No city is perfect, but let’s face it, Florence gets pretty darned close. The capital of the Tuscan region owns its reputation as the birthplace of the Renaissance. It is mainly due to the powerful Medici family. Nowadays, the Medici palaces are a surviving symbol of this famous family. They top many visitors’ bucket lists because they have magnificent architecture and priceless artworks. In fact, the three Medici palaces are also among the top attractions in the city. Follow the footsteps of the Medici family, and visit the famous buildings and monuments in the city.
No matter where in the city you find yourself, you will never be far from Medici palaces and other Medici landmarks.
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But first – who were the Medici, and why are they famous?
The Medici family were a wealthy banking dynasty that ruled Florence for three centuries. They were the Godfathers of the Renaissance because they turned Florence into one of the world’s greatest artistic capitals. This noble family played a role in the creation of gelato. Some family members also became popes.
3 Must-visit Medici Palaces in Florence
Here are the most famous historic buildings, squares and Medici Palaces in Florence that you cannot miss.
The Medici family lived in some of the most prestigious buildings in the city. Many people know about the Palazzo Vecchio and the Pitti Palace. However, only a few know about the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
1. Palazzo Medici Riccardi
You probably do not know it, but the Palazzo Medici Riccardi was the first of the Medici palaces in Florence. Yes, that is right, this was the first Medici residence, commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici (or Cosimo the Elder) in 1444. Today the Palazzo Medici is one of the best palaces in Florence because it is an excellent example of Renaissance civil architecture. What’s more, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi is the first Renaissance-style family palace (based on its interior).
About the Palazzo Medici Riccardi
Many years ago, the Palazzo Medici was much smaller than the one we can see today. It was because Cosimo did not want to attract too much attention. He decided on the simple and less noticeable exterior design. However, this simple design still showed wealth through the building material choices. The Palazzo Medici was larger than other palaces in the city. In fact, it was the first building in Florence, with its own separate rooms and apartments.
The Palazzo Medici was different for its time: it was a family home, had a public role and welcomed reputable political figures.
The Medici family occupied this residence until the 17th century when they became Dukes. Later they moved to other, much bigger palaces. They sold the home to marquis Gabriello Riccardi who extended and renovated the building.
Today the Palazzo Medici Riccardi is one of the least visited Medici palaces in Florence. However, it is well worth a visit because it is home to a museum. It houses masterpieces dating from the 2nd to the 18th century.
Cosimo the Elder and also his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (the most famous figures of the Renaissance) lived in this palace. Even Michelangelo came to live here when he was only a 14 year old artist. He lived here and worked in the gardens under the sponsorship of Lorenzo de Medici, who saw a talent in him.
The Palazzo Medici Riccardi was once the home of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who is world-famous as the Lord of Florence.
Did you know that Catherine the Medici, who later became Queen of France by marriage to King Henry II, also lived here as a young girl? Even Hitler and Benito Mussolini once had dinner together in the gallery hall.
What are the highlights of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi?
The Palazzo Medici Riccardi is famous for its Magi Chapel – the Medici family’s private chapel. Benozzo Gozzoli decorated its walls with frescoes. The other highlights of the palace are the internal courtyard, Medici garden and the Hall of Mirrors with gold walls built by the Riccardi family.
The Magi Chapel in the Medici Riccardi Palace
As you already know, the Magi Chapel served the family for their private religious functions. What you do not know is, that private chapels were a rarity in the 15th century. At that time, they required special papal approval. Fortunately for the Medici, the pope was their main banking client, and they got their permission.
The Magi Chapel is a hidden gem of the Medici palaces in Florence. This chapel is famous for two paintings – the Adoration of the Magi and also the Procession of the Magi. In these paintings, you can find the members of the Medici family.
Gozzoli glorified the Medici family and showed their wealth and greatness. Do not miss a portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent at the age of 10 on a white horse. Also, there is a portrait of Lorenzo’s brother (Giuliano), who died during the Pazzi Conspiracy. Moreover, there is Cosimo the Elder riding donkey (it is a reference to Jesus himself).
A portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent at the age of 10 on a white horse.
The Hall of the Mirrors in the Medici Riccardi Palace
Also, do not miss the Hall of the Mirrors – it is a masterpiece of Florentine Baroque art. This large hall with gold walls has beautiful paintings of the Apotheosis of the Medici by Luca Giordano. The Riccardi family added this room in the 17th century.
Afterwards, do not forget to visit the Museum of Marbles, which you can find in the basement. The Ancient Marbles Museum contains artworks collected by the Riccardi family.
2. Palazzo Vecchio
You cannot take a trip to Florence without visiting the Palazzo Vecchio. This beautiful building is one of the most iconic landmarks in the city. Moreover, the Palazzo Vecchio is one of the most visited Medici palaces in Florence. You can find it in the Piazza della Signoria, which was, for many years, the centre of Florentine life and politics.
Today we all know this impressive building as the Palazzo Vecchio, or “Old Palace” in English. But the original name of this building was the Priori Palace. Later, in the 15th century, it became Palazzo della Signoria. The palace got its name ”the Palazzo Vecchio” only when the court of Cosimo I moved to the Pitti Palace.
When Cosimo I de’ Medici became Gran Duke, he moved his official seat from the Palazzo Medici Riccardi to the Palazzo della Signoria. Cosimo transformed this once-medieval building into a ducal palace. He extended the building and redecorated it in Renaissance style with frescoes. Giorgio Vasari was his court architect.
The Palazzo Vecchio became home of the Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife Eleonora in the 16th century. Until then, this palace had been the seat of the Florentine Republic.
The Palazzo Vecchio is the most famous of all the Medici Palaces in Florence. It’s because this historic building was the seat of the Florentine Republic in the 14th century. It was also the government centre of the Medici grand dukes of Tuscany.
Palazzo Vecchio’s courtyard
The first place you will see is the first courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio, designed by Michelozzo in the 15th century. This gorgeous courtyard with columns with plant motifs has a fountain in the centre. Cosimo I de’ Medici asked Vasari to cover the patio with the artwork. He decorated the walls with paintings for Cosimo’s eldest son’s wedding celebrations. Pay attention to pictures of the cities of the Austrian Empire. Find an inscription in Latin, painted to welcome the future bride from Austria.
Paintings of the courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio
Hall of the Five Hundred
The Salone dei Cinquecento, or the Hall of the Five Hundred in English, is one of the highlights of the Palazzo Vecchio. This massive hallway was once the largest room in the world. Today the Hall of the Five Hundred is, in fact, the largest room in Italy made for a civil power palace.
The Hall of Five Hundred is 54 metres (170 ft) long, 23 metres (75 ft) wide and 18 metres high.
Why is the Hall of the Five Hundred called the Hall of 500?
The Hall of 500 was a meeting hall where the Grand Council of Florence met. The hallway gets its name from five hundred members who attended meetings and made government decisions. Savonarola commissioned it when he forced the Medici out and tried to establish a more democratic government for Florence.
This way, it was more difficult for one person to take control of the city. The New Florentine republic lasted only a short time. After the Medici’s return, the two great Renaissance artists, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were commissioned to paint the walls. Both murals were never finished. Pope Julius II called Michelangelo to Rome to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Leonardo abandoned his project. Afterwards, Giorgio Vasari redecorated the room with paintings celebrating the victories of the city of Florence and Cosimo de’ Medici.
Hall of the Five Hundred. Large paintings show the victories of the new Duke and Florence. Vasari also painted 39 ceiling panels telling the life story of Cosimo I.
Studiolo of Francesco
Also, do not miss the Studiolo of Francesco with 34 paintings, which you can find at the end of the hallway. This small side room without windows was once a study designed by Vasari. This secret room was also an office, a laboratory and a hiding place for Francesco I de’ Medici. Francesco, a son of Cosimo de’ Medici, spied from here on his ministers and officers during the meetings in the nearby Hall of Five Hundred.
The Hall of Geographic Maps
Duke Cosimo I de Medici was interested in geography and asked Vasari to design the room with the maps. The Hall of Geographic Maps has fifty painted panels with maps of the world known in the 16th century. It also has a massive globe and other valuable objects.
Did you know that the Palazzo Vecchio has many secret rooms and entrances? Find a map of Armenia – behind this map is a secret door that leads to a private studio. It served for the torturing of enemies and bringing lovers for some intimacy.
The Apartments of Pope Leo X
Other highlights include the private apartments of the Medici on the second floor, including the Apartments of Pope Leo X. The rooms are perfect examples of early Renaissance architecture. The Apartments of the Elements were once the private rooms of Cosimo I de’ Medici. The Hall of Lilies with Donatello’s sculpture is worth seeing. The Tower of Arnolfo contains two small cells where Cosimo de’ Medici was imprisoned at some point.
Birth of Venus in the Room of the Elements
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3. Pitti Palace
The Palazzo Medici Riccardi and the Palazzo Vecchio are not the only Medici Palaces you can visit in Florence. Just a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio is the Pitti Palace. This grand building with a large land was also one of the Medici residences.
Cosimo I de’ Medici bought this palace from the rival Pitti family in 1549. You maybe do not know it, but an ambitious banker Pitti tried to outdo Cosimo through his display of wealth. Instead, the project bankrupted Luca Pitti and the Medici bought this residence from him. The Pitti Palace remained the main residence of the ruling family until the last male heir died in 1737.
Cosimo I de’ Medici did not use the Palazzo Vecchio as his residence for long. He bought the Pitti Palace in 1549. This impressive building became the home of the Medici and later of the king of Italy.
It is easy to see why this noble family chose the Pitti Palace for their new residence. A large building with a large land behind it perfectly represented the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The Medici family doubled the palace size and redecorated their new residence under the guidance of Vasari. Vasari also built the Vasari Corridor.
If you visit only one palace in Florence – make sure it is this one.
What is the Pitti Palace famous for?
The Pitti Palace is the most famous of all Medici palaces in Florence because this building is a perfect example of Renaissance architecture. Moreover, it is the largest museum complex in Florence. It has impressive galleries and museums that house valuable collections of paintings and sculptures of the Medici family.
The Pitti Palace has lavishly decorated rooms in the fashions of different eras. The impressive collection of paintings of Italian and European masters completely covers the walls. The Palazzo Pitti also houses several important museums with the Medici’s collections.
Tourists flock here to see richly decorated rooms with countless treasures from the Medici collection. This treasure house has a remarkable collection of paintings from artists such as Raphael and Titian.
The Pitti Palace is home to the following museums and collections:
- Palatine Gallery with the Medici’s collections of countless masterpieces. The gallery consists of 11 salons – the first 5 painted with ceiling paintings glorifying the Medici. Do not miss Botticelli’s and Lippi’s Madonna and Child in the Prometheus Room and Rubens’s Consequences of wars in the Mars Room. Other highlights are Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair in the Saturn Room and also The Veiled Lady. Also, find Titian’s Mary Magdalene and Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid.
- Modern Art Gallery with a collection of Italian paintings from the 18th to early 20th century. The highlights are the paintings of the Macchiaioli (spot makers, a group of Tuscan artists who had a style very similar to the French Impressionists)
- Costume Gallery: the costume and fashion gallery with six thousand costumes and accessories from the 16th to the 20th century
- Royal apartments: 14 rooms which were once home to the Medici and later the king of Italy
- Silverware Museum with a large collection of artefacts, ceramics and jewellery from the Medici family
- Porcelain Museum with a small collection of European ceramics (in the Boboli Gardens)
- Carriage Museum
Expect to spend here a few hours if you want to explore all 140 rooms and 8 art galleries.
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Other Medici Landmarks in Florence
4. Boboli Gardens
The Boboli Gardens behind one of the most famous Medici palaces in Florence
Many visitors turn back once they visit the Pitti Palace, but that would be a mistake. Directly behind the Pitti Palace are the beautiful Boboli Gardens. These large gardens were once the private gardens of the Medici family.
Today the Boboli Gardens are a perfect example of an Italian Renaissance garden. These gardens decorated with sculptures and fountains became a model for many European courts, for example, Versailles. No wonder UNESCO added the Boboli Gardens to its list.
Gardens developed over a period of four centuries. Now they are the largest open-air museum in the city. They are a lovely place to escape the busy centre. Do not miss the Fountain of Neptune and the Grotto Grande, where you will feel that you are in a fairy tale.
5. Vasari Corridor in Florence
Did you know the Medici had a secret passage that helped them to move freely and escape their enemies? Cosimo I de’ Medici ordered to build it in 1564. The corridor links the Pitti Palace, where the Grand Duke lived, with the Uffizi (offices) where he worked.
It took only five months to build the Vasari Corridor. A kilometre-long above-ground walkway allowed the Grand Duke to move undisturbed between his home and the offices. The entrance to the Vasari Corridor is behind an unmarked door on the first floor of the Uffizi Gallery.
6. Uffizi Gallery in Florence
It is also worth visiting the Uffizi Gallery, which you can find just behind the Palazzo Vecchio. As you probably know, the Uffizi Gallery is another Medici landmark in Florence. This iconic museum is one of the most visited museums in Europe because it houses world-famous paintings and statues.
However, the Uffizi Gallery was not always a gallery with thousands of drawings and prints. Back in the 16th century, this building was originally an office building for Cosimo I de’ Medici. Hence, the name offices in Italian.
After the last male heir of the Medici family died, the last Medici heiress gave their art collection to the city. Visitors have been flocking to the gallery from the 16th century to find paintings by great Italian artists such as Botticelli, Da Vinci or Michelangelo. However, it is hard to recognize the most famous paintings if you are not an expert. Make sure you come prepared, so you will not miss the masterpieces.
7. San Lorenzo Church Florence
If you have any energy left after exploring the Medici palaces in Florence, stop at the Church of San Lorenzo. As you already know, a noble family used to live in the Medici-Riccardi Palace, which is only a few steps from San Lorenzo Church.
You are quite right to think that San Lorenzo Church was the parish church of the Medici family. The wealthy family would come here to pray on Sunday mornings. The Medici also spent a lot of money on the reconstruction of the church. They commissioned Brunelleschi to design it. Later Michelangelo began to work on the Medici tombs in the Old Sacristy.
San Lorenzo Church is a lavish family mausoleum with important works by Donatello, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi.
Michelangelo also created a library staircase and the Laurentian Medici Library, which houses the family’s collection of manuscripts. The Medici Pope Leo X commissioned Michelangelo to design the face of the basilica. However, his plan never saw the light of day. Because of that, the Church of San Lorenzo has an unfinished appearance.
8. Medici Chapels
When following the Medici through Florence, do not forget to visit the Medici Chapels. The Medici chapels and Renaissance architecture are the most beautiful parts of the Church of San Lorenzo.
Are the Medici Chapels worth visiting?
The Medici Chapels are well worth a visit because they are the burial place of the members of the Medici family. These magnificent chapels contain tombs of fifty members of a wealthy family. In New Sacristy, you can find decorated tombs with statues by the famous sculptor – Michelangelo.
Inside the Medici Chapels, you can find the Chapel of the Princes with a frescoed ceiling. This chapel is unique because of its size, decoration and valuable materials. Cosimo I de Medici planned the Chapel of Princes as a celebration of the Medici. The Chapel of the Princes is the Medici mausoleum with tombs of the Medici Grand Dukes. Once here, do not miss a massive dome designed by Buontalenti.
One of the largest churches in Florence, San Lorenzo Church, is a burial place for the members of the Medici family. The New Sacristy is mainly a work by Michelangelo.
Who is buried in Medici Chapels?
You can find the tombs of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the crypt of his murdered brother Giuliano in the Medici Chapels in Florence. Michelangelo designed their crypts, and they are in the New Sacristy. The tombs of 6 grand dukes of Tuscany also line the walls of the Chapel of Princes.
The underground crypt beneath the central altar houses the remains of Cosimo de’ Medici.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Today the Medici Chapels are, in fact, a state museum. Do not forget, you need a separate ticket to visit the Medici Chapels. You cannot visit the chapels with a ticket to San Lorenzo Basilica. You can access the Medici Chapels from the crypt with lower vaults where you can see the bodies of the Medici Grand Dukes and their families.
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