In 1434, after returning as an exile from Venice, Cosimo wanted to construct a new palace. Brunelleschi likely produced a design for it. The new palazzo would be situated directly in front of and on the same axis as the San Lorenzo. Cosimo, who had already quite clearly turned the San Lorenzo into a Medici church, presumably found the location and the spacious design too much of a good thing. Standing out and showing off too much was not the way, Cosimo felt. According to Antonio Billi, who wrote a vita about Filippo Brunelleschi in the early sixteenth century, Cosimo backed out and commissioned Michelozzo to construct a more modest palace near the San Lorenzo. When Filippo learned of this, if we are to believe Billi, he became so angry that he smashed his own model in front of the palazzo. This may explain why Brunelleschi afterwards no longer involved himself with the construction of ‘the Medici church’, the San Lorenzo. The palace might not be placed on the same axis as the San Lorenzo, you can still see it as you walk out of the San Lorenzo on your left-hand side: at the Via Larga (currently the Via Cavour), a rather wide street for that time as the name would imply.
Cosimo did not like Brunelleschi’s design: it was too majestic and over the top. The influence of the franciscans who preached frugality and simplicity definitely made it all the way to the other palazzi of wealthy families. Still, in order to make way for the Medici palace, some twenty houses were demolished and the palazzo has forty rooms, twenty-eight more than the Davanzati. When the Riccardi family purchases the palace in 1655, the front side, at the Via Cavour, receives a hefty expansion. The original cube shape is lost. An impressive seven bays and one entrance door are added. This uneven number was taken to preserve the symmetry.
The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi marks a shift: it clearly stands out from medieval palazzi like the Davanzati, Spini Ferroni or the Antinori. Michelozzo had clearly been influenced by Alberti and Brunelleschi. Still, Michelozzo’s style remains faithful to Florentine tradition. For instance, there is a clear division in three of the floors, with the height of each subsequent floor decreasing. It also uses: rustication, benches at the exterior, cornices that also function as window sills, bifore windows and a strongly protruding cornice. New elements include the layout and the symmetrical structure of the facade.
The layout is almost a square, surrounding a central courtyard. This creates a strong symmetry. The staircase that was still part of the courtyard at the Davanzati or Bargello has been removed. This enables a truly symmetric cortile. Michelozzo’s cortile was the first courtyard that looked genuinely classic. Still, Michelozzo’s method for the courtyard was no different from what builders of the Baptistery used in the eleventh century. Work started from a flat surface. After designing or building one bay, it was simply multiplied. This explains the strange corners of the Baptistery that we’ve seen before. Michelozzo designed one bay and multiplied it by four. He would then bend the whole construction back three times, creating a square courtyard. In doing so, he cared little for the strange corners he was producing. The collar pillars appear much too small, though they have the same diameter as the other columns.
Furthermore, the windows above the cornice are nastily close together in the corners. It is evident that Michelozzo designed buildings from a two-dimensional surface and not as three-dimensional block-shaped constructions. Other architects in Florence did do the latter, like Maiano in 1490 for his design of the cortile of the Palazzo Strozzi.
The back of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi first had open arcades, in the spot that now a museum store, but it was walled shut around 1517. The first staircase to the right leads to the Magi chapel, where Gozzoli painted a fresco cycle and Filippo Lippi painted an altarpiece, but we will examine this in more detail on the day we cover painting (click here for the story about the frescos and the altarpiece).