Alberti's Secular Masterpiece
For fifty years I have done nothing but earn money and spend it; in so doing I have learned that I enjoy spending money more than earning it. Giovanni Rucellai
Just off Via de’ Tornabuoni, the Palazzo Rucellai is the most celebrated example of domestic architecture in Florence. Its builder, Giovanni Rucellai, was a quattrocento tycoon (he made his fortune, and derived his name, from oricello, the celebrated Florentine purple red dye) and an intellectual, whose Zibaldone or commonplace book is one of the best sources available on the life and tastes of the educated Renaissance merchant.
In 1446 Rucellai chose his favourite architect, Leon Battista Alberti, to design his palace. Actually built by Bernardo Rossellino, it follows Alberti’s precepts and theories in its use of the three classical orders; instead of the usual rusticated stone, the façade has a far more delicate decoration of incised irregular blocks and a frieze, elements that would influence subsequent Italian architecture – though far more noticeably in Rome than Florence itself. Originally the palace was only five bays wide, and when another two bays were added later the edge was left ragged, unfinished: a nice touch, as if the builders could return at any moment and pick up where they left off.
The façade’s frieze, like that commissioned on Santa Maria Novella by Rucellai, portrays the devices of the Medici and Rucellai families (Giovanni’s son Bernardo married a daughter of Piero the Gouty), a wedding feted in the Loggia dei Rucellai across the street, which was also designed by Alberti and adorned with the Rucellai coat of arms, which Giovanni Rucellai chose after consulting with philosopher Marsilio Ficino: a sail blowing in the wind, symbolizing Fortuna.
Today the Palazzo's Piano Nobile is occupied by the International Studies Institute, while the upper floors are still home to descendants of the Rucellai.
Via della Vigna Nuova 18