Maintenance costs were so high that the Strozzi family now shares the palace with a number of commercial organisations. In view of this, we can definitely commend the astrologist tasked with laying the first stone on August 6th 1489, as he predicted that ‘this day is marked by the Lion symbol – representing strength and sustainability and safeguarding a long stay in the building for Filippo’s descendants.’51


Palazzo Strozzi at the Via de Tornabuoni
Piazza Strozzi

Palazzo Strozzi at the Via de Tornabuoni Florence

picture: Andreas Jungherr

When Filippo dies in 1491, construction had progressed up to the iron rings used for the horses. Of course, throughout the project, Filippo had to account for the most powerful family in Florence: the Medici. Would Lorenzo de Medici, who was quite fond of architecture himself, not become jealous and prevent the construction? Filippo played into Lorenzo’s thoughts quite cleverly. He often complained how architects had a tendency towards megalomania and were only interesting in building large, larger and largest. And naturally, he did not like it one bit. He also did not want rustication, as it wasn’t folksy enough. Filippo even managed to persuade Lorenzo into being a patron of his ‘modest project’.  In his will, he ordered his descendants that Lorenzo de’Medici was to supervise construction if the palace had not yet been completed by 1496

The layout now has full symmetry and the courtyard is situated exactly in the centre of the enormous building block. The facade has a large door spot-on in the middle. The four bays on each side of the centre bay are fully identical. The facade at the Piazza Strozzi is repeated in the two side walls at the Via Strozzi and the Via de Tornabuoni. If you take a close look at the rustication, you will see noticeable differences with those of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Da Maiano used heavy brickwork on the ground floor. This is in stark contrast with the ornamental windows. The rectangular windows on the ground floor were copied from the Palazzo Rucellai. The windows on the first and second floor have the traditional bifore shape. The rustication has a fine finish and looks nothing like the rough stone used for keeps in Medieval times. Back then, the rustication actually served to give an impression of heavy and rough chunks of stone. In reality, it was just ordinary stuccowork. The rustication becomes smoother each floor up. This is entirely in line with Florentine tradition like we have seen earlier at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. The facade also has banner holders. Usual items like bird cages or, during festivities, nice draperies would be attached to them, as you can see in the frescos by Masaccio in the Brancacci chapel.

Something really new is the courtyard; a work by the hand of Da Maiano. You can rightfully rank this architect among the High Renaissance. While Alberti, Michelozzo and Brunelleschi still worked from a flat surface, Maiano bases himself from block-shaped and thus three-dimensional structures. Benedetto da Maiano used mass as he had seen it with classical ruins in Rome.

Palazzo Strozzi
airial picture
courtyard Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Florence Da Maiano

Palazzo Rucellai

We continue our way west. Not far from the Palazzo Strozzi we find a very different palace, which, while it has traits of a long Florentine tradition, is a unique sight in this city in various aspects.


Palazzo Rucellai
Youtube  Khan Academy Alberti Rucellai (5.10 minutes)
Palazzo Rucellai Florence Alberti

picture: Maria Bostenaru

Giovanni Rucellai had already once commissioned Alberti to design a facade for the Santa Maria Novella: the parochial church of his family. Seemingly to good satisfaction, as Giovanni had Alberti design a facade for his palace at the Via della Vigna Nuova Alberti. It is likely that Alberti already made a design back in 1450, which was only used by Bernardo Rossellino between 1460 and 1466.  Alberti had already written his book on architecture, ‘De re Aedificatoria’, and had spent considerable time in Rome where he studied classic architecture.

Palazzo Rucellai Alberti Florence

picture: Architectural Historian

This palazzo is where Alberti first introduced pilasters that give the façade a clear arrangement.52 The pilasters and horizontal cornices also serve as window sills and clearly classify the facade.  The arrangement is based on the Colosseum, with each floor using different orders. Alberti uses the Tuscan order on the ground floor, and his last order used is one that closely resembles the Corinthian order. On the first floor, the piano nobile, he goes against what you might expect and does not use the Ionic order, but instead he takes a liberal approach in what closely resembles the Corinthian order. So, it is not an exact arrangement of Dorian, Ionic and Corinthian orders like in the Colosseum, but he did use three different ones.53 The rustication of the entire facade is flat and protrudes the same length as the pilasters. Much different from the rough, protruding rustication used by Michelozzo for the Medici palace. In this case, Alberti sticks with his own writings. ‘A house of tyrants would appear like a keep, but other palaces must be easily accessible, nicely decorated, with delicate articulation and be prominent rather than pompous and imposing’, Alberti says in his ‘De re Aedificatoria’’54 The rustication plates seem completely randomised in terms of size. For the first time, and in unison with the classics, the doors lack a pointed (Davanzati) or nearly rounded arch (Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, but instead have a horizontal beam. The door frames are bent into a ninety degree angle at the bottom. The inspiration for this comes from the facade of the San Miniato al Monte and the Baptistery, where the architrave was bent as well.

Palazzo Rucellai door detail Alberti

pictures: Ann Silver

The facade consists of seven bays, but the original intent was to add one more to the right (east side). You can tell by the bases for the arches that were still made. Unfortunately for Giovanni, the neighbour refused to sell his house. The two bays at the doors are a bit wider than the others, preventing a monotonous look. The windows in the two wide bays are higher, but not wider. What is wider is the arch around these two windows. The alternating of bays has a rhythm of AABAABAA, after all, the last A was never built.

base for never constructed last bay
big  format
Palazzo Rucellai base for never constructed last bay

The diamond shape pattern at the benches is based on Roman masonry called opus reticulatum. Alberti exclusively used this pattern as an ornamental motif. This also applies to the pilasters that are only used as a means to support certain structures. What Alberti did not know is that the Romans did not use the diamond shape pattern for decorative purposes, but to reinforce concrete. Alberti’s windows may fit in Florentine tradition, but there is also a clear difference. At the bifore windows of the Palazzo Vecchio or the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, the arches are directly supported by small columns. According to Alberti, this was in violation of classical rules.55 Brunelleschi thought differently as can be seen in his Ospedale degli Innocenti, where the loggia arches are directly supported by columns. That is why Alberti opted for an intermediate solution by putting a crossbeam in between the columns and the arch.56 This window type will become extraordinarily popular in Venice. The architect Codussi was the first to apply these windows in the serenissima (the Republic of Venice) for the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi.57

The second cornice at the first floor windows show the well-known rounded sails (Fortuna’s sails) that we saw before at the facade of the Santa Maria Novella: a reference to the family coat of arms. The arches at the windows and the first cornice (rings and three feathers) show three intertwined rings, this is a reference to the Medici. Giovanni married off his son to the granddaughter of Cosimo de’Medici. Giovannni himself was married to a woman from the well-off Strozzi family.

bifore window
Palazzo Rucellai
Palazzo Rucellai bifore window Palazzo Rucellai Alberti Florence

The facade is a well thought out and ordened unity. But the same cannot be said for what lies behind the facade, as the layout clearly reveals.

Palazzo Rucellai Alberti Florence

picture: John Galanti

The palazzo comprises multiple houses and it has no real symmetry. Very different from what we saw earlier at the Palazzo Strozzi. The reason is that Giovanni inherited the original building from his father and was only able to very gradually buy several neighbouring buildings later on. The original design was likely still based on five bays, but when Giovanni Rucellai manages to snatch an adjacent house in 1458, two more bays are added. Unfortunately, the sale of the next neighbouring building was cancelled. The result is that the loggia built across from the palazzo is a bit isolated from the palace on the other side of the Via della Vigna.

Loggia Rucellai
of the year  1880

Loggia Rucellai Alberti Florence

Despite the above mentioned innovations, this palace, like the facade of the Santa Maria Novella, stays in line with the Florentine ‘classic tradition’. The rustication, the trichotomy in the facade, the benches, the wide and strongly protruding cornice, cornices serving as windows sills and bifore windows, albeit with a post and lintel, are befitting of palazzi building tradition in Florence.

Day one continuation-7