They are inextricably linked: Florence and the Medici. The famous family played a cunning political game for nearly three centuries that took them to great heights. Their artistic legacy is best explored by visiting their palaces and country houses, such as the Palazzi Riccardi, Vecchio, Pitti and Villa La Petraia. There you can taste the wealth of an extinct exceptional family, which is still very much alive after four hundred years in Florence.
Text & photography: Angelique van Os
Florence watches silently from a distance. It is quiet in the narrow winding streets that get steeper and reach up to the hills of Monte Morello. Every now and then a Vespa races by. And after following a meter-long gray wall, the high iron gate of Villa La Petraia looms. After a short steep climb, the villa stands out on the horizon, with a view over ‘her’ city, Florence. In the distance, Brunelleschi’s dome towers above everything.
Florence country house
La Petraia was one of the many country houses of the Medici , the famous family that ruled Florence during the Renaissance. Just outside the city walls of Florence, the dynasty owned eleven villas and another thirteen elsewhere in Tuscany! In 1544 the house came into the possession of Duke Cosimo I and remained in the family until the mid-seventeenth century. Then the Lorrainers and Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy took care of it.
Best preserved villa
La Petraia is one of the best preserved Medici houses. The beautiful symmetry and terraces of the sixteenth-century garden fit in perfectly with the austere and stately building. The garden features ponds, a fountain, herb plants and fruit trees. Behind the blinded windows of the entrance lies a world of pure beauty. Unfortunately it is not allowed to take pictures. The square courtyard features beautiful decorations, such as a huge chandelier. And there is a roof of a glass dome that the Savoyes had placed on it in 1872 for the wedding of son Emanuele di Mirafiori.
Despite the interventions of later owners, the house exudes the spirit of its client. Anyone who gets to know the Medici knows that their artistic wealth is a symbol of power. The embrace and financing of great artists turned out to be an ideal PR tool. Other wealthy families and clergy also applied this in churches, for example.
Partly because of their genuine interest in art and science, the Medici proved responsible for countless important Renaissance works in Florence. In La Petraia, Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo ( 1599-1648), had the loggias of the imposing hall immortalized with beautiful frescoes. The paintings are entitled Fasti Medicei (1637-46) and refer to the triumphs of the family history. For example, Baldassarre Franceschini depicted ‘Il Voterrano’, among other things, the meeting between Pope Leo X and Francis I of France, the victory of Cosimo I over Siena and Catherine and her children. It is a breathtaking spectacle that you keep staring at with your mouth open.
Cosimo Daddi (1590) decorated the hall, which depicts, among other things, the victory over Jerusalem. The rooms are also eye-catching. The interior and furniture of the various rooms are mainly neoclassical. The old chapel (1589-94) is richly decorated by Bernardino Poccetti with angels and the life story of Christ. Daddi painted the ceiling with the Transfiguration of the Holy Spirit . From the open balcony on the first floor you again look out on the central courtyard. What an entrance, and this is just the beginning.
Palazzo Medici Riccardi
Footprints of the Medici can be found everywhere in Florence, such as their family coats of arms on many buildings. To follow in those footsteps, the best place to start is Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which was their first ‘family home’. Surrounded by loyal friends and artists, three generations found their home here.
This relatively sober and classical-looking Palazzo was designed and built by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1444) on behalf of Cosimo Il Vecchio (the Elder). With its three-storey facade, it is one of the first prototypes of Renaissance architecture.
Chapel of the Epiphany
The halls and rooms are mainly decorated in baroque style by the later occupants, the Riccardi family. However, the Medici have left their signature excellently. Besides Michelozzo’s beautiful courtyard with ornate arcades and medallions by Donatello, the Epiphany Chapel is the absolute highlight. Because this palace is less known to tourists, you may have the chapel all to yourself. And what a privilege that is!
The frescoes by Fra Angelico’s pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli, have a fairytale and exotic feel. The three walls tell the story of the journey of the three kings to Bethlehem and are so lavishly decorated that you almost become hypnotized by the inexhaustible details. The full colours, the richness of gold-stitched fabrics, the graceful lines of humans and animals and the romantic hilly landscapes bring the spectacle to life.
The altarpiece, a copy of The Adoration of the Child by Fillipo Lippi, completes the chapel. Of course, the scene is bursting with symbolism, because if you look closely, you will recognize various faces of the Medici on the eastern wall. The youngest king is a portrait of Lorenzo (Il Magnifico). In the retinue behind him are his father Piero, who commissioned the frescoes, and Cosimo the Elder. The portraits represent the growing economic and political power of the family. And that was important, because this space also served as a reception hall for important figures who regularly visited.
Just a ten minute walk from the first house, on the lively Piazza Della Signoria, is the imposing Palazzo Vecchio (the Old Palace). In the fourteenth century this was the most important governmental building. It also served as the seat of the Signoria, the republican government. The Italian parliament was based there for a short time when Florence was the capital of Italy from 1865 to 1870.
The old town hall, which still fulfills its function, was built in 1322. Its 94 meter high bell tower served as a lookout to spot enemy troops in good time and to warn the population.
The palace came into the hands of Cosimo I around 1540. He commissioned his ‘house architect and painter,’ Giorgio Vasari , to decorate the ceilings and walls with bombastic frescoes and paintings. He succeeded admirably, because although Palazzo Vecchio has less prestige than the Uffizi or Palazzo Pitti, there is plenty to discover.
As soon as you enter the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred, 1495), you will be overwhelmed by imposing battles. This depicts the Medici’s victories over Pisa and Siena. It also depicts events in Florence and tells allegories from Cosimo’s life. My neck almost cramps from staring up at the 39 panels in the ceiling. In the central ceiling circle, the client himself is crowned by an angel representing Florence.
Vasari had the room raised by no less than eight meters (!) and, together with his students, completed the paintings within three years. In front of the murals are various sculptures, such as Michelangelo’s Victory.
Eleonora’s private quarters
Pope Leo X’s apartments honor his ancestors even more. The private quarters of Cosimo’s wife, Eleonora of Toledo , have fine furnishings in addition to fine ceilings and silk-covered walls. Think, for example, of a typical Florentine cabinet by pietre dure (with stone inlay) with a beautiful image of La Petraia. Elenora’s richly decorated chapel by Agnolo Bronzino (1540-45) is also a gem.
Splendor and splendour
I walk in my mind’s eye on all the splendor of the living rooms of the Elements and mythical stories on the second floor and end up in the oldest part, at the Sala dell’Udienza (the meeting room of the six Priori ), which has a ceiling frame of pure gold. And if that wasn’t enough, the Sala dei Gigli , with Donatello’s menacing Judith at its centre, is surrounded by walls of silk blue lilies. A worthy conclusion is the Geographical Room, with an impressive wooden globe and detailed world maps. However, Cosimo I did not consider Palazzo Vecchio worthy enough to receive guests, on to Palazzo Pitti!
To see the dizzying contents of Palazzo Pitti , I get help from guide Samantha Para. Without a guide or preparation you cannot see the wood for the trees in this immense museum with its lavish art galleries. While a heavy rain shower forces us to buy an umbrella, Para tells me about the history as we walk. The palazzo was probably built by Brunelleschi for Luca Pitti, who wanted to surpass the rule of the Medici. However, the wealthy trader almost went bankrupt from the costs of the unfinished abode. After his death in 1473, his family sold it to Eleonora of Toledo in 1550.
Suddenly we stop in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio. The guide tells an interesting detail that you pass without knowing it. She points up to the side corridors of the Uffizi, which Cosimo I had Vasari build. At the time, the Uffizi Gallery served as an office for his government purposes. Cosimo and his family had many enemies, so he had Vasari build a private corridor almost a kilometer long, which runs from the Uffizi over the Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. This made it possible to move unseen and safely.
It is striking that the Ponte Vecchio is one of the few bridges that was spared during the Second World War. Rumor has it that the Nazis used the passageway as an escape route and that even Hitler and Mussolini met there safely. On the other side of the Arno, out of the corner of my eye I see the private corridor constantly popping up. The route passes through dozens of houses.
From a narrow street, the immense Palazzo Pitti appears out of nowhere. It is hard to imagine that this residence mainly served as a hotel for special guests, special occasions or for official audiences. For example, Samantha Para tells that Bartolomeo Ammannati ‘s imposing courtyard, which overlooks the beautiful Boboli garden from the first floor, was transformed into a spectacular water basin. This water basin was used for the wedding of son Ferdinando I and his Royal French heiress Christina of Lorraine. The courtyard was filled with water to a height of about three meters. Sea battles were reenacted in honor of the bridal couple who went to live there permanently.
The couple lived mainly on the first floor in the left wing. Their children were one floor up. For two centuries, Pitti was the home of the last Medici descendants. After that, many different residents lived at the court: from the Lorrainers to the Savoye dynasty. Elisa Bonaparte in particular has wreaked a lot of havoc, my guide tells me. “Elisa didn’t like Italian art and destroyed many frescoes. Unfortunately, she had several rooms redone in lavish Neoclassical style.” Palace Pitti was therefore constantly renovated and expanded and therefore has many different faces in terms of interior.
Portrait Tomasso Inghirami
The Palatine Art Gallery, with grand works from Titian and Raphael to Rubens and Caravaggio, engulfs the senses. Para tells another nice detail with the portrait of Tommaso Inghirami (1510), who was friends with Pope Leo X. “Do you see that Tommaso’s left eye is a little off? The man seems to have looked rather cross-eyed. Raphael wanted to portray his client realistically, but not offend by painting him only from the side. That’s why he made him look up so that his full face is visible. His eye is less in the foreground here.”
The art historian tells one story after another. For example, she points to the small doors that are interwoven in the walls. These were the entrances with corridor systems and rooms for the service behind them. There’s so much to see that we didn’t even get around to the modern art gallery on the second floor. The rooms are so richly decorated and hung with paintings that my eyes are dizzy. I need some fresh air. We descend through the left wing of the impressive Boboli garden.
Boboli referred to wooded areas in the sixteenth century and thus got its name. As well as in art, the Medici were one of the first wealthy families to put Italian garden architecture on the map and serve as a role model in Europe. Tucked away in a corner is the Grand Grotto by Bernardo Buontalenti (1583-87), which, according to Para, is the first step towards the Baroque. The cave also has those search pictures that symbolically refer to De Medici. Pietro Mati took care of the interior. It almost looks grotesque with the strange spongy clay shapes that represent figures and animals. The frescoes were added much later by Bernardino Poccetti (1886-87). When it starts to rain heavily, we take shelter under the facade and I see a small side door. To my surprise, this is the door of Vasari’s private corridor. If only we could peek behind that…
Green fairy garden
I say goodbye to my guide and decide to continue exploring the Boboli garden now that the weather is gradually clearing. The paths are remarkably steep and vary from wide to narrow. Not really attractive for people with walking difficulties. Unlike the palace, it is nice to wander around unprepared and see where you end up. The green fairy garden covers more than 45 hectares and was originally designed by Niccolò Tribolo, who was also responsible for the garden of Villa in Castello (near Petraia) on behalf of Cosimo I.
Via a side road I walk past the coffee house, which looks sad because of the drizzling gray weather. The advantage is that it is quiet in the park. I walk up until I reach a spiral staircase via a sheltered path. My curiosity is rewarded with a beautiful view. In front of me is the Porcelain Museum with its Giardino del Cavaliere : an exotic and blooming rose garden, surrounded by a breathtaking green valley. The museum was used by Cardinal Leopoldo De’ Medici, among others, as a reception room for scientists. Now there are exhibitions of precious porcelain, although the beautiful crockery does not beat the view of Florence.
I go back down and look out over several layers of terraces at the abandoned amphitheater and the back of the Pitti. Deviating further to the right, I arrive at the right wing of the building. The dark sky hangs menacingly over the city looming from this vantage point. A bit back I stroll along the Cipreslaan, which descends more than five hundred meters steeply. Take a side street here, because it is precisely the densely overgrown lanes that allow you to wander through the garden and end up in romantic courtyards or courtyards.
The grand finale can be found at the end of the avenue at the graceful fountain and sculpture group Vasca dell’Isola , or the Neptune Fountain, which is therefore an island. Please note, the fountain can only be visited in May and June.
Last resting place
After the transfer of Palazzo Pitti and its magnificent Boboli garden, I say goodbye to the Godfathers of the Renaissance at their final resting place: San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel . Almost all family members are buried here. The latter chapel was reopened in 2020 after a thorough restoration. San Lorenzo is the parish church and one of the most important and oldest buildings of Renaissance architecture. It symbolizes the history of the Medici. Brunelleschi rebuilt the cathedral at the behest of Giovanni around 1418. And Michelangelo designed the façade more than a century later, as well as the library where the family’s manuscripts were kept.
Cappella dei Principi
Unfortunately the library is closed and I still can’t see the famous Mannerist stairs. But there’s plenty to see, San Lorenzo is bursting with art treasures, from Donatello and Fillippo Lippi to Agnolo Bronzino. I then walk outside, past the busy tourist market, where I gain access to the chapel through a side entrance. The meter-high Cappella dei Principi , where all the ‘princes’ are buried, is just as impressive as the palazzi. Buontalenti’s huge dome is the little sister of Brunelleschi’s dome. In 1604 the supreme Cosimo I gave the go-ahead for the mausoleum to honor his family. The result is astonishing: the entire space consists of marble and pietre dure in various colors and motifs. It is complemented by Roman statues with the huge tombs as the centerpiece.
Michelangelo’s New Sacristy
I enter Michelangelo’s New Sacristy through a side door. After his completion of the Sistine Chapel, Pope Leo X was so overwhelmed that he commissioned Michelangelo to honor his ancestors. It was to be the greatest challenge since David , which must have given Michelangelo mixed feelings. After all, he had turned against the Medici. Nevertheless, the sculpture group (1520-34) surrounding the tombs is one of his masterpieces, such as the allegorical female figure De Nacht .
As I list all the impressions of the past few days, I realize that the circle has come full circle: just a stone’s throw from Palazzo Medici Riccardi, where their wealth became visible, my Medici quest ends. And that while so many ‘footprints’ of the ‘Signori del Rinascimento’ can still be discovered.
Cosimo’s art legacy in a nutshell
Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ (1449-1492), followed in grandfather’s footsteps and had a modern outlook on life. For example, he supported renewed ideas and mythological themes of Sandro Botticelli. The connoisseur also founded the first art school in 1488. There he discovered the exceptional talent of the thirteen-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti , whom he took care of. Michelangelo grew up among heirs Giovanni (Pope Leo X), and cousin Giulio (Pope Clement VII), whom he later detested and turned his back on because of their dictatorship.
His peerless David was finished in 1504. After the victory of the republic, it became the symbol of an independent Florence, a free city without Medici rule. When Florence ended up in an economic crisis, Giovanni was embraced again after ten years of exile. He entered the Holy See in 1513 and was received as a hero, for no one refuses the Pope.
Cosimo I was the last Medici-telgium to make Florence the cultural centre of Italy and he was the first to lead a powerful army. He also had a strict regime, which brought him enemies, setbacks and wars. He founded the famous Galleria in Palazzo Pitti and Giorgio Vasari, a pupil of Michelangelo, became his right-hand man in the field of art.
The success of the family begins with Giovanni di Bicci (1360-1429) and his son, Cosimo ‘Il Vecchio’ (the Elder, 1389-1464). In the early 1400s, they cunningly invested with their banking house in loyal customers with a strong political network, even the highest power in Rome. In addition to the financial and political success, father and son invested as much as possible in artistic talent, partly to increase their (international) prestige. Cosimo tolerated the rebellious traits of artists, such as the hot-tempered Fillipo Brunelleschi, the womanizer Fillipo Lippi or the destructive Donatello. He gave them space and took risks, resulting in highly innovative art.
Cosimo’s knowledge of and interest in classical antiquity was such that he challenged Brunelleschi to build an unparalleled dome for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore with elements from classical antiquity that had not been used for over a thousand years. In 1436 his ‘mission impossible’ succeeded, which brought them both world fame.
The Last Medici
In 1737, however, the Medici male bloodline died out. From that time on, Lorraine Frans Stefan seizes power in Tuscany and he and his family lie in wait to take over the art treasures of the dynasty. Anna Maria Luisa , one of the last of the Medici bloodline, had foresight on this. She made a clever pact for this, donating the entire estate of her family to Florence. An invaluable expression of charity, because just imagine what the city would have looked like if it had fallen into the wrong hands.
various flights directly via Florence airport or an hour by train via Pisa. Of course you can also go by car. That is about a 15 hour / 1450 km drive from Utrecht.
Hotel Palazzo Vecchio *** | Via Cennini 4 | hotelpalazzovecchio.it Va. €100/120 pppn | Ideal location, next to the main train station. Atmospheric rooms (no. 22) with a view of the duomo.
Villa La Petraia:
Via della Petraia 40 | Opening hours: depending on the season. On average between 8.15am and 4.30pm; mom. Closed. Cost: free. Every 45 minutes there is a guided visit with an Italian-speaking (!) guide.
The Villa is located 8 kilometers outside the center and is easy to reach by bus. Bus departure: every ten minutes from Piazza Adula/Via Fiume (next to the train station).
Tickets: for sale at kiosks or on the bus.| Bus lines: line 2 towards Calenzano or number 28 towards Volpaia. | Stop & route: Sestese 4. Walk back a bit and turn left. Walk down this side street and turn left again, follow the signs from there. It is about a 1 km walk.
Medici Riccardi: Via Carvour 1, (entrance at No. 3)| Opening hours: 9am-7pm; closed Wednesday| Costs: €5/€7 (at exhibitions). Vecchio: Piazza Signoria| Opening hours: 09:00 – 24:00; Thu 2 pm | Cost: €6 Pitti & Boboli Gardens: Piazza Pitti 1| Costs: €8.50 (for palace and two museums) €11.50: for everything, valid for three days. Medici Chapel: Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini| Opening hours: 8.15am-4.50pm, Mon. closed| Costs: €6 | San Lorenzo: Piazza San Lorenzo| Opening hours: 10am-5pm, 1/3- 31/10, Sunday: 1:30pm-5pm | Costs: €3.50/ €6 + access to the library.| Opening hours: 8.15am-6.50pm; mom. Closed
Sources & interesting literature for more depth (for sale at various museums):
- Agon guide to Florence , by Eve Borsook, publisher Agon, 1988 (for sale in the Netherlands)
- The Medici, Story of a European Dynasty , by Franco Cesati, La Mandragora, 1999
- DVD: I Medici, Signori del Rinascimento , Cinehollywood, 2007 (in English)
- Pitti Palace, all the museums, all the works , by Marco Chiarini, Sillabe Publishers, 2001
- The Medici Villas , by Isabella Lapi Ballerini, Giunti Publishers, 200