Palazzo Rucellai

Heading to the Palazzo Rucellai left is the Via della Vigna Nuova

Anonymous  ‘Street scene in Florence’ 1540 – 1560
Via della Vigna Nuova e Via del Parione

Anonymous  ‘Street scene in Florence’ Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

We continue our way west. Not far from the Palazzo Strozzi we find a very different palace, which, while it has traits of a long Florentine tradition, is a unique sight in this city in various aspects. 

The Palazzo Rucellai Via della Vigna Nuova 18

Palazzo Rucellai Via della Vigna Nuova 18 Alberti
photos: Steven Zucker and Benjamín Núñez González

Giovanni Rucellai had already once commissioned Alberti to design a facade for the Santa Maria Novella: the parochial church of his family. Seemingly to good satisfaction, as Giovanni had Alberti design a facade for his palace at the Via della Vigna Nuova Alberti. It is likely that Alberti already made a design back in 1450, which was only used by Bernardo Rossellino between 1460 and 1466.  Alberti had already written his book on architecture, ‘De re Aedificatoria’, and had spent considerable time in Rome where he studied classic architecture.

Ionic order

This palazzo is where Alberti first introduced pilasters that give the façade a clear arrangement. The pilasters and horizontal cornices also serve as window sills and clearly classify the facade. The arrangement is based on the Colosseum, with each floor using different orders. Alberti uses the Tuscan order on the ground floor, and his last order used is one that closely resembles the Corinthian order. On the first floor, the piano nobile, he goes against what you might expect and does not use the Ionic order, but instead he takes a liberal approach in what closely resembles the Corinthian order. So, it is not an exact arrangement of Dorian, Ionic and Corinthian orders like in the Colosseum, but he did use three different ones.

Palazzo Rucellai: Ionic order
photo: Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe

Palazzo Rucellai

Palazzo Rucellai: facade
photo: Steven Zucker

The rustication of the entire facade is flat and protrudes the same length as the pilasters. Much different from the rough, protruding rustication used by Michelozzo for the Medici palace. In this case, Alberti sticks with his own writings. ‘A house of tyrants would appear like a keep, but other palaces must be easily accessible, nicely decorated, with delicate articulation and be prominent rather than pompous and imposing’, Alberti says in his ‘De re Aedificatoria’’ The rustication plates seem completely randomised in terms of size. For the first time, and in unison with the classics, the doors lack a pointed (Davanzati) or nearly rounded arch (Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, but instead have a horizontal beam. The door frames are bent into a ninety degree angle at the bottom. The inspiration for this comes from the facade of the San Miniato al Monte and the Baptistery, where the architrave was bent as well.

Palazzo Rucellai: detail facade
photos: teggelaar and model: Sailko

The last A       Model with eight bays

The facade consists of seven bays, but the original intent was to add one more to the right (east side). You can tell by the bases for the arches that were still made. Unfortunately for Giovanni, the neighbour refused to sell his house. The two bays at the doors are a bit wider than the others, preventing a monotonous look. The windows in the two wide bays are higher, but not wider. What is wider is the arch around these two windows. The alternating of bays has a rhythm of AABAABAA, after all, the last A was never built.


The diamond shape pattern at the benches is based on Roman masonry called opus reticulatum. Alberti exclusively used this pattern as an ornamental motif. This also applies to the pilasters that are only used as a means to support certain structures. What Alberti did not know is that the Romans did not use the diamond shape pattern for decorative purposes, but to reinforce concrete.

Palazzo Rucellai: bench Alberti
photos: Steven Zucker
Palazzo Rucellai: Alberti’s window
photos: Steven Zucker

Alberti’s windows

Alberti’s windows may fit in Florentine tradition, but there is also a clear difference. At the bifore windows of the Palazzo Vecchio or the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, the arches are directly supported by small columns. According to Alberti, this was in violation of classical rules. Brunelleschi thought differently as can be seen in his Ospedale degli Innocenti, where the loggia arches are directly supported by columns. That is why Alberti opted for an intermediate solution by putting a crossbeam in between the columns and the arch. This window type will become extraordinarily popular in Venice. The architect Codussi was the first to apply these windows in the serenissima (the Republic of Venice) for the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi.

The second cornice at the first floor windows show the well-known rounded sails (Fortuna’s sails) that we saw before at the facade of the Santa Maria Novella: a reference to the family coat of arms. The arches at the windows and the first cornice (rings and three feathers) show three intertwined rings, this is a reference to the Medici. Giovanni married off his son to the granddaughter of Cosimo de’Medici. Giovannni himself was married to a woman from the well-off Strozzi family.

The facade is a well thought out and ordened unity. But the same cannot be said for what lies behind the facade, as the layout clearly reveals. The palazzo comprises multiple houses and it has no real symmetry. Very different from what we saw earlier at the Palazzo Strozzi. The reason is that Giovanni inherited the original building from his father and was only able to very gradually buy several neighbouring buildings later on. The original design was likely still based on five bays, but when Giovanni Rucellai manages to snatch an adjacent house in 1458, two more bays are added. Unfortunately, the sale of the next neighbouring building was cancelled. The result is that the loggia built across from the palazzo is a bit isolated from the palace on the other side of the Via della Vigna.

“Across from his palace, Giovanni Rucellai (at the current piazza that was named after him), ordered the construction of an elegant three-arched loggia by Leon Battista Alberti in 1468. Noble, self-respecting families would always have such a loggia, of which twenty-six still existed in the sixteenth century. In line with the traditions of that time, such loggias would be used to spend a summer’s night, hold family meetings, marriage arrangements, social gatherings and transact business. In front of a loggia would be a plot of land to host tournaments or dance nights, but it was mostly there to celebrate births or marriages, or to collectively mourn the loss of a loved one. This way, citizens could partake in the festivities and celebrations of the renowned families, who would share food and drinks during those occassions. Translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Firenze Een Anekdotische reisgids’ Athenaeum-Polak&van Gennep Amsterdam 2006 p. 186

Loggia      Entablature      Side      1880

Palazzo Rucellai: Loggia
photos: Steven Zucker

Despite the above mentioned innovations, this palace, like the facade of the Santa Maria Novella, stays in line with the Florentine ‘classic tradition’. The rustication, the trichotomy in the facade, the benches, the wide and strongly protruding cornice, cornices serving as windows sills and bifore windows, albeit with a post and lintel, are befitting of palazzi building tradition in Florence.

Continuation Florence day 1: Santi Apostoli and Parte Guelfa