A journey through the places of power of the Medici family in Florence
Room 5 of the palace (by Ricardalovesmonuments, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
The Medici Riccardi Palace was the first Medici residence (the double name derives from the fact that it was purchased and enlarged by the Riccardi family in 1659). Cosimo the Elder commissioned Michelozzo to construct the palace from 1444 to 1462 CE.
The palace is located in an area called ‘Quartiere Mediceo’, near the churches protected by the Medici family (San Lorenzo and San Marco) and the Duomo.
The shape of the original palazzo was almost cubic, with a central courtyard from which a portal gave access to the garden, surrounded by high walls.
The façade is sober and elegant, although it has ‘exceptional’ features such as the use of rustication, which in the Middle Ages was normally reserved for public palaces where a city government had its seat. The exterior is divided into three registers, separated by string-course cornices with dentils with increasing prominence towards the upper floors. The rustication is graduated to be very protruding on the ground floor, more flattened on the first floor and characterised by smooth and barely striped slabs on the second, thus emphasising the lightening of the volumes towards the top and the horizontal course of the latter.
On the ground floor was a corner portico, which was closed in 1517. On the top floor, merlons accentuated the military character instead of the sculpted corbelled cornice. Along the east and south sides runs a street bench, a high stone plinth, which served for practical and aesthetic reasons.
The mullioned windows punctuate the façade regularly, framed by a round-headed lintel with a medallion in the centre bearing the Medici coat of arms and rhombus. The windows are slightly differentiated between the floors, with wider frames at the top to balance the lower height of the house’s level to give greater prominence to the noble section. Quarrymen and stonemasons left the marks visible on the stone ashlars on the ground floor to recognise the suitability of the boulders. Similar symbols can be seen in other 15th-century Florentine palazzi, such as Palazzo Pitti or Palazzo Ruccellai.
The courtyard is set up to suggest an effect of symmetry that does not exist. The first register consists of a portico with smooth shaft columns and composite capitals and is concluded by a high frieze with medallions containing various Medici coats of arms and mythological depictions (attributed to Bertoldo di Giovanni), connected by festoon frescoes by Maso di Bartolomeo.
The second order, with solid masonry, is characterised by double lancet windows in axis with the arches of the portico, which echo the style of the external ones, with a graffito frieze at the top. At the same time, the last register features a trabeated loggia with small columns of the Ionic order aligned with the lines of the entrance.
The decoration, on the whole, is taken from the classical repertoire and composed with imagination. The palace is richly decorated. In particular, the private chapel, known as the Chapel of the Magi, was frescoed by the Florentine artist Benozzo Gozzoli, a pupil of Beato Angelico, commissioned by Peter the Gouty. It was the family’s private chapel and was completed in 1459. On the three main walls is depicted the Cavalcade of the Magi, a religious subject that serves as a pretext to represent a whole series of family portraits and political figures of the time who officially came to Florence at the invitation of the Medici, portrayed at a celebration of the family’s political achievements. Among the characters depicted is a young Lorenzo the Magnificent, his father Peter the Gouty and the head of the family, Cosimo the Elder. On the altar today, we find a late 15th-century copy of the original Nativity by Filippo Lippi, now in Berlin.