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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence

What is Palazzo Medici Riccardi?

Palazzo Medici Riccardi is the first Medici palace, now a government building and museum.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi

Gryffindor, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Palazzo Medici Riccardi History

The construction of the Palazzo Medici marked the beginning of the Modern Age in Florence. Built in the mid-15th century, the palace is a testament to the influence wielded by the Medici family over the cultural and political landscape of the city in the Early Modern period. The handsome stone structure is widely considered to be the first example of Renaissance architecture in Florence. Currently, the space is used as the seat of the administrative division of the Metropolitan City of Florence, as well as a museum containing works by Benozzo Gozzoli, Filippo Lippi and Donatello.

Commissioned in 1444 by Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder, the palace was designed as a home for the wealthiest family in Florence. For the project, Cosimo favoured the architect and sculptor Michelozzo di Bartolomeo over the more famous Filippo Brunelleschi (who had designed the nearby church of San Lorenzo). Cosimo preferred the simplicity of Michelozzo’s design, wishing to project an image of the Medici family as powerful yet modest. Cosimo had been briefly exiled from Florence in the preceding decade and in consequence preferred to keep a low profile.

Michelozzo’s artistic vision for the palace was informed by the classical ideals of proportion and geometry, an aesthetic now strongly associated with Renaissance humanism. The most notable features of the building are its exaggerated masonry, rusticated walls, and the projecting cornice of the roof (the overhanging bit at the top). Although the design is complex it is never ornate, instead giving an impression of modernity through its understated grandeur.

This is not to say that the palace lacks opulence. On the contrary, inside these stark walls the Medici family displayed their sumptuous collection of art and furniture. They were well known as great patrons of the arts, and in 1459, upon visiting the palace, a young nobleman described the interior as ‘decorated on every side with gold and fine marbles…with pictures and inlays done in perspective by the most accomplished and perfect of masters’. Perhaps he was referring to the palace’s most iconic room, the Chapel of the Magi, a small, intimate place of religious observance for the family’s private use. The walls are emblazoned with frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting the Journey of the Magi, the ‘wise men’ who visited the infant Jesus. The work is incredibly fine, with meticulous attention paid to the detail of the subjects’ faces and clothing. As is traditional in commissioned artwork of this period, the likenesses of the patrons are included in the work.

The Palazzo Medici was used by the family as their primary residence until the mid-16th century when Cosimo the Younger moved to the fortress-like Palazzo Vecchio. While the building itself remained in their hands until the 17th century, its architectural simplicity – once considered so innovative – fell out of style, and the palace was eventually sold to the Riccardi family (hence its present-day name). Finally, the building was acquired by the Metropolitan City of Florence and has been a combined civic building and cultural monument ever since.

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