The measured sobriety of Palazzo Gondi’s facade, designed by Sangallo, contrasts with the exuberance of the courtyard. Although small in size – only two bays by three – the courtyard is striking for its rich sculptural decoration. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful courtyards in Renaissance Florence.
The courtyard and the staircase, from Sangallo to Poggi
The measured sobriety of Palazzo Gondi’s facade, designed by Sangallo, contrasts with the exuberance of the courtyard. Although small in size – only two bays by three – the courtyard is striking for its rich sculptural decoration. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful courtyards in Renaissance Florence. One aspect of Palazzo Gondi’s courtyard is traditional; here Sangallo adopted the Florentine style, using arches on columns, rather than the motif of arches and piers he usually preferred. Originally, the top floor had an open loggia with columns and pillars, as could be expected in a Renaissance palace.
In the nineteenth century remodeling project, Poggi removed the square windows on the second mezzanine of the courtyard, replacing them with round windows because he had found pieces of stone decorative medallions in the cellars of the palace. The square windows at the sides of a medallion bearing coats of arms are depicted in a work published by Granjean de Montigny in 1815. Poggi justified his replacements also on the basis of quality. The square frames had been made by artisans whom he considered incompetent. It is not known whether the medallions formed part of Sangallo’s project, although Poggi must have thought so. In addition, Poggi restored, repaired and replaced other parts of the courtyard.
But what distinguishes this courtyard from the others in Florence is its outside staircase. In the small body of the palace, an indoor staircase would have taken up too much space in Sangallo’s project. Transforming a defect into a virtue, his outside staircase appears not as an outdated return to the past, but as a brilliant solution — unique in all of Florence, and perhaps in all of Italy as well.
In his original project the staircase, as it is today, was designed to be seen from two entrances, the main one on Piazza San Firenze and a secondary one on Via dei Gondi, which had been built only in the 19th century. In the courtyards of fifteenth-century palaces, wooden benches was usually placed beneath the colonnades. Even more important, the staircase was placed directly opposite the part of the courtyard called in the documents of the time “the loggia”. The word “loggia”, in this sense, indicates the largest wing of any courtyard. The outside staircase thus played an important role in the elegant courtyard, and was decorated in various innovative modes. The capitals of the three columns flanking it differ from the composite ones found mainly in the rest of the courtyard. They are richly carved variants of the Corinthian order, attracting attention to themselves and to the staircase. On each step are innovative balusters decorated with spiral fluting and acanthus leaves. Beneath the steps, each riser displays Giuliano Gondi’s emblem, a diamond with tongues of fire, and a series of animals illustrating fables, those of Aesop in particular. Although the strange animals appearing on the outer side of the steps are the most unusual feature of the stairway, Sangallo focussed all his attention on every visible part. Due to their novelty, the balusters at the end of each step must have made a striking impression on the Florentines of the time. The balusters of Palazzo Gondi are distinguished by their rich decoration. Spiral fluting, with a corded ring motif in the center and skillfully carved acanthus leaves adorn each slender column of double onion shape.
Instead of the simple plastered ribbed vault or barrel vaulting found over most Florentine staircases, Sangallo used flat stone panels covered with decoration. The panels speak the emblematic language of heraldry, proclaiming the wealth of the Gondi family and its social status. Pairs of cornucopias overflowing with flames appear beside diamonds with tongues of fire surrounding a central diamond decorated with leaves. Both the cornucopias and the diamonds, personal emblems of Giuliano Gondi, symbolize wealth and abundance. The cornucopias are bound together by ribbons bearing the letters SIN. According to Corbinelli, SIN stands for Giuliano’s motto, Non Sine Labore, which was presumably bestowed on the Florentine merchant by the King of Naples and his son Alfonso, Duke of Calabria. The ceiling thus bears witness to the close personal ties linking Gondi to King Ferdinando and his son, both of whom were instrumental to the financial success of the Gondi family. Its ties to the Kingdom of Naples, which had first made it politically suspect, had now become an advantage. The sculpted ornamentation on the ceiling over the staircase immediately signals the status of Giuliano Gondi, the personal friend of a king and trusted ambassador of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
It should be mentioned that the ancient togaed statue in the courtyard today was put there, before the entrance, by Poggi, who took it from the recess on the piano nobile just outside the entrance to the salon.
Poggi was able to identify the statue more precisely: it portrayed Senator Macrinus, founder of the Roman Thermal Baths of Florence.
In the hallway before the Salon are pilaster strips with carved decoration consisting of cornucopias with tongues of fire, candelabra motifs, acanthus leaves and fantastic bearded faces displaying fishes’ tails. One either side of Sangallo’s steps, the two faces of Jupiter Ammon with interwoven horns recall the masks of ancient divinities This iconography is typical of the late 15th century and of Sangallo’s inventions inspired by antiquity.
The landing on the first mezzanine is lined with flat stone panels like those of the staircase, and the three doors are decorated with carved figures. Magnificent, elaborate corbels decorate the space between the doors. Poggi added a new staircase to the north, demolishing what remained of the former Asini house. The capitals of the two columns that, like two sentinels, stand guard over the ramp of the staircase leading to the piano nobile, are creative variations of Corinthian models. In one of them, the Corinthian scrolls are transformed into cornucopias, so that this capital resembles the one on the central column on the outside staircase in the courtyard. The other column at the stairs is surmounted by a capital displaying cornucopias in place of scrolls, and a Medusa’s head instead of the plant motif typical of the Corinthian order.