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Palazzo Pitti

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Early, tinted 20th-century photograph of the Palazzo Pitti, then still known as La Residenza Reale following the residency of King Emmanuel II between 1865–71, when Florence was the capital of Italy.
The garden front facing the amfiteatro of the Boboli Gardens

The Palazzo Pitti, in English sometimes called the Pitti Palace, is a vast mainly Renaissance palace in Florence, Italy. It is situated on the south side of the River Arno, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio. The core of the present palazzo dates from 1458 and was originally the town residence of Luca Pitti, an ambitious Florentine banker. It was bought by the Medici family in 1539 and later became the chief residence of the ruling families of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, becoming a great treasure house as various generations amassed paintings, plate, jewelery and luxurious possessions.

In the late 18th century the palazzo was used as a power base by Napoleon, and later served for a brief period as the principal royal palace of the newly-united Italy. Together with its contents, it was given to the Italian people by King Victor Emmanuel III in 1919, and its doors were subsequently opened to the public as one of Florence's largest art galleries. Today, housing several minor collections in addition to those of the Medici family, it is fully open to the public.


Early history

Luca Pitti (1398–1472) began work on the palazzo in 1458.
Eleonora di Toledo, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, bought the palazzo from the Pitti in 1549 for the Medici. Portrait after Bronzino.

The construction of this severe, almost forbidding, building was commissioned in 1458 by the Florentine banker Luca Pitti, a principal supporter and friend of Cosimo de' Medici. The early history of the Palazzo Pitti is a mixture of fact and myth. Pitti is alleged to have instructed that the windows be larger than the entrance of the Palazzo Medici. The 16th century art historian Giorgio Vasari proposed that Brunelleschi was the palazzo's architect, and that his pupil Luca Fancelli was merely his assistant in the task but today it is Fancelli that is generally credited. Besides obvious differences from the elder architect's style, Brunelleschi died 12 years before construction of the palazzo began. The design and fenestration suggest that the unknown architect was more experienced in utilitarian domestic architecture than in the humanist rules defined by Alberti in his book De Re Aedificatoria.

Though impressive, the original palazzo would have been no rival to the Florentine Medici residences in terms of either size or content. Whoever the architect of the Palazzo Pitti was, he was moving against the contemporary flow of fashion. The rusticated stonework gives the palazzo a severe and powerful atmosphere, reinforced by the three times repeated series of seven arch-headed apertures, reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. The Roman-style architecture appealed to the Florentine love of the new style all'antica. This original design has withstood the test of time: the repetitive formula of the façade was continued during the subsequent additions to the palazzo, and its influence can be seen in numerous sixteenth-century imitations and nineteenth-century revivals. Work stopped after Pitti suffered financial reverses following the death of Cosimo de' Medici in 1464. Luca Pitti died in 1472 with the building unfinished.

The Medici

A lunette painted in 1599 by Giusto Utens, depicts the palazzo before its extensions, with the amphitheatre and the Boboli Gardens behind. The red stone excavated from the site was used in extensions to the palazzo.

The building was sold in 1549 by Buonaccorso Pitti, a descendant of Luca Pitti, to Eleonora di Toledo. Raised at the luxurious court of Naples, Eleonora was the wife of Cosimo I de' Medici of Tuscany, later the Grand Duke. On moving into the palace, Cosimo had Vasari enlarge the structure to fit his tastes; the palace was more than doubled by the addition of a new block along the rear. Vasari also built the Vasari Corridor an above-ground walkway from Cosimo's old palace and the seat of government, the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, above the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti. This enabled the Grand Duke and his family to move easily and safely from their official residence to the Palazzo Pitti. Initially the Palazzo Pitti was used mostly for lodging official guests, and occasional functions of the court while the Medicis' principal residence remained the Palazzo Vecchio. It was not until the reign of Eleonora's son Ferdinando I and his wife Cristina of Lorraine that the palazzo was occupied on a permanent basis and became home to the Medicis' art collection.

Land on the Boboli hill at the rear of the palazzo was acquired in order to create a large formal park and gardens, today known as the Boboli Gardens. The landscape architect employed for this was the Medici court artist Niccolo Tribolo, who died the following year; he was quickly succeeded by Bartolommeo Ammanati. The original design of the gardens centred on an amphitheatre, behind the corps de logis of the palazzo. The first play recorded as performed there was Andria by Terence in 1476. It was followed by many classically-inspired plays of Florentine playwrights such as Giovan Battista Cini were performed for the amusement of the cultivated Medici court, with elaborate sets designed by the court architect Baldassarre Lanci.

The cortile and extensions

19th-century architectural drawing and plan of the Palazzo Pitti

With the garden project well in hand, Ammanati turned his attentions to creating a large courtyard immediately behind the principal façade, to link the palazzo to its new garden. This courtyard has heavy-banded channelled rustication that has been widely copied, notably for the Parisian palais of Maria de' Medici, the Luxembourg. Ammanati also created the finestre inginocchiate ("kneeling" windows, in reference to their imagined resemblance to a prie-dieu, a device of Michelangelo's) in the principal façade, replacing the entrance bays at each end. During the years 1558–70, Ammanati created a monumental staircase to lead with more pomp to the piano nobile, and he extended the wings on the garden front that embraced a courtyard excavated into the steeply sloping hillside at the same level as the piazza in front, from which it was visible through the central arch of the basement. On the garden side of the courtyard Amannati constructed a grotto, called the "grotto of Moses" for the porphyry statue that inhabits it. On the terrace above it, level with the piano nobile windows, Ammanati constructed a fountain centered on the axis; it was later replaced by the Fontana del Carciofo ("Fountain of the Artichoke"), designed by Giambologna's former assistant, Francesco Susini, and completed in 1641.

In 1616, a competition was held to design extensions to the principal urban façade by three bays at either end. Giulio Parigi won the commission; work on the north side began in 1618, and on the south side in 1631 by Alfonso Parigi. During the 18th century, two perpendicular wings were constructed by the architect Giuseppe Ruggeri to enhance and stress the widening of via Romana, which creates a piazza centered on the façade, the prototype of the cour d'honneur that was copied in France. Sporadic lesser additions and alterations were made for many years thereafter under other rulers and architects.

Houses of Lorraine and Savoy

The palazzo remained the principal Medici residence until the last male Medici heir died in 1737, it was then occupied briefly by his sister the elderly Electress Palatine on her death, the Medici dynasty became extinct and the palazzo passed to the new Grand Dukes of Tuscany, the Austrian House of Lorraine, in the person of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. The Austrian tenancy was briefly interrupted by Napoleon, who used the palazzo during his period of control over Italy.

When Tuscany passed from the House of Lorraine to the House of Savoy in 1860, the Palazzo Pitti was included. After the Risorgimento, when Florence was briefly the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II resided in the palazzo until 1871. His grandson, Vittorio Emanuele III, presented the palazzo to the nation in 1919. The palazzo and other buildings in the Boboli Gardens then became divided into five separate art galleries and a museum, housing not only many of its original contents, but priceless artefacts from many other collections acquired by the state. The 140 rooms open to the public are part of an interior, which is in large part a later product than the original portion of the structure, mostly created in two phases, one in the 17th century and the other in the early 18th century. Some earlier interiors remain, and there are still later additions such as the Throne Room. In 2005 the surprise discovery of forgotten 18th-century bathrooms in the palazzo revealed remarkable examples of contemporary plumbing very similar in style to the bathrooms of the 21st century.

Palazzo Pitti galleries

Martyrdom of St Agatha by Sebastiano del Piombo, acquired by the Medici for the Palazzo Pitti
Raphael's La Donna Velata, from the Medici collection in the Palatine collection
Caravaggio's sleeping Cupid which hangs at the Palazzo Pitti

The palazzo is now the largest museum complex in Florence. The principal palazzo block, often in a building of this design known as the corps de logis, is 32,000  square metres. It is divided into several principal galleries or museums detailed below.

Royal Apartments

This is a suite of 14 rooms, formerly used by the Medici family, and lived in by their successors. These rooms have been largely altered since the era of the Medici, most recently in the 19th century. They contain a collection of Medici portraits, many of them by the artist Giusto Sustermans. In contrast to the great salons containing the Palatine collection, some of these rooms are much smaller and more intimate, and, while still grand and gilded, more suited to day to day living requirements. Period furnishings include four-poster beds and other necessary furnishings not found elsewhere in the palazzo. The Kings of Italy last used the Palazzo Pitti in the 1920s. By that time it had already been converted to a museum, but a suite of rooms (now the Gallery of Modern Art) was reserved for them when visiting Florence officially.

Silver Museum

The Silver Museum, sometimes called "The Medici Treasury", contains a collection of priceless silver, cameos, and works in semi-precious gemstones, many of the latter from the collection of Lorenzo de' Medici, including his collection of ancient vases, many with delicate silver gilt mounts added for display purposes in the 15th century. These rooms, formerly part of the private royal apartments, are decorated with 17th-century frescoes, the most splendid being by Giovanni di San Giovanni, from 1635 to 1636. The Silver Museum also contains a fine collection of German gold and silver artefacts purchased by Grand Duke Ferdinand after his return from exile in 1815, following the French occupation.

Porcelain Museum

The "Casino del Cavaliere" in the Boboli Gardens, now houses the porcelain museum.

First opened in 1973, this museum is housed in the Casino del Cavaliere in the Boboli Gardens. The porcelain is from many of the most notable European porcelain factories, Sèvres, Meissen near Dresden being well represented. Many items in the collection were gifts to the Florentine rulers from other European sovereigns, while other works were specially commissioned by the Grand Ducal court. Of particular note are several large dinner services by Vincennes factory, later renamed Sèvres, and a collection of small biscuit figurines.

Carriages Museum

This ground floor museum exhibits carriages and other conveyances used by the grand ducal court mainly in the late 18th and 19th century. Some of these carriages are highly decorative, being adorned by not only gilt but painted landscapes on their panels. Those used on the grandest occasions, such as the "Carrozza d'Oro" (golden carriage), are surmounted by gilt crowns which would have indicated the rank and station of the carriage's occupants. Other carriages on view are those used by the King of the Two Sicilies, and Archbishops and other Florentine dignitaries.

The Palazzo today

The pathway, leading to the amphitheatre (in the hinterground) of the Palace's Boboli Gardens

Compared to many of Italy's great palazzi the exterior of the Palazzo Pitti at first glance pales: the palazzo does not have the overpowering and commanding presence of Caserta or the citadel features of the Royal Palace of Turin, nor the elegance of the Naples Royal Palace or Rome's papal, later royal, palace, the Quirinal, both with facades by Domenico Fontana. The Palazzo Pitti's architectural merit is in its great severity and simplicity. One continual architectural theme used throughout four centuries has produced massive but impressive elevations and façades which belie the long evolution and history of the structure. The architecture commands attention by virtue of size, strength and the reflection of the sun on the glass and stone, coupled with the repetitive, almost monotonous theme. Ornament and elegance of design take second place to the vast and solid mass of rusticated stonework relieved solely by the arcade-like frequency of the arched window embrasures. As with many Italian palazzi one has to enter the building in order to truly appreciate its architecture.

Control of the palazzo, today transformed from royal palace to museum, is in the hands of the Italian state through the "Polo Museale Fiorentino", an institution which administers twenty museums, including the Uffizi Gallery, and has ultimate responsibility for 250,000 catalogued works of art. In spite of its metamorphosis from royal residence to a state-owned public building, the palazzo, sitting on its elevated site overlooking Florence, still retains the air and atmosphere of a private collection in a grand house. This is to a great extent thanks to the organisation "Amici di Palazzo Pitti" (Friends of the Palazzo Pitti), a group of volunteers and patrons founded in 1996, which raises funds and makes suggestions for the ongoing maintenance of the palazzo and the collections, and for the continuing improvement of their visual display.

Florence receives over five million visitors each year, and for many of these the Palazzo Pitti is an essential stop. Thus the palazzo still impresses visitors with the splendours of Florence, the purpose for which it was originally built.

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