Guide To the Treasures of the Pitti Palace in Florence Italy
Here's my guide to visiting the Pitti Palace in Florence Italy, with an overview of 20 must see masterpieces and famous paintings. If you’re planning a trip to Florence, put the Pitti Palace on your Florence itinerary or to do list.
You'll thank me, I promise. The Pitti Palace one of Florence's must see sites, a wonderful experience. It has the world's best Raphael collection.
To visit the Pitti Palace is to immerse yourself in beauty and history. The palace is an incredibly unique combination of splendor, in situ art collections, and beautiful gardens. It's one of the best and most popular attractions in Florence.
History of the Pitti Palace
The magnificent Palazzo Pitti was the regal home of the Medici family. It’s located across the Arno River, in the off the beaten path Oltrarno district that's now Florence's trendiest neighborhood.
The palace is the largest palace in Florence and one of Florence's most stunning architectural gems. It was built in 1457 for the Florentine banker Luca Pitti, a Medici peer and rival.
When Cosimo the Elder built the Medici-Riccardi Palace, a prideful Pitti decided to trump his Medici nemesis. In 1458, he hired an unknown architect and began building a grand palace across the River Arno.
The design is often attributed to the famed architect Filippo Brunelleschi. But he died before construction project began. The Pitti Palace was later the model for the Residenz palace in Munich Germany.
But the project bankrupted Pitti. He died before it was completed.
By the middle of the 16th century, the Medici family had become European royalty. Cosimo I was married to Eleanor of Toledo, a Hapsburg princess and the first duchess of Florence. She wasn't terribly impressed with her digs at the Palazzo Vecchio. She wanted a grander place to raise her growing royal family.
In 1459, she purchased the Pitti Palace from the bankrupt Pittis for 9,000 gold florins. In modern dollar value, which is difficult to estimate, the cost was approximately 17.5 to 18 million dollars. Eleanora embarked on a grand expansion.
Architect Bartolemeo Ammannati added the fancy Mannerist courtyard and lateral wings, tripling the size of the palace to 140 rooms and adding 8 art galleries. The courtyard is so vast that Florence's Strozzi Palace could fit inside.
The Pitti Palace became the new symbol of Medici power. The palace remained the principal Medici residence until the last male Medici heir died in 1737.
The palace then passed to the new Grand Dukes of Tuscany, the Austrian House of Lorraine. Their tenancy was interrupted when Napoleon used it as a power base.
When Tuscany passed from the control of the House of Lorraine to the House of Savoy in 1860, the Palazzo Pitti was included. When Florence was briefly the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II resided in the Palazzo until 1871.
Museums of the Pitti Palace
Today, the Palazzo Pitti houses important world famous masterpieces. Unlike it's sister museum the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the Medici's state collection, the Pitti Palace houses the family's personal collection. Both collections were left to Italy after the death of the last Medici.
The in situ collection is arranged as part of the over-the-top decoration of the magnificent rooms. Paintings are displayed in rich frames that cover the walls beneath gilded and frescoed ceilings. The collection includes Spanish and Flemish works, Medieval works, Italian Renaissance pieces, and Baroque works.
The Baroque galleries look almost exactly the same as when they were built. You can experience the works just as contemporary audiences did in a salon style.
This type of in situ arrangement is unique in museums, and in stark contrast to the Uffizi. The only other truly comparable galleries in Italy are the Borghese Gallery and the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome.
Today, the Pitti Palace is divided into four museums: the Treasury of the Grand Dukes on the ground floor, the Palatine Gallery and the Imperial and Royal Apartments on the first floor, and the Gallery of Modern Art and the Museum of Costume and Fashion on the second floor. You could even include the Boboli Gardens as a fifth museum.
Overview of the Palatine Gallery
By far, the most important museum is the fabulous Palatine Gallery, which displays four centuries of Medici and Tuscan lifestyle. It occupies the left wing of the first floor.
The gallery houses an impressive and priceless collection of over 500 paintings, chock a block on top of each other amid lavish stucco, gilt, and silk furnishings. Nothing is in chronological order. It's arranged according to the Medici's personal whims.
The Palatine Gallery boasts some of the world’s most famous paintings. It has works by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, Pietro da Cortona, and Caravaggio. In fact, the Palatine has more Raphael pieces than any other museum in the world. Raphael was one of the greatest painters of the High Renaissance.
What To See At the Pitti Palace
Enter the palace through the Gate of Bacchus to begin your tour. Here are 20 of the must see highlights and masterpieces you can't miss.
1. Pietro da Cortona Ceiling Frescos
In 1641, Cosimo I commissioned Baroque muralist Pietro da Cortona to decorate five formal reception halls with planetary themes on the first floor of the palace. They are the Saturn Room, the Hall of Venus, the Apollo Room, the Jupiter Room, and the Mars Room.
Cortona was the undisputed protagonist and innovator of a new decorative Baroque style.
The frescos contain likenesses of the Medici family and mythological figures.
The decorative theme was proposed by the grand duke’s librarian. It was part of an iconographic plan aimed at glorifying the duke through the presence of the gods of Olympus -- Venus, Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
2. Caravaggio, Sleeping Cupid, 1608
Caravaggio's paintings are among the most stunning works in the history of Western painting. Caravaggio was a revolutionary, a sledgehammer to the history of art. He almost single handedly pioneered the Italian Baroque style.
Caravaggio's story is one of talent and turbulence. He acted like a devil, but painted like an angel. Caravaggio rejected the sanitized idealism that characterized much of the Renaissance era. He refused to adhere to traditional views of what constituted art.
Thus, it's not surprising that this Baroque painting stands out from the other Renaissance works in the Pitti Palace. It's a showstopper.
In Sleeping Cupid, Caravaggio takes a popular mythological subject and renders it a gloomy and non-classical way. The light and shade sharply contrast in a violent way, departing from the harmony of Renaissance norms with a hyper-realism.
Cupid appears as a rather chubby (and possibly sickly) urchin sleeping on the streets, using his wings as a head rest. His mouth is open and limbs twisted. Cupid's hand holds a broken arrow.
Caravaggio makes Cupid deliberately ungraceful, jaundiced even. There is no serenity in Caravaggio's depiction. A stark realism replaces idealism. Yet his face is still rendered tenderly.
3. Botticelli, Bella Simonetta, 1485
In this famous Botticelli portrait, a young married woman stands in the corner of a room near a rectangular window or door frame. Her gaze is directed beyond the picture frame.
Her close fitting gown is a simple design, with virtually no decoration other than a slashed shoulder and laced opening. She has carefully coiffed hard concealed beneath a bonnet. This was typical "indoor" dress or the nobility.
The woman has a serious, almost dreamy, countenance. It's only tempered by the strand of loose hair, which also emphasizes her delicate features. Some art historians speculate that the humble portrait depicts Clair Orsini, the wife of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Others think it depicts Botticelli's muse Simonetta Vespucci.
4. Titian, Mary Magdalene, 1533-35
This is a famous painting, by Venetian artist Titian, of a penitent Mary Magdalene. It's easy to miss, if you're not careful. When you go through the door of the Apollo Room, you have to look back to see it.
Titian was to Venice what Michelangelo was to Florence -- a hugely important and defining artist. More than other Renaissance artist, the Venetians celebrated the sensual in art and often used courtesans as models.
Mary is a woman with a dissolute past who asks Jesus for forgiveness. Titian portrays Mary with long, almost sensuous, copper brown hair. She tries to cover her breasts with it. She is naked as a symbolic gesture, to erase her past.
Because of the subject's popularity, Titian painted six more versions of the motif. The Palatine Gallery's version is one of Titian’s oldest prototypes, and of astounding quality. It was likely painted for Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, in Venice between 1533-35.
The oldest mention of the painting dates back to Giorgio Vasari, who on seeing it in the collection of Duke Guidubaldo della Rovere, during a visit to the court of Urbino in 1548, described it as a “rare thing." It was brought to Florence as part of the inheritance of Vittoria della Rovere in 1631.
5. Raphael, Woman With a Veil, 1516
What makes this Raphael painting so famous? For starters, it shows Raphael at the peak of his power. The white and gold painting is beautiful, refined, and exudes a physical warmth and sensuous vitality. Covered by a sumptuous piece of cloth, the subject has a mysterious look. Even her clothing seems alive.
The painting also has a torrid backstory. While Raphael was painting frescos at the Villa Farnesina, he began an affair with the subject of the painting -- the baker's daughter, Margherita Luti, called La Fornarina.
Raphael's infatuation with La Fornarina consumed him. He began to skip work to see her. Raphael's patron, Agostino Chigi, grew frustrated. He even had La Fornarina kidnapped to prevent Raphael from seeing her.
But that stratagem didn't succeed. A lovestruck Raphael grew depressed and still didn't work. This all stalled Chigi's grand project. Finally, Chigi gave up and had Luti move in to keep a bewitched Raphael content.
In 1520, Raphael died abruptly at just 37. The diagnosis? According to Vasari, Raphael died from "too much sex," which caused him to spike a fever. His bedmate on his last happy night? Most likely, La Fornarina.
Unlike much of Raphael's other work, this is an intimate portrait. Luti's right hand rests over her heart and her left hand between her legs. It's a Venus-like posture reminiscent of The Capitoline Venus in Rome's Capitoline Museums, equating La Fornarina with the goddess of love.
6. Raphael, Madonna of the Chair, 1513-14
This is Raphael's most famous madonna. It's a vivid image executed at the height of his powers, when Raphael was known as the "Prince of Painting."
It's a celebration of motherhood, a intimate scene between mother and son, with a reverent St. John the Baptist watching. The curves of the panel are repeated in the arrangement of the figures, rounded almost like sculptures.
Characteristic of Raphael, the color is clear and brilliant. There are no extraneous details. Mary is dressed like a peasant, not a madonna. Christ has an abundant fleshiness, his arm gently tucked into his mother's shawl.
7. Raphael, Madonna dell'Impanata, 1513
This is a simply beautiful Raphael painting on linen. It's in his mature style, with a magnificent use of color and light to portray real life.
The composition includes a madonna, child, and saints. A rather erotic St. John the Baptist is on the bottom right with his left foot propped up. Sitting on a fancy fur, he looks a bit too old to be naked.
Even as a child, Christ is shown in a contrapposto position.
8. Raphael, Portrait of Leo X, 1513
Leo X is one of Raphael's most important Renaissance portraits. After a clumsy 19th century restoration, experts confirmed "without a doubt" that the two cardinals were, in fact, painted by Raphael.
The Pitti Palace received the painting in a "trade" with the Uffizi Gallery in exchange for the acclaimed Raphael double portrait of Agonoli Doni and Maddalena Strozzi, which is now on display in the Raphael and Michelangelo Room of the Uffizi.
The portrait is a symphony of reds. There is no chaos in the painting. But it depicts two of the worst popes in history. Pope Leo X once claimed, "Since God have given us the papacy, let us enjoy it." Leo's policies would later lead to the Protestant Reformation.
The figures are depicted as dignified men. The painting is dominated by Leo X, in an unflattering portrait. He's in sumptuous dress, an indicator of his penchant for excess. It's possible the painting was sent from Florence to Rome, in honor of the wedding of Leo X's nephew.
9. Raphael, Madonna del Granduca, 1506-07
This is an early, but very moving, painting by Raphael. We don't know who commissioned the piece. The work was painted during a Raphael stint in Florence. It appears to be influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, using a sfumato (blurring of colors) technique.
In it, Raphael demonstrates all his skills in depicting holy subjects. In spite of its simplicity, there's a sentimentality and delicate beautify to the piece. The Christ child looks out at us poignantly. Both mother and child wear simple halos.
Mary has a melancholy visage, perhaps reminiscent of Botticelli most famous paintings. Yet, her gaze is directed outward, perhaps inviting you to view her cherubic baby and his sweet face.
The dark background isn't original. The original background is shown on Raphael's preparatory drawing in the Uffizi.
10. Artemisia Gentilechi, Judith With her Handmaiden, 1615
Gentileschi was one of the most talented painters of the Baroque period, rivaling Caravaggio himself. She was a savvy and self-assured business woman in a patriarchal society. Artemisia empowered herself, forged a career, supported her family, and was a Baroque genius in her own right.
Her most famous painting is Judith Beheading Holofernes, housed in the Uffizi Gallery. it depicts a classic biblical scene. It's the Old Testament story of Judith and Holofernes, in which a heroic woman beheads the warlord who’s besieged her town in Israel.
In the Pitti's painting, Judith With her Handmaiden, Gentileschi returns to the theme. She depicts the moments after the shocking beheading. Judith has sword in hand. Her handmaiden carries Holoferne's head in a basket.
The women work together in quiet communion. Judith looks warrior-like, her features spotlit. They appear to have heard something, or perhaps are taking a last look at the dead body.
The painting showcases Artemisia's absolute mastery of rich color and light, trademarks of the Baroque. The use of chiaroscuro heightens the drama of the scene.
11. Rubens, The Four Philsophers, 1770-82
Rubens was a 17th century Flemish painter. He's renowned for his exuberant Baroque style. He painted it all -- curvaceous nudes, religious scenes, landscapes, portraits, and allegories.
This painting is a famous group portrait of Rubens (depicted on the far left), his brother Philip, and the philosophers Justus Lipsius and Jan Wowerius. A bust of the philosopher Seneca looms above the group, giving rise to the title Four Philosophers. The men are having a discussion about Seneca, but their books are oddly blank.
Rubens had just lost his brother to an early death and the painting was a sort of memorial. The stilted portrait of Lipsius, in the fur wrap, is also posthumous.
Next to the bust is a vase of tulips. Two are open and two are closed, representing the lives and deaths of the four men. Lipsius and Phillip stare into the distance, a common Dutch mechanism for indicating death.
12. Rubens, Allegory of War, 1639
This enormous Rubens painting, also known as The Consequences of War, has a lot going on. The painting was given to a Medici grand duke. It came with a letter ink which Rubens explained the complicated allegory.
Rubens was a pacifist in a world of war mongers and martial enthusiasts. The painting is about the terrible consequences of war.
The central figure is Mars, who is on the march holding a shield and blood stained sword. He's being restrained by Venus, love trying to prevent violence. At his feet are all the good things that are being ruined. The grief-stricken woman in black, with a torn veil, represents Europe, who has suffered during constant conflict.
War is pulled by a fury. Pestilence and Famine appear as the inseparable partners of war. The overall point is that War destroys everything of value -- the arts and letters, fecundity, morality, charity, and even architecture.
13. Andrea del Sarto, Disputation on the Holy Trinity, 1518
This Andrea del Sarto altarpiece is a classic High Renaissance painting. Del Sarto was known as the "Perfect Painter." Art historian Vasari thought del Sarto had an abundance of talent, but was an underachiever.
The painting shows four saints having a heated discussion. You can tell this by the figures' gestures and movement.
Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Sebastian sit at their feet listening. Perhaps they've seen the figure of the crucified Christ at the top of the painting. The message is that the Trinity endures no matter how its worshippers disagree.
14. Caravaggio, Portrait of a Knight of Malta, 1608
A complicated and eccentric personality, Caravaggio's life was as dangerous and dramatic as his art. In 1606, Pope Paul IV exiled Caravaggio from Rome for murder charges. He also put a bounty on Caravaggio's head, granting anyone permission to kill him. At the height of his career, Caravaggio was forced to live as a fugitive.
In 1607, Caravaggio fled to Malta to attempt to join the holy and chivalric order of the Knights of St. John. They were an armed religious order and a possible road to redemption for troubled nobles in need of a pardon.
To impress the Maltese locals, Caravaggio created painting for the knights. For his efforts, Caravaggio was proclaimed the world's greatest painter, living or dead. And he was invested as a knight.
In this painting, Caravaggio portrays Antonio Martelli of Florence, a member of the order. He's wearing a shiny black and white shirt, set against a dramatic dark background. He rests his hand on his sheathed sword, while holding a rosary in the other hand -- drawing a connection between piety and violence.
15. Fra Filippo Lippi, Bartolini Tondo, 1452
This beautiful tondo (round) painting, also known as Mother and Child, belongs to the Early Renaissance. It was executed by the lascivious and scandalous monk, Fra Filippo Lippi. Lippi was a Carmelite monk with a clinical sex addiction. His biggest scandal was the seduction of a nun, who he then used as a model for his madonnas.
The Bartolini Tondo was the first known tondo in art history, created to commemorate the birth of the first child of merchant Roberto Bartonlini. Tondos are usually commissioned for domestic setting, not churches.
The Madonna isn't enthroned in majesty as in earlier Gothic paintings. The painting is much more natural and the Madonna is quite beautiful. Even the background scenes seem more from everyday life than the Virgin Mary's life.
The image is similar to, but not as beautiful, as Lippi's Madonna in the Uffizi Gallery. The model (his lover) appears to be the same. The artist's joy in the smallest detail is shown in every inch of the painting. Baby Jesus holds a pomegranate, a symbol of Christ's passion.
On the right side, you see the Meeting at the Golden Gate, were Mary's parents meet after learning they will have a child. On the left is the birth of the virgin. You can see an affinity between Lippi and Botticelli. Botticelli was in Lippi's studio.
16. Giorgione, The Three Ages of Man, 1500-01
There aren't many works definitely attributed to the Venetian Renaissance painter Giorgione. But this is one of them. The meaning of the painting is ambiguous. It could have both a moral and religious interpretation.
The painting is generally considered an allegory of the three stages of life - youth, maturity, and old age. Some scholars consider it to be simply a music lesson. Still others believe it is a scene from the Gospel of St. Matthew, where Jesus meets with St. Peter and a wealthy young man looking for the path to eternal salvation.
The man on the right has the typical visage of Jesus, is pointing a finger (another giveaway to his identity), and wears green. The elderly man, who may be St. Peter, is portrayed as St. Peter often is -- bald and with a short beard. The young man's clothing reveals he is wealthy.
In any event, the famous panel in the Jupiter Room shows Giorgione's poetic vision. The boy in the center and the man on the right are portrayed as the ideal of male beauty. A golden light plays off their faces, giving the painting a softness. The older man looks out at us, and thus involves the viewer in the picture's theme.
17. Antonio Canova, Venus Italica, 1810
This beautiful marble sculpture is by Neo-Classical artist Antonio Canova. Commissioned by a Florentine noble, it's a replica of a 1st century Roman statue of Aphrodite. The statue was intended to replace the Medici Venus statue, which Napoleon had seized and placed in the Louvre (and was subsequently returned).
Canova didn't make an exact copy of the goddess emerging from her bath. He made the luminous figure slightly more human and relatable. Venus is shown as a beautiful woman, not a beautiful goddess.
The work was hugely popular. Several other copies were made.
18. Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Goldsmith, 1500
Ghirlandaio was a pivotal Florentine artist of the early Renaissance. This Ghirlandaio painting hangs in the Saturn Room. The Medici loved to collect portraits for their personal collection and this piece is one of the best.
This portrait isn't an official portrait. It was once though to be the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. It shows characteristics of his style. The subject is half length with a three quarter view with a distance landscape. The man is precisely drawn. But the landscape is light and misty.
19. Gallery of Statues
The Gallery of Statues is home to an impressive collection of sculpture and statuary. Some pieces date back to Greco-Roman times.
You will find several sculptures by Baccio Bandinelli, a noted sculptor in his time. His Bacchus is particularly impressive. His sculptures also grace Florence's most famous square, the Piazza della Signoria, and are among the masterpieces of the Bargello Museum.
20. Modern Art Gallery
The Gallery of Modern Art is located on the second floor of the Pitti Palace. The gallery was intended to hold prize-winning art works from the academy competitions. The works of art were collected to adorn the newly-decorated salons.
The rooms were once inhabited by the Habsburg-Lorraine family. The collection of paintings and sculptures ranges from the end of the 18th century to the first decades of the 20th century.
The sumptuous rooms host Neo-Classical and Romantic artworks and numerous important paintings by the Macchiaioli school. There are a considerable number of historical paintings in the gallery, including landscapes by Giovanni Fattori, leading artist of the Macchiaioli movement.
The collection also includes works of the Symbolist and Divisionist movements.
21. Bonus: Boboli Gardens: the Backyard of the Pitti Palace
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 seems 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, 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.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Pitti Palace in Florence
Address: Piazza de' Pitti
Hours: The Pitti Palace is open from 8:15 am to 6:50 pm. The Boboli Gardens are open everyday at 8:15 am and shut down according to season.
Entry fee: 16 euros and 8 euros for an audio guide. You can buy a combined ticket to the Uffizi Gallery, Pitti Palace, and Boboli Gardens, which is valid for 5 days, here.
Pro Tips: It takes more than a day to really explore the Pitti Palace thoroughly. The combo ticket gives you 72 hours to visit, so you could make multiple visits. The palace is known for closing some of the small lesser museums without notice. So if you are keen to visit them, check to make sure they're open on the palace website.
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