The Building

Work on Giuliano Gondi’s Palace began in 1489, to the design of Giuliano da Sangallo, and inaugurated in June of 1495 by the Duke of Urbino, during a visit to Florence.
In 1600, the beautiful fountain in the courtyard was added. In the 18th and early 19th century, various restoration and embellishment projects were implemented to adapt some of the rooms to the taste of the time.
In the 1870s the City of Florence decided to widen the street that passed between Palazzo Gondi and Palazzo Vecchio, and the
architect Poggi was chosen to direct the work. Poggi demolished an old palace also owned by the Gondi family, which was contiguous with the one designed by Sangallo, and widened the building,completing the facade overlooking Via dei Gondi as well.

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The Palace of Giuliano Gondi and Giuliano da Sangallo

Palazzo Gondi, one of the most elegant patrician palaces of the 15th century, stands on the corner of Via dei Gondi and Piazza San Firenze. The sober stone facade rises majestically, gradually passing from the projecting rustication in finely worked stone on the ground floor to the checkerboard stonework in lower relief on the first floor, to the smooth ashlars of the top floor. In its gradual transition from projecting to smooth stonework, the facade recalls that of Palazzo Medici Riccardi, built almost fifty years earlier. In its ground-floor revetment of finely worked rounded blocks instead of the rough-hewn ashlars of Palazzo Medici Riccardi, it resembles instead the contemporary Palazzo Strozzi, situated nearby.

Whether viewed from Via Proconsolo, from Via dei Leoni, or from the narrow Borgo dei Greci at its entrance to Piazza San Firenze, the palace appears today as a single block boldly occupying the scene. It is hard to realize that it was not built in one stage by an individual and his architect, although it is well known that the building is the child of many parents. Begun in 1489 by the prodigiously talented architect Giuliano da Sangallo (c.1445-1516) for the wealthy Florentine merchant Giuliano Gondi, the palace was completed only in the 19th century by one of his distant descendants, Eugenio Gondi, who commissioned the historicist architect Giuseppe Poggi (1811-1901) to finish Sangallo’s project.

Prior to Poggi’s restoration and building project, the Gondi family occupied two palaces on this site. However, the broad expanse of Via dei Gondi did not exist until Poggi had demolished the old palace. In its place was a medieval street, no wider than Borgo dei Greci, originally called Via delle Prestanze, which at a certain point in its history was also called Sdrucciolo della Dogana. The palace of Giuliano Gondi and Giuliano da Sangallo cannot be analyzed without stripping it of its various layers, many of which are additions built over the course of time, presenting a real challenge to modern scholars.

The client: Giuliano di Leonardo di Leonardo di Simone Gondi

The only picture we have of Giuliano Gondi is by Tommaso Redi (1665-1726), who was commissioned in 1711 to paint a portrait for Palazzo Gondi’s salon to enrich the group of family portraits hanging in that room. From an account book kept by Vincenzo Gondi in the years 1699 to 1724, we learn that Redi was asked to base his portrait on the old one frescoed in the entrance hall to Palazzo Gondi.

The frescoed portrait of Giuliano has vanished with time; no trace of it was found during the recent restoration. Palazzo Gondi had not yet been built when in 1449 Giuliano, at the age of 28, took over his father’s silk-trading business. But in fifteenth-century Florence, where the construction of a family palace was a major social and political event, Giuliano must have dreamed of leaving his imprint on the urban landscape. The ancestral palace with its tower and loggia, situated in the parish of Santa Maria degli Ughi, had been sold in 1428 by Giuliano’s father, Leonardo. Giuliano grew up in a house rented by his father in Via delle Terme, in the Santi Apostoli parish, not far from the family’s home parish. His grandfather Simone had been one of the richest men in Florence. Leonardo, deciding that radical action was called for, sold his urban property to amass capital. While on the one hand this decision deprived his heirs of any physical imprint on the city, on the other it allowed him to launch an activity that was to serve as springboard for his son. Giuliano, in turn, restored the family to its place among the highest ranks of wealthy Florentines. He devoted himself to the “beaten gold company” started by his father who, taking great risks, had expanded this business to the level of international trade. Giuliano was ambitious and even audacious in seeking wealth. At his death in 1501, he was one of Florence’s wealthiest citizens.

Early in his career, prior to 1452, Giuliano’s professional interests had brought him to Naples, where he established a flourishing, highly profitable branch of his company. King Ferdinando and his son Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, facilitated his work, since they depended on him to loan them (and others) large sums of money.

Giuliano buys a palace in the city : Palazzo Giugni

In 1455 Giuliano bought a palace that had been built for the Giugni family in the Santa Croce Quarter, Gonfalone del Bue, San Firenze parish. Through this purchase, Giuliano entered the ranks of urban property owners, giving his family, for the first time since 1428, a physical identity within the urban grid. He also made the bold move of leaving behind him the gonfalon, or standard, of his own family to move to another quarter of the city. Palazzo Giugni, which was to be called from then on the old Palazzo Gondi to distinguish it from the new palace designed by Sangallo, was a majestic edifice that had been built no later than the early fifteenth century, and in all probability during the fourteenth. The Giugni family had been obliged to sell it to pay their debts. For several centuries, the old Palazzo Gondi —sometimes called Torre Gondi — participated in the history of the Gondi family as much as the new palace begun by Giuliano da Sangallo. The two buildings appear side by side in a painting by Signorini.

For centuries the Gondi family found it financially advantageous to rent out the shops in the old palace, both along the street and in the square. One of these shops was converted by Giuliano for use in his commercial dealings. In 1457 he listed a gold-beater’s shop at the corner of Via dei Leoni. The light and air along this side of the palace, in Via delle Prestanze, were however considerably reduced in the 16th century, when the massive Palazzo Vecchio was extended toward the corner of Via dei Leoni, entirely obstructing the view from the upper floors of the old Palazzo Gondi. At a certain point in their history, the rooms along Via dei Gondi may have been used as storage deposits for the shops below. In the 19th century the potential loss of light in the offices of the city government was one of the reasons given by the municipal administration for widening Via dei Gondi. The city’s intention of making it a wide, dignified street helped to justify the negotiation between the city government and Eugenio Gondi concerning the property.

A detail in a painting of Piazza della Signoria by Bernardo Bellotto shows the back of the old Palazzo Gondi and various smaller buildings along Via dei Gondi, which were then demolished to widen the street.

A drawing shows that there existed an old medieval tower, probably dating from the 13th century, that had been incorporated into Palazzo Giugni many years before Giuliano Gondi bought it. Its 13th-century origin is suggested by the small size of the rusticated ashlars, resembling those of the nearby Bargello Tower.

In the Historic Archive of the Commune of Florence is a colour drawing from 1875, showing the ancient ruins brought to light during the work of widening the street. In it, the layout of the theater is sketched in relation to Palazzo Gondi. A great part of Palazzo Giugni and the tower rested, in fact, on Roman ruins.

Early problems: Giuliano’s family and the need to expand

Despite the reasonable size of the Giugni property, as time passed Giuliano felt the need of more ample space.

By 1469, his family had grown considerably. In 1460, having lost his second wife Isabella, he married again— this time to Antonia, the daughter of Lorenzo di Rinieri Scolari.

In 1480 Giuliano complained that his house was not large enough. His family had certainly grown up, and had been enlarged by the birth of a baby, Niccolò. His thirty-six-year-old wife was five months pregnant, and four of his children were adults. Leonardo, the eldest, was 29, but had no occupation at the time. The other three sons were working far from home, undoubtedly for the family company: Giovanbattista (28) was in Constantinople, and Bilicozzo (24) was in Naples. Giuliano certainly knew that when his sons married the house would not be big enough for them. Feeling the need of more space, he rented another building from the Arte di Calimala. In 480 Giuliano sub-let half of this house to Ser Piero da Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci’s father. Ser Piero, a notary who also served the Gondi family, soon left the premises free, and Giuliano had the big house all to himself. The third property he rented from the Arte di Calimala consisted of medium-sized rooms used as offices on the ground floor of the big house, consisting of an entrance hall, various rooms of unspecified destination, and an audience hall.

The intercession of Lorenzo de’ Medici

On October 12, 1485, Giuliano purchased all of the property he had been renting from the Arte di Calimala, thanks to the intercession of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Technically speaking, the property was not sold but exchanged for a silk merchant’s shop. Lorenzo facilitated every step of the process. He not only acted as guarantor, but the deed of sale was actually authenticated by a notary at Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Most probably, Gondi bought this property with the idea of building a brand-new palace on it.

It was between 1485 and 1490 that Giuliano took the decision to build. If we are to believe the words of Tribaldo de’ Rossi, Gondi continued to buy other properties even after having started work on his new palace. In his fascinating Ricordanze [Memoirs], Tribaldo states that Giuliano bought the Grascia office on June 5, 1490, to enlarge the house he had recently begun to built. Moreover, with Lorenzo’s help, he made an excellent bargain, buying it for a very low price.

Mandatory arbitration: the Asini house

When Giuliano began work on his palace in the summer of 1489 (as writes Luca Landucci, in his Diario fiorentino dal 1450 al 1516 [Florentine Diary from 1450 to 1516]), he did not own all of the property he needed to complete it. An important piece was, in fact, missing. He needed the house of the Asini family, on the north side next to the Arte di Calimala building, without which his courtyard would have been off-centered and situated to the edge of his new palace. Without the Asini house, he would not even have been able to finish the last bay. By the end of 1475 the Asini family were deeply in debt. Having lost the right to operate in Rome, they had sunk into indebtedness. On June 10, 1491, Giuliano Gondi took recourse to mandatory arbitration with Mariotto Asini, and on June 27, 1491 the arbitrators decreed that Giuliano could buy the house for 1200 florins.

The art of the facade

The facade is a masterpiece, with its diminishing rustication that ranged from the rough surface of the ground floor, to the checkerboard stonework in lower relief on the piano nobile, and terminating in the flat, smooth blocks of the top floor. Just as the rustication is gradually attenuated, so the height of each floor gradually decreases. On the facade of Palazzo Gondi, the arches above the doors and windows are typically Florentine in style. The graduated voussoirs culminate in a high keystone. Moreover, each voussoir is inserted in the horizontal courses of the rusticated facade. Even more interesting is the modified cross appearing between one window and another, with two long vertical arms coming to a point at the top and bottom, and two short horizontal arms. The design as a whole conveys a sense of verticality that counterbalances the horizontal effect of the denticulated string-courses and the cornice above.

In their present-day aspect, the windows in Palazzo Gondi’s facade are unusual not only for the shape of their voussoirs but also for the fact that they are not typical of palaces built in the second half of the 15th century. Originally, they were two-light mullioned windows, displaying in their lunettes the Gondi heraldic arms, and were fitted with unusual crosspieces that divided them into four panes. The Histoire généalogique de la maison de Gondi [Genealogical history of the Gondi house], published by Corbinelli 1705, contains an etching of the facade of Sangallo’s palace. A detail of the upper floors clearly shows four windows (two on the piano nobile and two on the top floor) whose stone lunettes bear the Gondi devices.

During the recent restoration, one of these lunettes was moved from a dusty service courtyard to the main courtyard, where it can now be admired. The centre of the lunette opens in an oculus – a motif unusual in Florentine windows. At either side of the circular opening, on the oblique sides of the lunette, appear two arms, protected by armor and bent at the elbow, holding combat maces. We find the same Gondi emblem on the column capitals of the Gondi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, it too the work of Giuliano da Sangallo. Corbinelli reports that, according to family tradition, the emblem appeared on a coat of arms designed by the King of Naples for Giuliano Gondi.

The oculus was not the only unusual feature of the windows in Palazzo Gondi. Stone cross-pieces, more typical of the windows in Roman palaces than those of Florence, originally divided each window both vertically and horizontally. The window design was part of the original building, as confirmed by a drawing of the facade made by Vasari the Younger in 1598. Vasari ideally reconstructed the Guelph window typology along the entire facade of both upper floors.

The facade is clearly but soberly distinguished by signs attesting to the family’s ownership. Apart from repetition of the Gondi coat of arms on the lunettes above the windows, heraldic emblems were used sparingly. The flame-tipped diamond, one of Giuliano Gondi’s personal emblems, embellishes the two torch holders on either side of the central door. Presumably, such emblems appeared on all of the iron elements on the palace’s outer walls, as on the facade of the contemporary Palazzo Strozzi. A final element, originally destined to be placed outside the palace, was highly unusual, if not unique, in fifteenth-century Florence. Giuliano da Sangallo intended, in fact, to place at the corner of the facade the life-size classical statue of a Roman Senator. It had been unearthed in digging the foundations of Palazzo di Parte Guelfa, originally the site of the ancient Roman thermal baths.

The facade: Sangallo vs. Poggi

When Giuseppe Poggi began restoring the facade and enlarging Sangallo’s palace at the corner and along Via dei Gondi, he felt hanging over him all the weight of Renaissance architecture, and of the project assigned him by Eugenio Gondi, that of completing the palace without betraying its original concept.

Poggi had to decide what was and what was not the work of Sangallo, and he mistakenly decided that the stone structures (the relief carving on the lunettes and the crosspieces on the windows) could not be attributed to Sangallo.

Another unusual feature attracted the architect’s interest. This was the baluster over the cornice, which had already been dismantled when Poggi began work. It appears in the painting of Palazzo Gondi done by Lorenzo Mariani in 1651. Corbinelli depicted it in the early 18th century, with balusters in the form of slender columns. Giuliano da Sangallo was known for his early use of elegant balusters, as may be seen in the well-turned supports of the staircase in the courtyard. On the new terrace along Via dei Gondi, and for the baluster of an inside staircase, he used slender columns with Tuscan capitals. This was certainly not the first time that Poggi drew inspiration from the fifteenth-century motifs of the original palace, or that he re-utilized old materials. In his Stato del Palazzo [State of the Palace], in the chapter Aggiunta al Palazzo [Addition to the Palace], he states that, for the stone base of the terrace on Via dei Gondi, he utilized materials salvaged from the demolition of the old buildings. An analysis of the rustication confirms Poggi’s statement that he used, for the revetment of the outer facade below the terrace on Via dei Gondi, old blocks of stone coming from Palazzo Giugni. Even more surprising was Poggi’s re-utilization and replication of fifteenth-century corbels on the first floor. The corbels at the sides of the passageways and staircases on the upper floors are of a type widely used in the 1470s.

The palace and the street

Today’s view of the facade did not exist when Giuliano da Sangallo first began the palace, since the broad extension of Piazza San Firenze is relatively new. At the time of Giuliano Gondi, in fact, the old palace (Palazzo Giugni) stood on a long, narrow square, before a much smaller medieval church. The south side of the little square was closed off by the medieval towers of the Magalotti and Mancini families. The facade designed by Sangallo overlooked a narrow, crooked street, winding off in the direction of the Bargello. To build a straight facade would have meant sacrificing building space. But despite the aesthetic advantages that would derive to his palace, the shrewd merchant Giuliano would never, absolutely never, have been willing to give the city something for nothing. In negotiating with the officials of the Council of the People, he agreed to concede a piece of his property in exchange for being allowed to buy a building owned by the city (as his descendant Eugenio Gondi was to do later), which as such was not normally for sale. The building he purchased was the previously mentioned Ufficio della Grascia in Via delle Prestanze. Giuliano Gondi’s concern for the visual appearance of his palace leads us to wonder what size he intended it to be — the number of seven, nine or even eleven bays has been suggested. Vasari tells us: “That palace was to have included the finished corner and turned in the direction of the Mercato Vecchio; but the death of Giuliano Gondi brought it to a halt.”

In the last fourth of the 19th century, the palace was finished by Giuseppe Poggi, with seven bays. Poggi’s enlargement was however conditioned by the widening of Via dei Gondi. The city administration of Florence had intended to widen the street by ten meters, but in the end, at Poggi’s suggestion, it was enlarged by twelve meters.

In his Istorie Fiorentine [Florentine Histories] for the year 1535, Giovanni Cambi remarks that it was a shame that Giuliano’s sons, after his death in 1501, did not finish the palace or the chapel they had begun to build in Santa Maria Novella. Those much criticized sons, however, did try to complete their father’s palace, and had major work done on the chapel as well. In 1506, five years after their father’s death, the Officials of the Tower of the Commune of Florence threatened to fine them unless they had the blocks of stone that lay in the street removed. Moreover, an account book of Federigo Gondi, one of Giuliano’s sons, recently brought to light, lists payments to builders and stone masons up to the year 1515 for wood for scaffolding, and other payments to builders engaged to work on the palace. By 1536, all of Giuliano’s children except Federigo were dead. In that year Federigo wrote his will, naming as heirs all of his nephews and requesting them to continue work on the Gondi Chapel. He died within a year, and it seems that, for the rest of the century, no major work was undertaken to complete the palace.