Located between Piazza D’Azeglio and Piazza Santissima Annunziata is a palazzo that is unique in Florence – a spectacular demonstration of how aesthetic canons can change.
During the Renaissance no-one would ever have thought of creating so eclectic and idiosyncratic a façade for a palazzo, but by the end of the sixteenth century adherence to the rules was much less strict. The Mannerist painted Federico Zuccari did not stay in Florence a long time, though he did paint the huge (now restored) fresco of The Last Judgement in the cupola of the Duomo. For some time, he lived not far from here – in Via Capponi, next-door to the house occupied by Andrea del Sarto (whose residence here is now commemorated by a plaque). However, Zuccari then decided to build himself a home, in a Mannerist style that would be a public affirmation of his personality as an artist, Thus, in the years 1578-79 he created this house, with a façade that is more like a pastiche rather than a composition, as its various components are organised in a very theatrical manner: panels of bare brisk and clocks of unfinished rock alternated with polished blocks of stone, bas-reliefs depicting the symbols of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, windows with opulently decorated gratings, two niches, stone benches at pavement level and a cartouche (now covered with roughcast) which Zuccari was to have adorned with a fresco.
This whole façade is the frontage to a tall narrow building that appears even more incongruous when one looks at the other structures in the quiet street. If Zuccari aimed to leave some unusual and indelible record of his passage through Florence, then he certainly succeeded.
Today, the Palazzo Zuccari houses the Kunsthistorisches Institut. At present, Florence’s most influential foreign-run institute for art history studies, it has one of the best specialised libraries on this subject – with more than 300,000 books and a thousand or so specialist magazines which would be difficult to find anywhere else. There is also an immense collection of photographs of Italian art. A highly esteemed centre of research, this institute has been in existence since the end of the nineteenth century, and its academic rigour is in a sense a counter-balance to the sheer exuberance of Zuccari’s façade.
So next time you are in Florence, seek out this unusual Palazzo – it is certainly an interesting, if not a little perplexing architectural treasure.
(Adapted in part from Secret Florence by Niccolò Rinaldi)