For more than 300 years the Medici family ruled or ran the city of Florence.
They were bankers, politicians and the world’s most prolific patrons of the arts. From the architecture of Florence to the art that fills the city everywhere you turn, the Medici’s impact on the city and on the world of art will last for centuries after you and I are gone.
The Medici had numerous cardinals in the family as well as two popes. In 1513 Giovanni de’ Medici became Pope Leo X and in 1523 his cousin Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici became Pope Clement VII. The family came from modest means but elevated themselves to becoming the hereditary Dukes of Florence then in 1569 Pope Pius V made Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany.
With centuries of drama, intrigue, assassinations and slick political maneuvering, this is one fascinating family.
One way to avoid the crowds in Florence is to take yourself on a walking tour of the Medici Palaces. I have found that my Glam Italia tour groups who have watched The Medici on Netflix get a huge thrill out of doing this. The palace we stay in in Florence is opposite the Medici-Riccardi palace, built by Cosimo the Elder and home to all our favorite Medici (Cosimo, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo I). At night we look across into the Medici palace and see all the frescoes on the ceilings lit up, invisible during the day.
The Medici-Riccardi Palace
Our story starts with Cosimo de’ Medici, known as Cosimo the Elder. He married the daughter of a noble family, Contessina de’ Bardi. They lived in the Bardi palace across town but when Cosimo came back to Florence from exile in 1444, newly empowered he decided to build his own palace.
At that time you just built onto existing medieval buildings, but Cosimo had a different idea. He acquired the property diagonally opposite the Basilica San Lorenzo and razed the existing building to the ground. His Michelozzo designed Medici Palace was the first true Renaissance building.
The fortress like exterior with its rough hewn blocks on the first level, evolving into smoother stone on the second and third level was considered grand and quite ostentatious at the time but became the prototype for all the Renaissance palaces in Florence from then forward.
The lovely courtyard with its beautiful garden was the original home of Donatello’s controversial statue of David (now in the Bargello). As you walk through the garden to the inner courtyard, imagine more than a hundred years of Popes, foreign dignitaries, important political figures along with the greatest artist and philosophers of the time all walking these same steps as you!
The palace was home to the Medici until Cosimo I moved to the Palazzo Vecchio. Minor members of the Medici family lived there from then until 1659 when Ferdinando II de’ Medici sold it to the Marquis Gabriello Riccardi.
It is now a museum. Highlights include the Riccardi family collection of marble, the Magi Chapel and the Giordano Gallery.
Also of interest, Lorenzo the Magnificent moved the young Michelangelo into the Medici Palace and raised him as his own. For 3 years Michelangelo lived as a brother to the 2 Medici popes, was educated with them, ate meals not only with the family but also the greatest minds of the time. Lorenzo created a world for Michelangelo where he not only benefitted from life at the Medici court but also had freedom and opportunity to rise to his full potential as an artist.
Address: The Medici Palace is on the corner of via dei Ginori and via Cavour, diagonally opposite Basilica San Lorenzo
Visit their website HERE
In 1540 Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici moved his family from the Medici Palace into the Palazzo della Signoria, now called the Palazzo Vecchio. This is the castle-like building in the Piazza della Signoria with the replica statue of David outside.
He hired Giorgio Vasari to decorate the inner courtyard and the sumptuous Salon of 500. Cosimo I centralized all the government offices into a new building next door named the Uffizi, or offices. He had Vasari build a passageway that he could walk through from his next home, the Pitti Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio. This is now called the Vasari Corridor.
The palace is still Florence’s City Hall but is also a museum. I recommend taking a tour of Palazzo Vecchio, my favorite being the Secret Passages Tour which combines seeing the secret rooms and yes, the secret passages, with a visit to the Salon of 500, the rafters above the Salon of 500 and ends at the Medici apartments. The tour is tremendous and gives fascinating insight into the lives of the Medici.
Address: Piazza della Signoria
The Pitti Palace
Cosimo I was very happily married to a Spanish blue-blood, Eleanora of Toledo. To Eleanora the palace seemed small and provincial, nowhere near grand enough for someone of her stature to be raising her family, so she bought the biggest private palace, the Pitti Palace, and moved the family in there.
The story of the Pitti Palace actually starts with the Medici Palace. Luca Pitti was a wealthy Florentine banker who loathed the Medici. When Cosimo (the Elder) built the Medici Palace Luca Pitti decided to outdo him and in 1458 built a bigger palace on the south side of the river. He wanted his windows to be larger than the doorway of the Medici Palace, and he wanted his courtyard to be so big you could fit the entire Medici Palace inside it. That courtyard is now the Piazza Pitti, in front of the palace.
At the time the Pitti Palace was only the center section of the current structure. Luca Pitti ran out of money and died in 1472 before construction was finished. In 1459 Eleanora bought the Pitti Palace and expanded it to its current size. The gardens behind the palace, the Boboli Gardens, were the inspiration for the gardens at Versailles.
The Pitti Palace became the Medici family home until the dynasty ran out of heirs. It was then the home of the new rulers of Florence, the Lorraine-Habsburgs.
The Pitti Palace is now Florence’s largest museum. It is actually a series of museums, with the Medici private art collection, the History of Costume Museum, Porcelain Museum and Silver Museum. Unlike the Uffizi across the river which is perpetually packed with tourists the Pitti gets vastly fewer and is wonderful to explore.
Check out their website HERE
Address: Piazza Pitti
Are you planing a trip to Florence? My free Secret Florence PDF tells you my favorite restaurants, bars, shops and under the radar secrets of fabulous things to do in the Renaissance city, Download your copy HERE