The Palazzo Pitti is a vast, mainly Renaissance, palace in Florence. It is situated on the south side of the Arno River, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio.
Wanted by Luca Pitti,an ambitious Florentine banker,to challenge the hated Medici family, Palazzo Pitti was, at the time of construction around 1440, the largest and most impressive private residence in the city of Florence.
Even today it is the largest museum complex in Florence.The principal palazzo block, often known as the corps de logis in a building of this design, makes up 32,000 square metres. It is divided into several principal galleries or museums.
Purchased in 1550, the Palace was chosen by Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife Eleanor of Toledo as the new Grand Ducal residence, and it soon became the new symbol of the Medici’s power over Tuscany. It grew as a great treasure house as later generations amassed paintings, plates, jewelry, and luxurious possessions.
It was also the royal palace of two other dynasties: the House of Lorraine-Habsburg (which succeeded the Medici in 1737) and the Kings of Italy of the House of Savoy (who inhabited it from 1865 to 1871).
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Pitti Palace was also the residence of the Bourbon-Parma family and then of Elisa Bonaparte, who ruled over Tuscany for a short period.
The construction of this forbidding building was commissioned in 1458 by the Florentine banker Luca Pitti (1398-1472), a principal supporter and friend of Cosimo de’ Medici. The early history of the Palazzo Pitti is a mixture of fact and myth.
According to tradition, Filippo Brunelleschi would have designed the building, but this theory lacks historical evidence.
According to the official version, Luca Fancelli, a collaborator of Brunelleschi, was actually the architect of the Palazzo Pitti.
Besides obvious differences arising from the elder architect’s style, Brunelleschi died 12 years before construction of the palazzo began.
The building has a severe aspect, built with huge, heavy, and rustic stone blocks, the effect of which was perhaps inspired by ancient Etruscan walls.
The severe and powerful aspect is reinforced by the three-times-repeated series of seven arch-headed apertures, reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct.
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 16th-century imitations and 19th-century revivals.
The technique used to construct the building is similar to that used for other Florentine palaces: large stones at the base and finer and more refined stones at the top.
In the lower part of the façade are two seemingly strange hewn stones: a long one and a short one.
According to legend, it was Luca Pitti who wanted to fix the stones next to each other to symbolize his greatness over the smallness of his enemies.
For the same desire to compete with the powerful Florentine families, tradition says that Luca Pitti had ordered that a courtyard be built. It had to be so big that it would have been able to conten Palazzo Strozzi.
The stones mentioned above are located to the left of the main entrance facing the façade.
The desire to compete with the Medici family and the unfortunate political fate of Luca Pitti, however, soon caused the economic ruin of the Pitti family and the consequent interruption of work at the Palazzo Pitti in 1464.
Work stopped after Pitti suffered financial losses following the death of Cosimo de’ Medici in 1464. Luca Pitti died in 1472 with the building unfinished.
The building was sold in 1549 by Buonaccorso Pitti, a descendant of Luca Pitti, to Eleonora di Toledo, 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.
Land on the Boboli hill at the rear of the palazzo was acquired to create a large formal park and gardens, today known as the Boboli Gardens.
The landscape architect employed for this endeavor was the Medici court artist Niccolò di Raffaello, known as Tribolo, who died the following year. He was quickly succeeded by Bartolommeo Ammanati and Buontalenti. The original design of the gardens centred on an amphitheatre, behind the corps de logis of the palazzo.
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 in European courts.
Between 1558 and 1577, Ammanati created a monumental staircase to lead with more pomp to the piano nobile. He also 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” on account of 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.
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, which was copied in France.
Sporadic lesser additions and alterations were made for many years thereafter under other rulers and architects.
To one side of the Gardens is the bizarre grotto designed by Bernardo Buontalenti.
The lower façade was begun by Vasari, but the architecture of the upper storey is subverted by “dripping” pumice stalactites with the Medici coat of arms at the centre.
The interior is similarly poised between architecture and nature; the first chamber has copies of Michelangelo‘s four unfinished slaves emerging from the corners, which seem to carry the vault with an open oculus at its centre and painted as a rustic bower with animals, figures, and vegetation.
Figures, animals, and trees made of stucco and rough pumice adorn the lower walls.
A short passage leads to a small second chamber and to a third, which has a central fountain with Giambologna’s Venus in the centre of the basin.
The Venus peers fearfully over her shoulder at the four satyrs, which spit jets of water at her from the edge.
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.
With he and his wife Johanna of Austria, the palazzo was occupied on a permanent basis and became home to the Medici art collection. Previously, the Palazzo was used mostly for lodging official guests and for occasional court functions.
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 in the transfer of power.
After the Risorgimento, when Florence was briefly the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II resided in the palazzo until 1871.
His grandson Victor Emmanuel III presented the palazzo to the nation in 1919.
The palazzo and other buildings in the Boboli Gardens were then divided into five separate art galleries and a museum, housing not only many of its original contents, but also 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.
The Palatine Gallery
The Palatine Gallery, the main gallery of Palazzo Pitti, occupies the entire first floor of the palace and contains a large ensemble of over 500 principally Renaissance paintings, which were once part of the private art collection of the Medici and their successors.
The lavish Gallery was founded between the end of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th century by the Habsburg-Lorraine family, who hung about 500 masterpieces in the ceremonial rooms chosen from the main Medici collections.
It is an impressive selection, which includes the largest concentration of paintings by Raphael in the world, as well as invaluable works by Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and Rubens. The paintings, in their lavish frames, entirely cover the walls of the rooms, which are enriched by sculptures, vases, and tables with semi-precious stone inlays, typical of 17th-century galleries.
The sensational series of baroque frescoes in the “Planet Rooms” (scenes of mythology, nature, and symbolism) by Pietro da Cortona for Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando II de’ Medici, realized between 1640 and 1647 add to the unique charm of the Gallery, where every work of art is enhanced by the setting and the furnishings.
The character of the gallery is still that of a private collection, and the works of art are displayed and hung much as they would have been in the grand rooms for which they were intended rather than following a chronological sequence or arranged according to a particular school of art.
Today Palazzo Pitti, in addition to the palatine gallery with his 28 rooms, houses several important museums: the Silver Museum, the Costume Museum, the Porcelain Museum, the Gallery of Modern Art, the Royal Apartments, and the recently acquired Contini-Bonacossi Collection.
This post was originally published on August 31, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on 18 February, 2019.