Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Notes from the Palace

When I was in Florence recently with my wife Patty (who is still there as I write), we were staying in a good-sized apartment on the Borgo Santa Croce, very close to the Basilica di Santa Croce. The day we arrived, hot and tired from a long flight, we noticed straight away the remarkable decorations in the central courtyard, and the fine façade of the building. All the time I was there, I wondered if there was a story behind this particular building. I started digging around on the Google machine, and it turns out that there is, indeed, quite a story behind Borgo Santa Croce number 10.
The building was/is the Palazzo Spinelli, and it was remodeled from a number of buildings in the street beginning in about 1460, by a wealthy Florentine merchant and banker called Tommaso Spinelli. According to an excellent book called The Spinelli of Florence: Fortunes of a Renaissance Merchant Family, co-written by a cultural and an economic historian, Tomasso came from a family that began accumulating its wealth and status in the 1300s by acting as money-men to the guilds in Tuscany. They also worked in the banks of much older and more significant families, like the Alberti and Medici, until they became prominent bankers themselves. Tommaso started working in a relatively lowly position for a bank owned by the Albertis in about 1420, and within fifteen years he was personally overseeing the financial arrangements for the Pope. He was not as wealthy as the Medicis (few were), and his patronage of the arts was dutiful and canny, rather than profligate. For example, he provided the funds for the construction of one of the cloisters at Santa Croce, and while no less a figure than Brunelleschi was the original designer, there are records of Spinelli making sure that the loggia protecting the frescos in the cloister was built so that it would only just keep them covered, so as not to spend one florin more than necessary. Contrast that with the spending of the Medicis, which was vast, and profligate, and more like the way a contemporary hedge fund manager splurges the dosh as a visible sign to all of how his wealth equates with his worldly status.
Tommaso built up his fortune mainly by shuttling between Florence, Rome, and Venice. By the middle of the century, he had inherited the role of paterfamilias in the Spinelli clan, and he decided to settle in Florence and make a home to house his sons, daughters, nephews, and so on. When it came to building a palace, Tommaso similarly combined art with acumen. Rather than constructing an entirely new building, he took over an existing structure and had it extensively remodeled. The main work was overseen by Rosselino, an architect whose significant works include the beautiful façade of Santa Maria Novella. The courtyard that took our attention has some elements that may have been designed by Michelozzo, who designed the Palazzo Medici and is another significant figure in Renaissance art. (Every day, Patty and I would walk down the grand stone staircase to this courtyard, and each time I would get this strong feeling of being surrounded by something with an unusual degree of craft.) The graffito design on the façade of the building is also influenced by similar motifs by Michelozzo found on other palaces.
And then there’s the Vasari connection. The house next door belonged to yet another Spinelli, who ran afoul of Cosimo de Medici in the 1500s, so that Cosimo confiscated the building, and then gave it to Giorgio Vasari for services rendered. That name is familiar to anyone who has even briefly studied Renaissance art: Vasari, the painter, whose “Lives of the Artists” is still used as one of the primary texts for the art of the era. After Vasari died, the Spinelli family became the trustees of all his manuscripts, notes, and papers, which may have (I’ve yet to verify this) included the “Lives”.
And speaking of papers, the authors of that book on the Spinelli family say in the introduction that they were able to build up a highly detailed picture of this family, and through them the society around them, because of the vast number of records that they kept and which were preserved by the city for so long. This is something that Patty mentioned to me in one or another of the museums – going into a room of long display cases, filled with 600 year old ledgers noting the thousands of daily transactions that depict the minute life of Florence at the time.
Personally, I am fascinated by all this stuff because it presses a lots of buttons for me: history of art, social and political history, the history attached to specific places, the effect of those places on the work that you make in them. But there’s an extra piquancy to the fact that for a few, all too short, weeks I was privileged enough to stay in the rooms that were once inhabited by a man and a family who were close to the heart of life in Florence, at a time when the inhabitants of the city were creating a revolution in human affairs, and sketched the outlines of the world that we live in today. How fortunate, too, that Tommaso created a palace with bones that have lasted for six centuries, and that gave a decidedly unwealthy lower class Englishman the chance to say: Signior Spinelli, grazie mille.

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