Public Buildings Of Florence – Italy

The architecture of Florence is grand and gloomy beyond that of all the other cities in Italy. Were these singular buildings displayed by greater breadth of street, or if these imposing fabrics could be translated to other cities, the vast and magnificent character which distinguishes the Tuscan style would then be seen. To this hour Florence bears the aspect of a city filled with nobles and their domestics,—a city of bridges, churches, and palaces. Every building has a superb and architectural form; the streets are short, narrow, and angular, and each angle presents an architectural view, fit to be drawn for a scene in a theatre; each house is a palace, and a palace in Florence is a magnificent pile, of a square and bulky form, of a grand and gloomy aspect, with a plain front, extending from two to three hundred feet, built of huge dark grey stone, each measuring three or four feet. A coarse rubble work rises in a solid form to twenty or thirty feet in height. A great grooved stone, or slybolate, sets off the building from the street, forming a seat which runs the whole length of the front; and which, in feudal times, was occupied by the depend-ants of the family: who there loitering in the sultry hours of the day, lay asleep under the shelter of the broad deep cornice, which projecting from the roof threw a wide shade below. The immense stones of this coarse front bear huge iron rings in capacious circles, in which sometimes were planted the banners of the family; at others they were filled with enormous torches, which, in times of rejoicing, burned and glared, throwing a lengthened mass of light along the walls. Not unfrequently merchandise was displayed drawn through these rings, and sometimes also they served for tying up the horses of the guests.

The first range of windows, which are ten feet from the ground, are grated and barred with massive frames of iron, resembling those of a prison, and producing an effect singularly sombre and melancholy. The front of this building has on the second floor, styled piano nobile, a plain and simple architrave. The windows are high and arched, placed at a considerable distance from each other, and are ten or fifteen in number, according to the extent of the front. They were often so high from the floor within, that in turbulent times, when the house was itself a fortress, the besieged, leaping up three or four steps to the window, would from thence view and annoy the enemy. The third story is like the second in plainness, and in the size of the windows. The roof is of a flat form, with a deep cornice and bold projected soffits, which gives a grand, square, and magnificent effect, to the whole edifice. The chimneys are grouped into stacks: the tops of which, increasing in bulk as they rise in height, resemble a crown; the slates with which they are constructed, are placed in such a manner as to produce the effect of ventilation, having a plited form, resembling the fan heads of the inside of a mushroom. This gives a rich and finished aspect to the most trivial or most undignified part of the building. Immense leaden spouts, that project three or four feet, collect the waters, which, in the great rains of these countries, fall with extreme violence, descending with the rush and noise of torrents from the roof.

Two or three long flat steps lead to the porch of the palace; and the entrance is by a high arched massive iron gate, the doors of which are cross-barred, studded with iron and bronze nails, and the ornaments of the pannels are richly covered and embossed. The effect of these gates is very splendid. They open into a cortile or court, the base of which is encircled by a high arched colonnade, supported by marble columns. Beautiful gardens often adjoin the palace, and through a corresponding gate or iron-railings, the eye rests on the luxuriant verdure of rich foliage.

It was under these arcades, shaded from the noon-tide, and cooled by the waters of the fountain which occupy the centre of the court, that the rich merchandise of the east, the silks and shawls and fine linen, and all the valuable manufactures of Tuscany, lay spread out, as in a place of exchange; while under vast, arched, and vaulted chambers, was stored the wealth which was there brought for sale. Entering from this court, a great staircase leads to a suite of noble chambers, halls, and saloons, hung with silks, and richly adorned. The lofty ceilings are finely painted; the beams are always displayed, but are carved, ornamented, and gilded, so as to form a splendid part of the whole. The arcades of the court support the galleries, which, in former times, were generally filled with fine paintings, statues, vases, and precious relics of antiquity.

In such palaces, the rulers, the magistrate, the noble, and the merchant, dined, surrounded by their family and adherents. The manner of the times bore a character of manly simplicity, which singularly contrasted with the splendour of the rich possessions, and the importance of their political sway among nations.

Their guests were seated not by rule, rank, or birth, but in the order in which they happened to arrive.

At the board of Lorenzo the Magnificent, whose court was adorned by the most distinguished men of the age, as well in letters and science as in rank, Michael Angelo and other celebrated artists were often seated next to himself; nor did these habits lessen the respect or deference of the dependents, as we may judge by the picture given by Cellini and other writers of those days. From this combination of princely power and pristine simplicity, inducing that familiar intercourse of lord and dependants, of rich and poor, arose those friendly greetings, those salutations in the streets, which to this day excite the admiration of strangers. Such were the pa-laces of the Medici, the Ricardi, and the Strozzi; but they are now gloomy and silent. Their chambers no longer are filled with the elegant works of art, paintings, statues, and rich ornaments; the magnificence which marked the splendour of their name and state is no more seen, nor is the ear arrested by the merry sound of voices, or of people hurrying in the noisy busy throng of commercial bustle. Her palaces are solitary; a sabbath-like silence reigns in the streets, and the princes and merchants, the proud, the generous, the noble Florentines, who gave aid to kings, and succoured popes, are now a poor, subdued, submissive race.

The Florentine artists did not rise into notice till towards the beginning of the thirteenth century. Arnolpho Lapo, and Cimabue, are the first who find a place in the records of the annalists. These were followed by a succession of great artists, whose works and talents have stamped a name and character on their city.

Florence, like Athens, rose to power and splendour in fifty years. Her most celebrated men, whether distinguished in science and enterprize, or in deep and laborious researches in literature, flourished almost at the same period. Learned institutions were formed; schools for the study of the Greek language revived; and public discussions were held by different sects of philosophers, at which Cosmo and his grandson Lorenzo used to assist. The minds of the people, thus awakened to knowledge, acquired brilliancy, and refinement in taste and in science. One pursuit created another; excellence produced excellence; and ambition and rivalship begot talent.

We find the simple and majestic style of Arnolpho giving a severe and dignified aspect to Florence. It is a peculiar and integral style, different from every other that is derived from earlier times, and of which, Arnolpho, if he did not find it in Fiesoli, must be considered the inventor. It is a style in which the master studied to produce one simple expression;—that of grace and majesty, which is singularly calculated to give a character of dignity to a city. Florence is a school where every variety of architecture may be studied. There are distinguished three characters—the severe and imposing of Arnolpho Lapo; the refined Tuscan of Brunelleschi; and the decorous and magnificent of Michael Angelo.

The genius of this last great master was peculiarly suited to the vast and noble Tuscan structure, which he combined with some of the finer Grecian proportions, and beautiful fantastic forms of the Gothic. The simplicity of earlier times was corrected by these bearing on the natural Tuscan bases, and the style was improved and enriched without its character being lost. To an alliance of the Grecian architecture, with the simple majesty of the Tuscan, Michael Angelo added the well-spread out balcony, the noble window, the rich friezes, and the trellis work. If pilastres and columns in front had been also added, the Tuscan would have been entirely changed to the Grecian order.

One thing is peculiarly worthy of notice—the divisions and coarse chisellings of the rubble-work, with which the bases of these great edifices are ornamented, are essential to the effect and composition. It is like a wash in drawing, which, however slight, takes off the cold white glare, and gives a colour such as hatching does in engraving. The gravity and solemnity of the stately mass is thus ensured, and the glare of an ardent sun, which often proves injuriously dazzling, is corrected. Were it not owing to this, such vast edifices as the palaces of the Strozzi or Ricardi, smooth and fair as a villa, would present a tame and insipid front, vast without grandeur, and requiring columns or other massive enrichments to give relief. This hatching contributes to gravity as well as ornament, uniting the whole, and giving the bases apparent strength to support the weight above.

Men of talents different from those of St Gallo or Michael Angelo, attempted to amend and refine, by polishing and smoothing a grave and magnificent front, which derived grandeur from its dimensions. To this professional discovery, they gave the dignified name of Pietra Serena; and this, which suited well with small houses, or rich and delicate ornaments, they extended over fronts that were consistent only with rude masonry and stones of great embossment, such as mark the antique and majestic style.

Cimabue, born in the year 1240, is the first who, in those early times of restored art, is supposed to have thrown expression into the human countenance. Arnolpho di Lapo,* born in 1263, was his pupil for design; for Cimabue, contrary to the usual practice, did not unite with his knowledge in painting, that of architecture and sculpture. The masters who followed him, generally combined these three arts, and were often also poets and men of great learning. Alberte, who flourished early in the fifteenth century, was one of the first scholars of his age; Arcagna, by whose name the Piazzo Lanzi is generally distinguished, used to inscribe on his statues, fece dal Pittore,” and on his paintings, dal Scultore.”

The ancients esteemed knowledge in almost every science essential to form a good architect. Vitruvius, whose elevated mind and disinterested spirit took the noblest view of his profession, enumerates the various branches of knowledge requisite, to which he gives an extension somewhat appalling to the young student. He requires that he should be master of design, have an acquaintance with geometry, optics, history, arithmetic, and the principles of philosophy; that he should not be ignorant of medicine, music, jurisprudence, or astrology, summing up the whole by an injunction to combine perseverance with ingenuity, and so produce excellence.