modern florence: la palazzina reale

Ciao from Hannah & Meg! You may remember our pal, Emily, from her post on San Giovanni dell’Autostrada. As our resident expert on modern Florence, we’re bringing her back this week to highlight another modern marvel of Florence–La Palazzina Reale. To start your tour, head to the train station (don’t worry, we’re staying in Florence!). 

An old photo of the Stazione Santa Maria Novella complex, with the Palazzina Reale shown attached to the train station on the right side. Linked to source.

An old photo of the Stazione Santa Maria Novella complex, with the Palazzina Reale (the grid of windows) attached to the train station on the right side. Photo linked to source.

Imagine this: It’s the early 1930s. You’re a member of the court of King Vittorio Emanuele III, Italy’s current ruler. Passing through Florence on a tour of the country, your group decides to stop and visit. But what building is up-to-snuff enough to host the royal entourage? The former royal residence at Palazzo Pitti has already been converted to a museum, and besides, those old palazzi are drafty, out-of-date and not at all fashionable. Rome’s new buildings embrace the trendy ideals of rationalism, monumentalism and modernism–Florence must step up its architectural game!

Well, Florence is getting a new, state-of-the-art train station. Why not also build a new royal rest stop alongside it? Not only will you be housed in a modern and trendy building, but you won’t even have to leave the station to get there. And thus the Palazzina Reale came to be, giving the King and his following a convenient and luxurious place to take a respite from traveling.

Despite its regal beginnings, if you’ve taken a bus to the train station, chances are you drove right past the Palazzina Reale and never noticed it (don’t be too hard on yourself; until recently the building had been partially blocked from view by fences and scaffolding as it underwent a massive restoration). To get there on foot from Piazza del Duomo, head west down Via dei Cerretani and continue as it veers to the right to become Via dei Panzani. Keep walking past the church of Santa Maria Novella on your left, past the Piazza della Stazione, and past the McDonald’s on your right until you reach Piazza della Stazione 1 (along the side of the station, just as it becomes Via Valfonda). If you’re feeling like royalty and want to splurge on a bus ride, take any bus that stops at Santa Maria Novella.

The Palazzina was planned in 1932 by the Gruppo Toscano, a collective of all-star architects, as part of the bigger Stazione Santa Maria Novella project. Turns out our friend, Michelucci of Chiesa dell’Autostrada fame, was a member of said gruppo from 1931-1934, and is therefore often credited with the project. And despite his later interest in organic and people-oriented design (seen dramatically in his chiesa), his early career was closely tied to the Rationalist taste of Rome. It helps explain why, upon the complex’s completion three years later, Stazione Santa Maria Novella quickly became recognized as a defining example of Italian modernism.

Inside Stazione Santa Maria Novella by Jim Todd

Inside Stazione Santa Maria Novella by Jim Todd

A lot more can be said about the train station, but that’s for another day and another blog post. Today, we’re going to ignore it and just look at the Palazzina.

The Palazzina has two entrances: one outside the station, accessible by Via Valfonda, and one on the inside of the train station, conveniently next to the platform. Despite its proximity to harried travelers and sooty trains, the station-side entrance is swanky enough to befit royalty – the the connecting courtyard leading into the Palazzina boasts palm trees and a pavement of bright red mosaic.

Palazzina Reale by Alessandro Pucci

Palazzina Reale by Alessandro Pucci

Approaching the Palazzina Reale from the street, one immediately notices its grandiose scale. The exterior of the building is smooth and gleaming white–a stark contrast to the brown stone of the station. The marble used on the exterior isn’t Carrara marble, as you might assume, but rather a marble from the northern regions of Italy delightfully named fior di pesco carnico, or peach blossom carnico. The outer walls have no ornamentation (with the exception of a small cornice), and large windows are the only element used to break up and add rhythm to the facade. The windows look inward to a large-scale entrance hallway that adds another level between the street and the interior. Despite the regularity and size of the windows, from the outside there’s no real sense of permeability – this structure is meant to be imposing. Its strict geometry and window-to-wall ratio give it a monumental sense, even next to the massive train station.

l’Arno e la sua Vallata, Wikimedia Commons

l’Arno e la sua Vallata, Wikimedia Commons

Backed by a solid white wall, a fountain facing Piazza Adua near the exterior entrance jumps out as the building’s only decorative element. Its sculpture group, l’Arno e la sua Vallata (the Arno and Its Valley) is by Italian sculptor Italo Griselli. Two nude figures, one male and one female, recline in a typical river god pose that you’ve probably seen around the city before (the Fountain of Neptune in Piazza Signoria, for example). The male figure, representing the Arno, stretches out (albeit a little stiffly) on a rocky ledge, right hand casually resting on a shell, alluding to his watery nature. The female figure, symbolizing the Arno River Valley, pets a fluffy lamb. The lamb itself has strong Florentine connotations. During the Renaissance, the image of a lamb holding a flag was instantly recognizable as the coat-of-arms of the Arte della Lana, or Wool Guild. The Arte della Lana was one of the most important and influential guilds in the Florence, thanks in part to the city’s bustling textile industry. Because of the guild’s prominent position, it played a major role in the maintenance and construction of the Florence Cathedral. Next time you walk around the Cathedral complex, notice how often the Guild’s coat-of-arms gets slapped on the walls and floors of the buildings.

Now, take a good long look at the Arno’s face. Compared to his companion’s generically pleasant visage, the Arno looks more like a portrait that an allegory, don’t you think? His features are particular. The thin face, small mouth, and slightly sunken cheeks make the sculpture look less like the godly personification of a river and more like a mere mortal on the streets of Florence. One theory argues that Griselli used Michelucci’s face as the model for the Arno, an homage to his work on the station and Palazzina.

Atrio della Palazzina Reale della Stazione di Santa Maria Novella by bluteo71

Atrio della Palazzina Reale della Stazione di Santa Maria Novella by bluteo71

While the glaring white walls and deep-set windows give the building an imposing impression from the outside, on the inside the effect is markedly different. The high ceiling gives the interior entrance hallway an open feeling, and natural light spills in from the tall windows. Gone is the monochromatic color scheme, too. The rooms on the inside are colored by a variety of different materials. Serpetino verde–that green stone that pops up on the facades of Florence’s major churches–tiles the floor and Carrara marble lines the walls. The walls of the sumptuous Sala Presidenziale are faced with a local red marble from the town of Levanto.

Palazzino Reale Interior, photo credit: archiportale

Palazzino Reale Interior, photo credit: archiportale

Today, the building that was once a wayside for weary royals is home to the Ordine degli architetti and the Fondazione Architetti.The Palazzina’s mix of historic and modern is a perfect fit for the Fondazione.

Situated at the train station, this one-time palace stands both literally and symbolically at a crossroads for the country. Though it now houses offices, it also boasts classroom and exhibition space. You can get a peek inside during one of the Foundation’s many events, workshops, and conferences that are open to the general public. Or, if you’re looking for a virtual tour, check out this video on the Palazzina by Alessandro Pucci. Have fun!

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  1. […] Modern Florence: La Palazzina Reale […]

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