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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Palazzo Rucellai in Florence

What is Palazzo Rucellai?

Palazzo Rucellai is a beautiful 15th-century townhouse designed by Leon Battista Alberti for a wealthy noble family.

Palazzo Rucellai

Palazzo Rucellai History

This glorious palazzo is one of Florence's oldest and most prestigious palaces, built for the Rucellai, a wealthy mercantile family. Since the family continues to live here, the magnificent interior is sadly not open to the public. However, the building’s exterior is certainly worth the trip. It’s one of the first examples of Renaissance architecture in Florence, taking the Colosseum in Rome as inspiration. Classical elements of antiquity are replicated in the façade’s pilasters (the square columns) and stone blocks in the shape of arches. Ingeniously, larger blocks of stone are used on the ground floor to enhance the impression of solidity and height.

The decoration of the façade ascends from strength to grace. The ground floor is in Doric style, with no ornamentation at the tops of the columns, the first floor is Ionic (with scrolls), and the second Corinthian (with acanthus leaves and scrolls), an arrangement that was routinely adopted by Renaissance palaces after this. The use of proportion and symmetry in the façade promote the idea of elegance and set the tone for future aristocratic townhouses in Florence throughout the Renaissance period. Yet this elegance hides a rather more disordered arrangement apparent from the other side of the building.

By 1446, Giovanni Rucellai had acquired a row of houses along the Via dei Palchetti, no doubt to enlarge his family’s home, in keeping with his growing financial and civic standing. He also gained his mother’s house on her death and the one next to it, and the result was a rather muddled assemblage of buildings. An enclave of eight smaller buildings therefore combined to form a single architectural complex arranged around a central courtyard. The new façade unified the whole site.

It's largely believed to be the work of celebrated architect Leon Battista Alberti, in the late 1440s, which makes the façade a contemporary of the Medici palace. The design is also thought to have been executed, at least in part, by Bernardo Rossellino, however experts cannot be certain of the origins of the building.

The ground floor of the palazzo was used for conducting business. It’s flanked by long stone street benches that run the length of the building, a typical feature of 15th-century structures. The benches served as a resting place for visitors and passers-by, and they are still used for that purpose to this day.

The first floor, known as the piano nobile (or noble floor), was allocated to public receptions and features wonderfully preserved frescoed vaulted ceilings, which depict mythological figures and motifs. The second floor was used by the family for living and sleeping, whilst the third ‘hidden’ floor was for the servants.

Across the street, diagonal to the palazzo, is the Rucellai Loggia, a covered colonnaded space built at a similar time to the palazzo and used for parties and ceremonies. It features the decorative motif of the Rucellai coat of arms, a sail blowing in the wind, and is thought to have also been designed by Alberti.

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