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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of Palazzo Madama in Rome

What is Palazzo Madama?

Palazzo Madama in Rome is the Seat of the Italian senate in a 15th-century Renaissance palace once owned by the powerful Medici family.

Palazzo Madama

Palazzo Madama History

Built over the ruins of the Baths of Nero (the walls of which have been partly incorporated into the palace), this lavish 15th-century Renaissance building was originally owned by the powerful Roman Crescenzi family. However, the first important refurbishments took place in the early 16th century when it was acquired by the Medici family, one of the most influential noble dynasties at that time in Florence. The magnificent palace was inhabited by two Medici popes, Leo X and Clement VII, and upon the death of the latter the property was passed to Alessandro de’ Medici, the first Duke of Florence, an intelligent and charming man who was a great patron of the arts.

Alessandro was born to unmarried parents, Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Duke of Urbino, and a woman called Simunetta, a slave of the Medici family with a partly African ancestry. There were also rumours at the time that Alessandro’s real father was Lorenzo’s cousin, Pope Clement VII. Clement’s devotion to the young prince brought him many lucky breaks and he rose to become Duke of Florence in his early 20s. In 1530, Alessandro attended the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Bologna, to whom the duke became a close ally in the following years; the emperor allowed his own illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Austria, to marry him.

In 1537, Alessandro was assassinated by his distant cousin Lorenzino de' Medici and thus his grand home was passed on to his widow, and the palace was aptly renamed Palazzo Madama, or ‘Madam’s Palace’. Sadly, as historian Catherine Fletcher writes: ‘It was the misfortune of Alessandro de’ Medici to be assassinated twice: first with a sword, then with a pen’. He not only bore the brunt of his assassin’s eloquent justification of his actions, but was also subject to the racist pseudoscience prevalent in the 19th century. Although no example of virtue (he was a Renaissance prince, after all), the life of this palace’s exceptional resident is finally being reconsidered in the 21st century.

To any keen architectural observers, it may seem incongruous to see a façade such as this belonging to a Renaissance building, but this is due to the fact that major renovation work was carried out on the palace in the 17th century. Architect Paolo Maruccelli designed the Baroque façade you now see, replacing the former asymmetrical façade whose ‘doorway [was] not in the middle’ and whose ‘floors [did] not match’.

Acquired in the mid-18th century by Pope Benedict XIV, the palace subsequently served as courts of law, the police headquarters and the seat of the Ministry of Finance. Since 1871, the building has been home to the Italian Senate, which, together with the Camera dei Deputati (or ‘Chamber of Deputies’) nearby, comprise the Italian parliament.

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