Any epoch is characterized by a complex of different features that stipulate and govern the spheres of social relations, religion, politics, economics, etc. Architecture does not seem to be one of the major ruling forces of any period, but it reflects most of the ideas and principles that characterize the period with impressive accuracy. A thorough analysis of the building can give much valuable information about the historic period when it was erected. This paper will explore the Palazzo Medici Riccardi that served as a palace for the Medici family in Florence. It will also discuss how the Medici Palace incorporates the humanistic ideals of the Renaissance and the ambitions of the family.
The construction of the Medici Palace was initiated by Cosimo de Medici. Even though he was not the founder of the dynasty, he managed to transform a wealthy family into the de facto rulers of Florence, one of the most prosperous Renaissance cities in Europe. At first, his activities were limited to the banking sphere, but later Cosimo realized that more ambitious goals required the creation of a proper public image that would benefit the family both in politics and public support. Cosimo focused his attention on the patronage of art as one of the most effective ways to achieve the above-mentioned goals. “There are numerous examples of the favorable, and probably calculated, effects of Cosimo's personal and artistic patronage on his popular image, resulting in the enhancement of his influence and reputation in the city” (Kent 254). For example, he supported Brunelleschi in his brave project of constructing a huge dome for the main church of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore. However, Cosimo de Medici’s patronage covered not only public places but also several mansions and palaces for the representatives of the family. This fact stipulated the main purpose of the building – to serve both as a residence for the Medici family and the influential center of Florentine political and economic life.
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Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, the architect who designed the Medici Palace in the center of Florence, was a close friend of Cosimo de Medici who accompanied his patron during his short-term exile in Venice. The construction and decoration of this building lasted from 1444 to 1484 (Crum and Paoletti 102). However, this period was not wholly occupied by construction works. It also included the decoration of the premises and other final touches.
Michelozzo’s approach to the design of buildings is quite symbolic. First of all, the palace is the harmonious combination of classical ancient Roman architectural elements and the new tendencies that appeared during the Renaissance period. This unity of the old and the new is very important not only for the architecture of the fifteenth century. It was also crucial for all other aspects of human life as humanism, being a leading philosophic principle of the epoch, was primarily based on the works of different ancient philosophers.
The inner yard of Palazzo Medici Riccardi is decorated with two levels of galleries lined with many elegant Roman columns. “Columns were a reference to humanist learning and education, appropriate for architectural patrons seeking to display their status” (Anderson 4). These covered galleries are called loggia. They were often used for walks as leaving the palace whenever someone wanted to have a walk was unsafe. Moreover, Renaissance cities did not have enough public places, like modern parks, which could satisfy this need. As a result, residences were built to provide maximum facilities for their owners. Another Roman element of the palace is arched in galleries and arched windows. They create a strong rhythm in the design and provide the feeling of superiority and exclusivity that was necessary for such a rich family as the Medici.
However, the Medici Palace cannot be called a typical Roman building as it incorporates many new Renaissance elements that were characteristic of the Florentine architecture of the fifteenth century. It can be explained by Cosimo de Medici’s “intention to revive the myth that cast Florence as the center of the new architectural language: one not as closely tied to its communal traditions and, for that very reason, available for a more universal reception” (Tafuri 65). He wanted to expand his banking empire, so such an approach could grant him certain benefits both in the sphere of commerce and politics.
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The first Renaissance element is quite a simple exterior of the palace. It is decorated with rustic stones and does not have any bas reliefs or statues that would break the rhythm of the arched windows. The façade of the palace is not intended to look beautiful or elegant in terms of artistic design. It aims to impress with its scale (the stories are around 20 feet high each). Then, the exterior of the palace should fit into the Christian rules of the Catholic Church. The church was a crucial player in Renaissance politics and economics and, to be successful, the Medici should go in line with the religious principles. As poverty was considered to be a virtue, showing off Medici’s wealth was not a good idea. It was one of the reasons why Cosimo did not like the first project of the palace created by a famous architect Brunelleschi and, as a result, hired Michelozzo. Florentine law even forbade having more than twenty rooms in the house, but this norm was violated when building this palace (Anderson 143).
Special attention should be paid to the paintings that decorate the Medici Palace. They distinguish the Palazzo Medici Riccardi from traditional Roman buildings. They are an integral part of the Renaissance interior and play a very important role in the general conception created by the architect. The interior of the Magi Chapel whose walls are decorated with a huge fresco called The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem by Benozzo Gozzoli is almost intact (Tafuri 54). It covers three walls of the chapel. The fresco is especially valuable not only because of its artistic qualities but also because of the portraits of the influential members of the Medici family. One of the Wise Men is Cosimo de Medici and another is probably his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent whose patronage had a great impact on the development of the Renaissance in Italy. Another great piece of art in this chapel is the altar paintings by Filippo Lippi (Tafuri 59). His Adoration in the Forest is a revolutionary interpretation of the Biblical episode. The painter did not include many traditional elements such as Joseph or some animals surrounding Christ and placed the whole scene into the frightening darkness of the deep forest.
The influence of this palace on the general architectural trends in Florence and even the rest of Italy was huge. “Most other grand Florentine palaces projects decidedly were modeled to emulate the appearance of the Palazzo Medici… thus aligning themselves with the leading family of the city” (Crum and Paoletti 262). It proves that art was not separated from politics and other social aspects of human life. During the Renaissance, when new forms of political life were formed, these interrelations became even stronger than ever before.
To conclude, the Medici Palace in Florence is a bright example of the harmonious combination of classical Roman architectural elements and new Renaissance ideas. The building also highlights the ways Renaissance architecture was interconnected with philosophy, economics, and politics. The Medici Palace is the embodiment of the spirit of Renaissance Florence and shows how useful, practical and at the same time artistic a building can be if the architect manages to take into account all the design aspects and philosophic principles of the epoch.