My Picture Fairy Tale Reality As children we are read fairy tales of Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses. Books covered in glittering pages of palaces which shine brightly on a hill in the horizon. Our first impressions of the upper echelons of society are riddled with gold and happiness, fancy dresses and shiny swords. But then we get a little older and realize that these stories are of another world, a fantasy world, one which is out of reach. And we retire to our cozy beds in our warm rooms, huddled in the walls of our safe houses and sleep peacefully. When we grow up and are lucky enough to find a copy of Bassani’s Garden of The Finzi-Contini in the family library; we recall, possibly with a touch of lighthearted fondness the memories of our imaginary fairy tale palaces of happiness. And with the same child-like enthusiasm we can’t put the book down till its last pages crushingly end: the death of a great family, a great palazzo, an enchanting garden and secret affairs. Then we can only look to history to feed our hungry minds for the lives of those who lived in these palaces and their stories and their wars. As the ages amble on, the world around these palazzi change and plenty is lost, plenty taken, plenty changed and plenty maintained. Once, a world of fantasies is now a world of memories, histories and government offices. This is Florence. The direct translation of the word palazzo is palace yet the word is used more often in Italian than it is in English as their meanings do differ. A palazzo is a large house in an urban setting which is usually in the ownership of a well known family or, as is more common nowadays, under the ownership of an institution or company. Florence is scattered with them but there are the few that really stick out, the few that find their way into tourist books and maps for their breakthrough elements of architecture. The development of the palazzo is astonishingly clear in buildings like Palazzo de’ Mozzi, the joined seams between the medieval tower and the sprawling Renaissance wall show growth and expansion adapting to changing fashions, politics, urbanity and social structures. Florence, an architectural guide (2007:37) says of the Mozzi Palazzo, ‘…this building was considered to be an outstanding example of a “palazzo.”’ The palazzo was originally built in the mid 13th Century. The transformations that the building has gone through show, astonishingly clearly, a distinct passage of time from the late medieval period through to the early Renaissance. This is seen in the growth from the original tower structure, very prevalent in the Florence at the time, to the outward sprawling Renaissance palazzo building we see today which will eventually lead to the landmark Renaissance Palazzi of our Florentine city. Teachers, tour guides and museum staff are never hesitant to describe, for the pleasure of the tourists and students alike, the use of trap doors in upper floors which allow victims of attack to defend themselves by pouring all hot and subsequently painful liquids onto the heads of their attackers. But I am sure that the fear in reality far exceeds the vivid descriptions of any tour guide. In all, medieval Florence seems to have been a rather dangerous place to be, feuding families burning each others’ towers down, hot oil thrown onto fighting family members and sword fights, power struggles and the likes were, I have no doubt, the cause of a mothers restless nights and a wife’s worried eyes. Yet these fears did not completely disappear at the beginning of the Renaissance and the ideals around displaying power yet still protecting yourself was of great importance. These driving forces, brought us the palazzi, which we now walk through in wander, to be built. The Renaissance palazzo is generally broken into three, roughly equal, strata. These three distinct floors can be seen in the Palazzo Mozzi and mark the movement out of the medieval through to the rationalized ideals of the Renaissance. The stones of the bottom third of these palazzi have power as individual entities brought out by their monumental size, but their unity is awe inspiring and fear inspired, “..an austere and impenetrable bastion of defense” as Andrea Ponsi eloquently puts it in his Florence. A Map of Perceptions (2010:52) This bottom layer not only served to fortify the palazzo but the size of the stones, often cladding though, was undoubtedly the display of wealth and above all of power. The movement from the Medieval to the Renaissance was huge and not just in terms of design but in terms of the massive leaps in ideas that a few key architects of the time made.
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The Palazzo Rucellai was designed by Alberti between 1446 and 1451 for the wealthy banking family, the Rucellai’s. The palazzo we see today is essentially a façade of the Renaissance as the floor plan does not follow the strict ideal building codes of the time. Such codes were sever on all shapes that were out of joint, a little skew or not entirely in proportion. Pure geometries were explored and installed in buildings throughout the city, all beginning with the well proportioned façade of the Palazzo Rucellai. Even more important than the Rucellai façade was the positioning of it in relation to its perpendicular street and the view of the façade as one approaches. Starting with the view of a single bay and eventually ending with the climaxing scene of the entire façade, the open loggia and the defined space of a piazza. Such drama, such power, such wealth! This three layered movement grew from Ancient Roman architecture where columns and arches are stacked upon columns and arches all too similarly like the Colloseum in Rome. This is startlingly evident in The Palazzo Rucellai. The three strata are evident with the use of different column capitals at each level and smaller cornices staring to make an appearance in the horizontality of the building. This 3 layered tradition continued becoming more and more refined by the greats of the day, and by any long measure the founders of today’s architecture.. The imposing rustification of the bottom layers is not yet evident in Palazzo Rucellai as they would be in other landmark buildings like the Medici-Riccardi Palazzi which would, no more than 2 years later begin to be built. Rucellai Palazzo was truly a huge jump forward without which there may scarcely be the Florence we know today. The 3 layers are without doubt the work of the same pen and they work with each other to create an overall aesthetic which is not suite as imposing as the later Stozzi Palazzo for example but follow the rules of ancient roman practice. Many have been bought out by commercial companies, many used by government offices and others turned into museums and converted into art galleries. The maintenance and upkeep of such properties is no longer able to be held by a family business (and infact the term “family business” seems to have taken on a completely different meaning.) Their massively sized rooms may have been a display of family power and wealth but may have been unbearable uncomfortable to live in, incredibly difficult to heat in the cold winter months. It has been heard that some who grew up in a palazzo of children’s dreams said it was tougher than one thought, it wasn’t a dream but a cold room because at the end of the day, no matter how rich and powerful, your feet still shiver in the night time. And so we put these marvel pieces of architecture and humanity into the trusting hands of those who care and look after. For some reason we look back and think not of crystal castles and glittering happy endings but of the struggles, the challenges and the growth of individuals and of famililies and what they said through architecture. Although their walls not always safe their beds notalways cozy and their homes not always warm but their façades were monumental and powerful. And we wonder where all the romance came from, but I suppose that those are children’s stories and this is history, this is the present and has already determined our future. This has been my Florence for a month and I will be part of Florence for a lifetime. Irene Stewart
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