A Brief History of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence
What is Palazzo Strozzi?
Palazzo Strozzi is a Renaissance palace built for the affluent Strozzi family, which now showcases contemporary European art.
Palazzo Strozzi History
Florence in the 15th century was the centre of western European culture; it was also the site of vicious power struggles. If the Medici family who ruled the city so ruthlessly and effectively have become household names, it’s as a result of being able to subdue their competitors.
In 1433, Palla Strozzi, member of a prominent Florentine banking family, helped to orchestrate Cosimo de’ Medici’s exile. A year later, the tables were turned: Cosimo re-established himself in Florence and gave the Strozzi a taste of their own medicine, banishing them to Naples. Filippo Strozzi (known today as ‘the Elder’) reconciled with the Medici in 1466 and returned to Florence. The old competitive streak ran deep, though, and when Filippo set about building his family a palazzo, he fixated on outdoing their old rivals.
Benedetto da Maiano’s design makes clear allusions to the Medici palace, a few streets north of the Palazzo Strozzi. A three-part external structure begins with heavy, four-square rustico (or rough-hewn) stone at street-level, progressing upwards to greater refinement. Inside, the tall and slender arches make the courtyard seem curiously compact, but not crowded. The accomplished sense of symmetry is a boast: unlike the Medici palace, built on a corner, da Maiano’s building – continued after 1490 by Simone del Pollaiolo, known as il Cronaca (or the Chronicler) – is free-standing on all sides. The external arches are capped with ‘voussoirs’ (wedge-shaped pieces of reinforcing stone); notice how they elongate as they reach the capstone in the centre. This motif became a standard part of Renaissance architectural vocabulary, but it began life here.
The flamboyance extends to the building’s ornaments. Perhaps the palazzo’s most famous architectural feature is its array of wrought-iron fittings. Known as ferri, they cover the exterior and have various functions: lanterns, flagpoles, and portafiaccole (or torch-holders). Completed around 1500, they come from the workshop of notable ironworker Niccolò Grosso. Grosso enjoyed warping a functional object into a mythological beast: look out for the dragon holding a portafiaccola in its mouth.
Filippo the Elder didn’t live to see his palazzo completed – he died in 1491. Having worked on his earthly palace, Benedetto da Maiano also designed his patron’s tomb. The palazzo’s architects also failed to witness its completion: Simone del Pollaiolo died in 1508, and the building was only finished decades later in 1538. The Strozzi family continued in Florence and used the palazzo as a private residence until 1937.
Today, the Palazzo Strozzi is a cultural hub hosting several notable institutions, including the Gabinetto Vieusseux. Founded as a reading room in 1819 by G.P. Vieusseux, a Protestant businessman from Geneva, this has always been a staunchly internationalist endeavour, drawing on Florence’s historical status as a cosmopolitan haven for European intellectuals. What was once a single room has since expanded to include a centre for the study of Romanticism, and a laboratory to conserve damaged manuscripts. In 2006, the Palazzo Strozzi opened its gallery, showcasing groundbreaking contemporary European art.
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