Visitor's Guide To the Medici Palaces in Florence Italy
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Planning a trip to Florence Italy, one of Europe's most beautiful and artistic cities? If so, the three palaces of the Medici family are must see sites in Florence, often dubbed the "Cradle of the Renaissance."
Everything the Medici owned, created, and commissioned is gorgeous. If you're an art lover or fan of Renaissance history, the Medici palaces should be on your itinerary for Florence. Though somewhat craggy and rusticated on the outside, inside the palaces hold some of the world's greatest and most opulent paintings, frescos, and sculptures.
The Medici were the most celebrated family of the Renaissance era. Florence is synonymous with the Medici and the Medici is synonymous with Florence. The dynasty ruled Florence for nearly 300 years. They were bankers, politicians, and art patrons. Some of the Medici became cardinals and popes.
The Medici family commissioned virtually all of Florence's breathtaking art -- works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Donatello, and Fra Angelico. They built some of Florence's grandest buildings, from palazzos to art galleries.
A Short History The Medici Family
The first real Medici power broker was Cosimo the Elder, a man who was both an avid art patron and a Machiavelli-like politician. He sponsored early Renaissance artists and architects like Michelozzo, Donatello, and Ghiberti. Over 37 years, Cosimo created a dynasty that would endure for centuries and produce four popes.
Perhaps the most powerful and influential Medici was Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo. Lorenzo nicknamed himself "Il Magnifico," or the Magnificent. Lorenzo was a true Renaissance man -- savvy politician, connoisseur of arts, music composer, and even a romantic poet. His second son became Pope Leo X.
In 1537, Cosimo I came to power, becoming the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. Today, Cosimo I is best known for building and/or renovating and expanding the Uffizi Gallery, the Vasari Corridor, the Monastery of San Marco, and the Pitti Palace.
The descendants of Cosimo I ruled into the 18th century in relative stability. But then decay set in. This generation of grand dukes ruled by force, and reduced Florence's reputation as a cultural capitol.
The last Medici died in 1743. She bequeathed all of the Medici treasures to Florence on the condition that they never be sold. As a result, Florence is a rare bastion of in situ art.
Click here for my much more detailed history of the Medici family.
Palaces of the Medici Family in Florence
In this Florence travel guide, I take you on a tour of the three palaces that the Medici family built, restored, decorated, and lived in. The Medici palaces should definitely be on your bucket list or itinerary for Florence.
The first Medici home was the Medici Palace, later renamed the Medici-Riccardi Palace when it was sold off to another Florentine family in 1649. This was the home of the famous Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Medici next moved into the Palazzo Vecchio and then later into their poshest home, the Pitti Palace.
If you've watched The Medici: Masters of Florence on Netflix, you'll no doubt recognize the settings. If you want to learn about and see all things Medici in Florence, read on!
1. The Medici Palace | Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
The ancient and austere Palazzo Medici is the Renaissance home where it all began. The fortress-like palace was home to the Medici family in the second half of the 15th century and a couple of decades of the 16th century. Most importantly, it was home to two of the greatest historical figures of the Renaissance, Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent.
The palace architect was Michelozzo, whom Cosimo the Elder commissioned in 1444. The Medici-Riccardi Palace is considered the first Renaissance style family palace -- at least based on the interior.
One might have expected the more famous Fillipo Brunelleschi, architect of the Duomo and of the Medici family church, San Lorenzo, to be chosen as the primary architect for the Medici's home. And he was initially. Brunelleschi created a fine and detailed model of his proposed Medici palace.
But Brunelleschi's vision for the palace was so luxurious, so decadent, that a discreet Cosimo the Elder decided it would send the wrong message -- "I'm a king" -- to the regular citizens of Florence. So angered by Cosimo's change of heart, Brunelleschi smashed the model into smithereens in a fit of artistic temperament. Cosimo subsequently came to regret his decision.
The building itself is a rectangular in plan. It was built with the typical (and rather drab) rusticated Florentine brownstone, pietra forte. The palace is three stories, each of which diminishes in height and gets more refined as the building rises.
The arches on the ground floor were originally open, providing a loggia of sorts. They were later covered up by Michelangelo. A stone bench is built into the exterior.
Inside, you can visit the courtyard, a small exhibition space, some rooms upstairs, and best of all, a little jewel of a chapel. You first step into the courtyard. There's a drastic change in architectural style. Gone is the almost off putting rustic-ness. The inside is instead classically inspired, advancing the Brunelleschian ideas of harmony, minimalism, and ascetic beauty.
The courtyard is square, surrounded on all four sides by gray pietra serena Corinthian columns. The somewhat stumpy columns support semi-circular arches, which in turn support an entablature (or horizontal) strips. The Medici coat of arms is shown on the friezes.
Donatello's avant garde Bronze David and Judith and Holofernes statues once stood in the courtyard, before moving to the Palazzo Vecchio. Today, you see a statue of Orpheus by late Renaissance Mannerist sculptor Baccio Bandinelli, commissioned by Giovani de Medici the future Pope Leo X. The decorative stone framing and stone statuary on the walls were later additions in the Baroque period.
The ground floor of the palace was used by the public. The first floor, the Piano Nobile or principal floor of a palace, was where the family resided. The top floor was where the kitchen and servants quarters were located, best to keep the steamy stench away from palace visitors.
The Galleria Ricardania, or Hall of Mirrors, is an over the top Baroque confection with gold walls. The ceiling was frescoed by Luca Giordano, with scenes from mythology. (This room obviously was a Riccardi addition.)
Back outside, an archway leads to the Medici Gardens. The garden is dominated by orange trees, the orange being a Medici family symbol. The garden originally hosted a groundbreaking Donatello sculpture, Judith and Holofernes. The original sculpture is now in the Hall of Lilies of the Palazzo Vecchio and a copy sits in the Piazza della Signoria.
Some important events took place in the Medici-Riccardi Palace. In 1478, the Pazzi conspirators came to escort Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano to the Duomo as part of their assassination plot. A 14 year old Michelangelo lived in the palace.
Later, Savonarola's sermons encouraged his followers to loot the palace and destroy precious objects. Catherine de Medici lived here before becoming queen of France. And, Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler once dined together in the gallery hall.
Chapel of the Magi | Capella dei Magi
Though the palace itself is rather a brooding rusticated stone affair, the Piano Nobile hides one of Florence's most precious hidden gems -- the Chapel of the Magi. The chapel is accessed via a stairway from the courtyard.
The Chapel of the Magi was a private chapel in the Medici home used exclusively for prayer and devotion. Private chapels were a rarity in the 15th century, though later popularized by the nobility. They required a special papal dispensation to build. Since the pope was the Medici's main banking client, this was easy to obtain.
The Magi Chapel is decorated with a beautiful series of frescos painted in 1459 by Benozzo Gozzoli. Gozzoli was trained by Ghiberti and Fra Angelico, and thus rendered the frescos in a charming narrative style. The frescos are in two parts, the Procession of the Magi on three walls in the main room and the Adoration of the Magi in the chancel/altar.
The frescos are meant to glorify the Medici family. It was a form of propaganda to show their wealth and greatness. Throughout the chapel, there's an abundance of purple porphyry and gold, just to underscore the point.
The main event is the Procession of the Magi. It covers three of the four chapel walls. Each wall depicts one of the three kings or magi arriving in Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn king, bringing expensive gifts. The reading of the frescos starts on the right hand side.
The most famous Medici appear in the frescos in the guise of the magi, equating the Medici with the divine. Immortality is often what mortals seek, in hopes of redemption, particularly wealthy bankers charging usurious interest to make a luxe living.
On the east wall, there's a portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent at the age of 10 on a white horse. There's also a portrait of Giuliano, Lorenzo's brother who was assassinated in the Pazzi Conspiracy (more on that below). Cosimo the Elder appears riding a donkey, a reference to Jesus himself. Is Cosimo trying to appear modest or does he consider himself the second coming? It's unclear.
The ceiling is decorated with a diamond pointed ring bearing the motto semper. The word semper also appears on the frescos. Semper seems to imply the Medici dynasty is "forever" or "always." The Medici used this term in private, but disdained using it in public to avoid antagonizing the citizenry.
In the altar of the Chapel of the Magi, you find the Adoration of the Child. The original painting, by Fra Fillipo Lippi, was sold and replaced by a 20th century copy. On the adjacent wall, singing choirs of angels rejoice over the newborn king.
Address: Via Camillo Cavour 1
Hours: 9:00 am to7:00 pm, except closed on Wednesdays
Entry fee: 10 euros for entry to the Chapel of the Magi. Entry to the garden and Michelozzo courtyard are free.
Pro tip: The only accessible part of the interior of the palace is the Chapel of the Magi. At present, for security and preservation reasons, only 4 people are allowed in for a period of 5 minutes. You need to make a reservation in advance. Click here for complete information.
2. Palazzo Vecchio
In 1540, Cosimo I moved his family from the Medici Palace into the Palazzo della Signorina, now called the Palazzo Vecchio. This rather homely medieval fortress dates from the 13th century. It was constructed by Arnolfo di Cambio, architect of Florence Cathedral and the Basilica of Santa Croce. The Palazzo Vecchio still houses the Florence City Hall.
But today the Palazzo Vecchio is mostly a museum. It sits in the famous Piazza della Signoria, the center of Florentine life and politics, a meeting spot buzzing with activity.
Many beautiful sculptures by Italy's greatest artists are on display in front of the Palazzo Vecchio or adjacent to it in the Loggia dei Lanza, including a copy of Michelangelo's David (at the entrance) and Benvenuto Cellini's famed Perseus.
You first step into the charming courtyard, designed by the famed architect Michelozzo in 1453. The courtyard has intricately carved and gilded columns, beautiful grotesque style ceiling frescos, and sculptures. In the center, an iron putti tops a fountain by artist Battista del Tadda. The putti and his dolphin are a copy of the original by Andrea del Verrocchio, which was moved inside the palace.
On the first floor of Palazzo Vecchio, you can visit the Hall of the Five Hundred, awash with frescos by Giorgio Vasari -- famed Florentine artist, architect and the world’s first art historian. In particular, he painted massive frescos depicting the The Battle of Marciano, in which Florence triumphed over rivals Pisa and Siena. Vasari also painted the 39 gilded ceiling panels, telling the life story of Cosimo I.
On the second floor are the sumptuously decorated private rooms of the Medici. The five rooms and two loggias of the Apartment of the Elements were the private rooms of Cosimo I. Their allegorical frescos were recently restored, and glow with themes from ancient mythology and astrology.
In the Hall of Lilies, you can admire Donatello's groundbreaking Judith and Holofernes sculpture The Hall of Lilies is a stunning example of early Renaissance interior decoration. It's spectacularly decorated with gilded coffered ceilings with gold on blue fleur de lis, the symbol of Florence.
The Palazzo Vecchio was famously the scene of one of Renaissance Florence's most brutal tales. In 1478, the Pazzi family tried, but failed, to oust the ruling Medici family in a coup. They plotted to kill both Lorenzo the Magnificent (Cosimo's grandson) and his brother Giuliano.
Lorenzo escaped and exacted a brutal revenge. In just a few hours, the killers and conspirators (including the pope's nephew) were captured. They were hung from the second floor ramparts of the Palazzo Vecchio. Incensed by the brutal violence, the pope excommunicated Lorenzo.
Palazzo Vecchio is also linked to another key moment in Florence's history, the rise of the fiery Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. In passionate sermons, Savonarola denounced the excesses of clerical and despotic power. He told Florentines the apocalypse was coming and to save themselves through piety and self censorship.
The doomsday preacher eventually ousted the Medici and established a theocracy in Florence. But Savonarola went too far. In the 1497 "Bonfire of the Vanities," he destroyed works of art and other "vanities" in the Piazza della Signoria. But the pleasure loving citizens of Florence had enough and didn't want their cultural legacy destroyed.
In 1498, Savonarola was defrocked and imprisoned in the Palazzo Vecchio for heresy. After being tried and convicted, he was executed in the Piazza della Signoria. A circular plaque near the Palazzo Vecchio's entrance marks the spot of Savonarola's execution.
If you're up for a climb of 400 steps, the Tower of Arnolfo offers 360 views of Florence. You enter via the Museum of Palazzo Vecchio, with a combined ticket for Palazzo Vecchio or for an additional small fee.
Address: Piazza della Signoria
Hours: Friday to Wednesday 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, Thursday 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, From April to September, Mon/Tue/Wed/Fri/Sat/Sun 9:00 am to 11:00 pm.
Entry fee: You can get combination tickets for the museum and the tower. Check prices here. The tower is steep and cramped, so you need to be fit to venture up.
3. Palazzo Pitti
The magnificent Palazzo Pitti is located across the Arno River, in the off the beaten path Oltrarno district that's now Florence's trendiest neighborhood. The palace is one of Florence's most stunning architecture gems. Built in 1457, it was designed by Brunelleschi and built for the Florentine banker Luca Pitti, a Medici rival.
When Cosimo the Elder built the Medici Palace, Pitti decided to trump his nemesis. In 1458, he began building a grand palace across the River Arno. But the project bankrupted Pitti and he died before it was completed. The Pitti Palace was the model for the Residenz palace in Munich Germany.
By the middle of the 16th century, the Medici had become European royalty. Cosimo I's wife, Eleanor of Toledo, wasn't terribly impressed with her digs at the Palazzo Vecchio. She wanted a grander place to raise her royal family.
In 1459, she purchased the Pitti Palace rom the bankrupt Pittis. Eleanora embarked on a grand expansion. Architect Bartolemeo Ammannati added the fancy courtyard and lateral wings, tripling the size of the palace to 140 rooms and adding 8 art galleries. Each room is named for the theme of its paintings. The Pitti Palace became the new symbol of Medici power.
Today, the Palazzo Pitti houses the following museums and permanent exhibitions:
Galleria Palatina, the Medici’s painting collection with works by Titian, Giorgione, Raffael, and Rubens
Galleria d’Arte Moderna, with works from Classicism to Italian Futurism
Costume Gallery, the costume and fashion gallery
Museo delle Porcellane, the porcelain museum
Museo degli Argenti, the treasury of the grand dukes
Appartamenti Reali, the royal apartments
Museo delle Carrozze, the carriage museum
The most important museum is certainly the Palatine Gallery. It occupies the left wing of the first floor. The gallery houses an impressive collection of over 500 in situ paintings, chock a block on top of each other amid lavish stucco and silk furnishings. In the five Planet Rooms, there are beautiful ceiling frescos by Pietro da Cortona.
The collections include works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, and other European and Italian painters. Be sure to check out Botticelli's and Lippi's Madonna and Child in the Prometheus Room. Two versions of Andrea del Sarto's massive Assumption of the Virgin are in the Iliad Room. And one of my favorite artists, Artemisia Gentileschi, has another version of Judith and Holofernes in the Saturn Room.
The Royal Apartments showcase styles from three different eras of ownership. You'll find 14 rooms with Baroque frescoed ceilings, gilded inlaid work, Rococo stucco, and red damask decorations. Definitely not to my taste, too over the top ostentatious. But amid the cacophony, there's a beautiful Caravaggio painting, Knight of Malta.
The historic Boboli Gardens is the backyard playground of the Pitti Palace. Designed for Eleanora, the gardens are the largest green space in Florence, sprawling over 11 acres. The gardens are effectively an open air museum, with hundreds of nooks to explore. They opened to the public in 1776.
The gardens are laid out in the Italian style, with beautifully worn Renaissance statues and fountains. The Rococo Kaffeehaus is on the eastern edge of the gardens, and its terrace is the perfect viewing point. Its German name odd for a pavilion in an Italian garden. But it was commissioned by the palace's then-owner, Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Habsburg-Lorraine, who later became Emperor Leopold II of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The famous Fountain dell'Oceano and the Bathing Venus were sculpted by the underrated artist Giambologna, whose statues grace the Bargello Museum and the Piazza della Signoria. After Michelangelo, Giambologna was the next best sculptor of the time.
The Grotto Grande, also known as the Buontalenti Grotto's, is a fascinating place. In 16th century Tuscany, it was the fashion to build decorative grottos reconstructing natural caves. The grotto once had a fresco by Michelangelo (now in the Accademia) and has copies of his four slaves.
An interesting sculpture is the modern Cracked Face Statue, Tindaro Screpollato, by Igor Mitoraj. The bronze face is huge, with green streaks running through the cracks that look like tears. The crumbling visage symbolizes both human fragility and strength.
In Renaissance times, the Boboli Gardens was the sole province of the Medici. Now, other citizens are granted access. You can enjoy the pristine greenery and have a great view of the Duomo.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Pitti Palace
Address: Piazza de' Pitti
Hours: The Pitti Palace is open from 8:15 am to 6:50 pm. Boboli Gardens are open everyday at 8:15 am and shut down according to season. Tickets are cheaper in the winter, naturally.
Entry fee: 10 euros. You can buy a combined ticket to the Uffizi Gallery, Pitti Palace, and Boboli Gardens, which is valid for 5 days, here.
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