In Italian/English dictionaries, the first translation of palazzo is palace, and let’s be honest, we all stop there. The rushed translation results in hoards of wide-eyed english speaking tourists awe-struck to hear that there are palaces on every single block in Florence. Italians, however, use the word palazzo to refer to many types of buildings (not just the palaces). Although we may be bummed to find out that princes and princesses don’t live on every block in Florence, the good news is that they used to live on every other block (or at least nobility used to).
The palazzi of Florence are so woven into the city fabric that we often walk right by them unaware of the rich and regal histories just beyond the walls. Some of these palazzi are open to the public, others now occupied by businesses and still others privately owned. Today, we invite you to play prince and princess with us, as we take you on a walk to visit our favorite palazzi in Florence. Please note, this list is 100% subjective. Think we’ve made an oversight? Let us know in the comments!
With that, let’s stroll through the Florence of our wide-eyed, English-speaking, Disney-inspired dreams.
Palazzo Scala della Gherardesca
Our walk begins at Borgo Pinti, 99. Ok, fine. Guilty. We’re at the Four Seasons, a location we may have broken into once or twice before (so to speak). But with lavish halls and enchanting gardens, can you really blame us? Obviously you’re going to have to play it cool for this crib. Dress in your best duds and accessorize with your attitude. Think like a Marchesa and the palazzo should be yours for the touring.
Palazzo Scala della Gherardesca was constructed in 1473 by Bartolomeo Scala. Bart was the Chancelor of the Florentine Republic under Lorenzo de’ Medici. For the next 400 years the palace was passed around the hands of the city’s noble families. Even a Pope, Leo XI, called the palazzo home for some time. In 1859 Count Gherardesca purchased the palace, providing the name it is known by today. In 2008 the palace was purchased by the Four Seasons, renovated and turned into a crash pad for modern-day royalty and celebs during their holidays in Florence.
A copy of Michelangelo’s Bacchus drunkenly raises his chalice, welcoming you to the opulent palace. Frescos honoring the Gherardesca family dance along the walls and up into the domes. Glide through the lobby and straight out back to the gardens. Completely hidden within the walls of the palace, few are aware of these decadent grounds. Spend as long as you need playing prince and princess, but remember, there are more palaces to see!
Palazzo Medici Riccardi
Head south on Borgo Pinti, take your first right on Via della Colona, then don’t stop until you’ve made it all the way through Piazza San Marco and have reached the prominent Via Cavour. Head south for about 5 minutes, past McDonald’s, on the right side of the road. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss one of the most famous palaces of the most well-known families in Florence–the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
Once you know of Palazzo Medici, there’s no missing it. But to the newcomer, the Palazzo Medici is camouflaged to match the cityscape of Florence. Why would the most powerful family in Florentine history want to blend in? Well I could go down quite the rabbit hole with that answer, so let’s see if I can make it concise. Cosimo de’ Medici (il Vecchio) was wealthy from developing a banking empire in Florence. He wheeled, dealed and money lent until pretty much everyone in Florence was in his debt. Cosimo’s power placed him in the precarious position of puppet-master of the Florentine Republic. However, the clever mafioso that he was, Cosimo didn’t want to spook the people with his power by declaring himself a king–he knew this was the fast track to failure. Therefore, when it came to house hunting in his neighborhood of San Lorenzo, rather than choosing a central lot facing the church in the main piazza (a classic prince move), he chose a corner lot as well as inconspicuous materials that would blend with the city. Architect Michelozzo’s design was chosen by the Medici after they rejected Brunelleschi’s for being too lavish. Alternatively, Michelozzo’s design was demure enough to blend in, yet trendy enough to inspire copycats throughout the Renaissance.
Inside the palazzo awaits Renaissance masterpieces, ballrooms dipped in gold and halls lined with mirrors. There may be towering gates preventing you from getting in without shelling out a few euro, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be peeping tommasos!
The gate of the entrance from Via Cavour allows us a glimpse into the palazzo‘s original courtyard where Donatello’s David stood for decades. It was here that a young Michelangelo lived and was inspired by the Renaissance blossoming all around him. I could go on with fun facts about this family and their palace, but more palazzi await! If you would rather stick around and learn more about the Medici, click here!
For our next palace, head towards Piazza del Duomo, hang a right and stroll west on Via de Cerretani (like you’re headed to the train station). Peel left where the street forks onto Via de Rondinelli. Enjoy a stroll south on Via Tornabuoni. Take a right at Via Vigna Nuova (more notably, at the Gucci storefront). Where Via Vigna Nuova meets Via del Palchetti is where our next palace awaits.
Giovanni Ruccellai was living the American dream in 15th-century Florence. He was a self-made man whose house grew as his wealth did, slowly but surely consuming all the houses on the block. To unify the hodge-podge palazzo, he commissioned a facade which would perplex art historians for centuries. The architectural masterpiece is a classic case of an Art History whodunit. If you’re into that kind of thing (like we are) click here for the details.
My favorite part of this palazzo is actually not part of the palazzo at all – it’s across the piazza. The Loggia dei Ruccellai is a fun celebratory ornament built in celebration of Ruccellai’s son to Nannina de’ Medici in 1466. After the wedding the Ruccellai continued to use the space for all sorts of family functions, from meetings to BBQs. Today it’s a jeans shop. (Man, I wish I worked there!)
Head back to Via Tornabuoni. Instead of more window shopping, cross the street to Via degli Strozzi to find Palazzo Strozzi.
Meg and I take you to Palazzo Strozzi practically every other week for some cultural event, art showing or simply recommend her as a place to pop in for lunch. This week, we bring you to the palazzo to appreciate the palace itself, rather than its collections, cafe, or perfect perching benches.
Palazzo Strozzi was in the same pledge class of palazzi as the Medici and Ruccelai palaces (mid 1400s). As a staunch competitor of Cosimo, Filippo Strozzi was always struggling to keep up with the Medici. Filippo clearly didn’t understand Cosimo’s down-low approach to building his inconspicuous palazzo. Rather, Filippo positioned his palace as a prominent freestanding building (rare) on an entire city block. Notable architect of Florence Giuliano da Sangallo is the brains behind the staunchly symmetrical, harmonious, Renaissance work of art. The Strozzi occupied the palace until the second wave of Medici, the Dukes, seized the palace in 1538. Luckily, that only lasted 30 years and the Strozzi moved back in, occupying the palace until the 20th century when it changed hands to the Istituto Nazionale del Rinascimento.
The great part about Strozzi, even more so than nighttime gallery openings and cappuccini, is its accessibility. Unlike some of the other palazzi on our list, the courtyard is open for street traffic during the day. Stop by for a taste of the grandeur and even grab a seat and stay awhile.
Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria)
Next, head east through Piazza della Repubblica straight through to Via Calzaiouli and drop south into Piazza della Signoria to find Palazzo Vecchio.
Duh. We can’t just skim by this one in an effort to pretend we’re cooler than the tourists– we’re not. As a matter of fact, we’ve brought you to this prominent palazzo many times, exploring the tower, the courtyard, and the history.
We’ll let you do the research, but let’s cover some key points in a palazzo-walk nutshell.
The Palazzo della Signoria served as the seat of the Florentine Signorie (think of Congress, kinda sorta). Historically, Florence proudly boasted a government run by the people and this palazzo became its emblem. However, their system was far from perfect. Throughout centuries, power was tugged at and fought over between social classes, neighborhoods and powerful families. By the 16th century, Florentines just couldn’t take the bickering and threats from the big bullies on the boot, such as Milan and Naples. In 1532 they officially folded and handed power over to a duke–a Medici duke. At this point, the Medici hired the movers, collected some cardboard boxes and upsized from their corner lot on Via Cavour to the Palazzo Vecchio. The Medici were no longer coy about their power and this move sealed the royal deal.
For decades, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici and his wife, Eleonora di Toledo, called the palace home. Here they raised 11 children, sponsored some classic Medici redecorating and masterminded the politics of not only Florence but all of Tuscany.
Duchess Eleonora, however, reminded us that life in palaces wasn’t always the Disney-castle levels of luxury we fantasize about. The Palazzo Vecchio, while surely impressive to guests, certainly did not feel home-y. City noise, drafty apartments, and worst of all the stench and roars that came from the lion cage kept on Via dei Lione, along the back side of the palazzo.
So the strong-willed woman insisted on building a new palace, out in the country, where she could relax, sleep and stay healthy. Which leads us to our next palace.
Head west out of Palazzo Vecchio, cross the Ponte Vecchio and in only a couple of blocks find Eleonora’s upgrade.
Palazzo Pitti nearly doubled in size once Eleonora was through with renovations fit for the Medici. With engineered cooling systems, grand ballrooms, ample apartments and a sprawling backyard (ahem, the Boboli Gardens), Cosimo couldn’t exactly argue that Pitti didn’t trump Vecchio. The move also gave the young married couple, Prince Francesco de’ Medici and Princess Joanna of Austria, a bit more breathing room as they kept their address at Palazzo Vecchio. The Vasari Corridor was built above the streets to connect the Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. So really, mom and dad could continue to keep a close eye on things if need be.
While a ticket is needed for access to the palace, there’s no charge to snoop! For a sneak peek of the Boboli Gardens, walk to your left along the palazzo wall. You’ll find a large iron gate. Poke your head through for a glimpse into the magnificent Medici garden. Look left to check out the statue of Nano Morgante, Cosimo’s favorite dwarf friend and muse.
The life of the rich and famous in Florence is more accessible than ever before, as the age of dukes and duchesses slips further into Florentine history. Instead of fortresses for the rich, keeping us riffraff out, the city is claiming these palazzi for museums, hotels, and even shops. Our walk today only scratches the surface of the magnificent Florentine palazzi that were constructed over the centuries.
As you can see, snooping on the former fabulous set of Florence is one of our favorite pastimes. Have a favorite palazzo we didn’t hit here? Let us know, and perhaps we’ll break in on our next palazzo adventure!