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  • Writer's pictureClementine de la Poer Beresford, MA

A Brief History of the Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti) in Florence

What is the Pitti Palace?

The Pitti Palace is an imposing 15th-century palace acquired by the Medici family, that today holds five museums.

Pitti Palace

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Pitti Palace History

In February 1550, Eleonora of Toledo, the first wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici received the keys of the Pitti Palace, situated here on the south side of the River Arno. The acquisition had been in the works since October 1549, when the heirs of the Florentine banker Luca Pitti (who gave his name to the building) had signed a document of intent to sell. Eleonora herself led the negotiations and paid for the palace with her own money, her enormous wealth coming in part from her virtual monopoly on grain sales in Florence and other parts of Tuscany, as well as extensive real estate.

Not only had Eleonora’s wealth funded her husband’s military campaigns, it would also enable her and Cosimo to beautify and embellish the Pitti Palace, making it a symbol of Medici power. Eleonora commissioned the exquisite Boboli Gardens to lie behind the palace, supervising its creation directly. The gardens, with their regular layout, populated by ancient and Renaissance statues, grottos, and fountains, became a model for many European courts. Both the palace and gardens survive today as a legacy of Eleonora’s patronage, and, although altered, they remain as a testament to the extent of her financial and political autonomy.

Today, you can delight in the artistic patronage of Eleonora and Cosimo, as well as the House of Habsburg-Lorraine who succeeded the Medici from 1737 as the ruling Dukes of Tuscany, and the House of Savoy, who occupied the palace from 1865. Both of these ruling houses changed and embellished the Pitti Palace, making it what it is today. The sumptuous state apartments hang with extraordinary works of art that form the Palatine Gallery. These were commissioned by the Medici and their successors, and many of the works hang in their original place or setting, making the gallery feel more like a private collection or residence than a museum. Artworks by greats including Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Pietro da Cortona sparkle against the opulence and grandeur of the rooms for which they were designed.

The 17th-century Baroque painter Pietro da Cortona was responsible for decorating many of the rooms, and his highlights include the Four Ages of Man in the Sala della Stufa and the Planetary Rooms, which were to inspire Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. The decorative scheme was designed to exalt the young prince, Ferdinando II, and illustrate his virtuous learning. In the Sala di Venere, look upwards and you’ll see Ferdinando being taken by Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, from Venus, the goddess of pleasure, and being given to Hercules, who symbolised virtue and was seen by the Medici to be their protector.

The Pitti Palace also encompasses a number of other museums within its walls, including the Treasury of the Grand Dukes, which houses the semi-precious stone vases, glittering tiaras, ivories and crystals that once belonged to the Medici family and the Bishops of Salzburg.

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