Great Salon with coffered ceiling, dominated by a monumental fireplace built of pietra forte designed by Giuliano da Sangallo
and surmounted by two great statues of Hercules and Sampson, who, as Tutelary Deities, protect the door and windows of the palace. On the walls, a series of portraits depict the most famous members of the family’s French branch.
The first floor and the monumental halls
On the first floor are the great salon and other monumental halls. The salon was designed, as in all palaces, to receive the visits of illustrious personages and welcome the family’s numerous relatives and members of other prominent Florentine families. Some of the rooms on the first floor were converted over the centuries to serve the various purposes of the time and to keep step with the changing fashions of the centuries.
Sangallo’s Salon and Fireplace
The salon is one of the rooms that has most closely retained its original aspect, adorned by Sangallo’s great fireplace, by statues, and by the large portraits of famous members of the Gondi family placed here in the early 18th century.Vasari acknowledged its importance in his Life of Giuliano da Sangallo: “He built among other things a fireplace richly embellished with inlay work and and so varied and beautiful in its components that nothing similar has yet been seen, nor any other with such abundance of figures”.Vasari clearly saw in the Gondi fireplace the start of a new decorative trend, an unprecedented way of relating architectural elements and sculptural decoration. Architecture and decoration: on their new equilibrium depends much of the novelty of Palazzo Gondi’s fireplace. In addition to its monumental size, the structural element is impressive, with the two gigantic balusters framing it below, the very high trabeation adorned with the main frieze and the elongated dados at its sides, richly decorated in an intricate system of military trophies and family coats of arms, surmounted by classical-style frames supporting the bases of the statues of Hercules and Sampson. Giuliano da Sangallo was an artist whose family belonged to the group of artisans, decorators, stone masons, and inlayers that made up the vital underbrush of the Florentine Renaissance; familiar with the great artists and the finest works, they could create a stone revetment or an inlaid wood interior as required. Sangallo, the favorite architect of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his entourage, also worked for the King of Naples, the Duke of Milan, and Giuliano della Rovere (the future Pope Julius II), but in the Gondi fireplace, the world of his youth seems to emerge. Here the two souls of Sangallo seem to have found expression; while the architectural element is striking for its innovative vigor, he is clearly indebted to the great master Donatello for the statue of Sampson, derived almost entirely from the famous St. George sculpted for a niche in Orsanmichele. Apart from the two statues above the fireplace and the youthful Crucifix carved for the high altar of Santissima Annunziata, very few sculptures can be attributed with certainty to Sangallo. The project for the fireplace probably dates from a final stage of the work on Palazzo Gondi, interrupted soon afterwards by the death of Giuliano Gondi in 1501. The heraldic arms decorating the splayed jambs of the two lateral dados are those of families related by marriage to Giuliano and his children: the Corsi, Scolari, Pandolfini, Altoviti, Bartolini Salimbeni and Martelli.
The alcove that still today welcomes visitors on the first floor of Palazzo Gondi is the only early 18-century room that has remained miraculously intact down to our own time, having passed practically untouched through the profound transformations of the building effected in the 19th century. This little room, a jewel of precious late Baroque decoration, was designed within the context of the renovation promoted by the brothers Vincenzio and Angiolo Gondi, at the conclusion of a lawsuit acknowledging their ownership of the ancestral Palace. The new owners employed the best craftsmen in Florence. The architectural modifications were assigned to Antonio Maria Ferri, who had worked for the Grand Dukes and the most prominent families in Florence. Within a few years’ time, he transformed part of the ancient residence, inserting new rooms in keeping with the prevailing baroque style. The alcove was created in 1710-11 for the wedding of Angiolo Gondi and Elisabetta Cerretani, daughter of Senator Filippo. It was designed by Ferri and decorated by the painter Matteo Bonechi, responsible for the frescoes adorning the ceiling, and by the stucco worker Giovan Battista Ciceri, whose elegant white-and-gold stuccos frame Bonechi’s pictorial cycle and adorn the front of the alcove. The work of the quadraturist Lorenzo del Moro, who decorated the ledges, jambs and intradoses of the doors and windows, is also documented. The alcove, which began to appear in the Florentine palaces of the nobility in the 17th-18th century, usually consisted of two adjoining rooms: the antechamber, designed as a private living room for receiving guests, gave access to the alcove proper, or master bedroom. The alcove in Palazzo Gondi faithfully reflects this layout. The rectangular antechamber, with coffered ceiling embellished by white-and-gold rosettes, leads to the more private room through an arch framed with Ciceri’s stucco-work, which enlivens the superb coping: the family coat-of-arms.
Lorenzo del Moro, painter of “quadrature” and “figures”
Another artist, the painter Lorenzo del Moro, also worked on the decoration of the alcove. In a little gallery adjoining the alcove, recent restoration has revealed, covered by a layer of whitewash, decoration consisting of late baroque illusionist architecture, with sculptures “painted” on the walls and a trompe l’oeil perspective on the ceiling, dating from the same epoch.The decoration, damaged during earlier restoration initiatives, has only partially survived. The severe wear of the painted surfaces and the fragmentation of the little gallery’s decoration make it impossible to express a final judgement on its stylistic elements and quality level. In any case, the name of Lorenzo Del Moro as painter, or at least designer, of the whole illusionistic scheme, remains plausible.
The painted decoration in Palazzo Gondi’s early 19th-century rooms
The piano nobile of Palazzo Gondi, which was included in Giuseppe Poggi’s large-scale project for restoring and enlarging the entire building in the 1880s, has conserved by chance some of the painted decoration done in the early years of the 19th century. These decorated rooms were not immune to Poggi’s “modernizing”, which altered some of their original decoration so severely that it can be salvaged only in part. In spite of this, the surviving pictorial decoration, up to now unpublished, is highly interesting, adding new elements to our knowledge of Florentine figurative art in the early 19th century. The rooms in question are three: the first two, adjoining each other, serve as trait d’union between the alcove and the little corridor/gallery decorated with fictive architecture – surviving testimony to the early 18th-century decorative scheme – and the monumental salon with Giuliano da Sangallo’s majestic fireplace. These two rooms, named for the subjects painted on the ceiling of the former and the walls of the latter, are called the “Time Stealing Beauty Room” and the “Landscapes Room” respectively; for the third, situated in the opposite wing of the piano nobile, the most fitting name is the “Jupiter and Hebe Room”, for the beautiful, entirely frescoed ceiling that happened to re-emerge in perfect condition during the recent restoration.
Niccolò Contestabili’s decorative painting in Palazzo Gondi
The wall paintings adorning the two rooms leading to the majestic salon containing Sangallo’s fireplace – the “Time Stealing Beauty Room” and the “Landscapes Room” – are by the painter from Pontremoli, Niccolò Contestabili, assisted in the decoration by Giuseppe Ricci, a painter/decorator. These paintings are a fitting testimonial to the artist’s successful career, not only for their high quality but also because, as documented and dated works, they constitute fixed points in his artistic production. The painted rooms are, in fact, mentioned in documents found in the archives of Palazzo Gondi. The roles of the two painters were clearly distinct: Contestabili, a “figure painter”, appears as the painter of backgrounds – the trompe l’oeil perspective on the ceilings – and towns; Ricci , the “architectural painter”, as “painter of decorations”.
The “Time Stealing Beauty Room”
In the first of the two rooms opening into the salon with Sangallo’s fireplace – the “bedroom” mentioned in the documents – the a la pàge pictorial decoration reflects the nascent neoclassical style. At the center of the ceiling, an octagonal-shaped illusionist painting displays a spacious blue sky streaked with grey clouds, against which stand out figures in flight, concentrated mainly in the lower half: an old man with wings and a long white beard, wearing an orange cloak, leans toward a young girl, grasping the hem of the transparent veil hanging from her head. The young girl, wrapped in an ample bright green mantle over a high-waisted, low-necked white tunic, is caught in an equally dynamic pose, struggling in vain to escape his grasp. Below them flutter two winged cherubs who are playing with a long sickle, while a third cherub holds up an hour-glass: the unmistakeable symbols of inexorably fleeting Time. In the upper part, almost entirely occupied by the sky, a fourth cherub holds a mirror, the attribute of youth and beauty, in his right hand. The allegorical scene thus represents Time Stealing Beauty, a subject already familiar to Florentine figurative tradition.
Based on the documentation, this painting may be attributed to Niccolò Contestabili, an artist born at Pontremoli in 1759, very active in Florence, renowned mainly as landscape painter and specialist in ‘stanze a paese’ and ‘boscherecce’, rooms decorated with scenes of landscapes or forests.
The “Landscape Room”
As previously mentioned, Contestabili also worked in the adjoining room, the “salotto” recorded in the documents, whose decoration was completed later by Giuseppe Ricci. The surface is embellished by a circle of twelve winged cherubs caught in dynamic, acrobatic poses, holding up like a crown a very long laurel wreath. The two landscape scenes facing each other on the long walls are now enclosed in stucco frames designed to give the impression of paintings hanging on the wall. In the landscapes of Palazzo Gondi, Contestabili painted in tempera – a technique amply documented in his activity as wall painter – to express more clearly a wealth of colors, atmospheric effects and minute details. The two paintings, although similar in size, composition and color scheme, present two quite different, or rather diametrically opposed, narrative situations. In the first, an idyllic scene of arcadian tone, we see on the left a family of nomadic shepherds who have just arrived at a clearing on the banks of a stream, bringing with them their few belongings and their little flock. In the second painting the atmosphere is very different, heavy with pathos and tension, set in a landscape swept by an impetuous wind and traversed by storm clouds. In the foreground, at the center of a clearing, are the disquieting figures of three disheveled, unkempt women. A close look at the painting shows it to be the pictorial version of a scene from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Macbeth. It represents the moment when the three witches, preceded by a rumble of thunder, appear on the moors to MacBeth and Banquo, victorious generals in the Scottish army. Both of these paintings reflect the influence of Francesco Zuccarelli, the greatest landscape artist of the second half of the 18th century, highly esteemed throughout Europe.
Here Contestabili’s two wall paintings appear as a true homage to Zuccarelli, his master.
The “Jupiter and Hebe Room” by Luigi Catani
The latest interior restoration of Palazzo Gondi has led to the unexpected salvaging of an entirely frescoed ceiling in a room found in the south wing of the first floor. The painted surface, distinguished by its bright, luminous colors, appears in a perfect state of conservation thanks to the involuntary protection afforded by a false ceiling, probably added at the time of Poggi’s restoration, which has concealed it from sight for over a century, preserving it to our own day.
Unfortunately, the wall decorations have met with a very different fate, having been whitewashed in the late 19th century, with the irreparable lose of the original illusionistic effect. During the latest restoration, some assays performed on the walls have made it possible to trace the original decorative scheme, too badly damaged to be restored. It displayed slender columns placed at regular intervals, resting on a high base and supporting a continuous figured frieze in fictive bas-relief (which has luckily survived), beyond which could be glimpsed a landscape of 360 degrees. The illusionist effect conveyed the impression of standing in a roofless pavilion, crowned by a figured frieze of classical inspiration, above which can still be seen the treetops that were visible outside of the building, thus augmenting the sense of expanded space and creating an effect of continuity between the landscape and the ceiling above it, populated by Olympian gods.
The beautiful continuous frieze, painted in grisaille to simulate a figured relief, surprising for its superb quality and its striking effect, should be seen as one the highest achievements of this particular type of decoration.
The monochrome effect is enlivened by tufts of grass and by the climbing vines that, along with the leafy treetops, emerge at the top of the frieze. Before our eyes, the procession of gods advances without a pause. The frieze is not only an homage to classical antiquity, but can also be interpreted as alluding to the cycles of the seasons, and as “a joyful triumph of life and the forces of Nature”.
The frieze was painted by an artist from Prato, Luigi Catani, quite famous at the time, deemed one of the finest Tuscan painter/decorators in the years between the 1790s and the 1830s, and one of the most highly esteemed local interpreters of the neoclassical style, “for his elegant, measured narrative vein and the colorful grace of his works”.
In the ‘sky’ over the room appears the majestic figure of Jupiter, father of the gods, who, robed in red, sits on a cloud, grasping in his left hand a scepter and holding in his right a goblet to be filled with wine. The girl is Hebe, cup-bearer to the gods, who is about to satisfy Jupiter’s desire, holding out the pitcher to a cupid in flight.
The beautiful ceiling painted by Catani, probably over the course of three years, 1807-1809, suggests that the room it decorates was originally a dining room. The message conveyed by the painting is related to the political context of the time, and undoubtedly expressed the convictions of the client, in all probability Marchese Angiolo Gondi, who wished to show, almost on a note of defiance, or perhaps merely of resignation, what was the real condition of Tuscany at the time, definitively subjected to the power of France.