This delightful museum offers an idea of what day-to-day life was like inside these sombre palaces some 600 years ago. Built in the mid-14th century for the Davizzi family, the house was purchased by merchant and historian Bernardo Davanzati in 1578 and stayed in the family until it was purchased in 1904 by antique dealer Elia Volpi (rival to Stefano Bardini) who filled it with period furnishings. In 1951 it passed to the Italian State, which opened as a museum in 1956 as the best-preserved medieval–Renaissance house in Florence.
The façade is basically as it was in the 16th-century, when Bernardo Davanzati combined two medieval houses, stuck on a new facade and added fifth-floor loggia to replace the battlements of yore – in the rough-and-tumble 14th century, a man’s home literally had to be a castle. But it was also a showroom for his prosperity, and by the standards of the day, the dwellers of this huge palace were multi-millionaires.
On the ground floor, the Loggia was used for commercial activities and sumptuous public entertainment, The ground floor was also used for storage; no family felt safe without a year’s store of grain and oil – against famine, siege, plagues or inflation. The well in the corner is set over an underground tank filled with rain water and through a shaft served all the floors of the palace; there's also a medieval version of a dumb waiter, waiting to transport the shopping up to the kitchen on the top floor.
The private part of the palace is entered via a striking open vertical Courtyard, with its stout, iron-bolted door that could be cut off from the street in times of danger. Only the first flight of steps is made of stone; the others are wooden, easy to knock down by the family in case of siege.
Upstairs, past a 14th-century fresco of St Christopher on the landing, you arrive at the elegant Sala Grande. This was used for formal gatherings and business meetings, and again, for defence, it had trap doors in the floor, when boiling oil, stone balls (one is on display in a storage cupboard) and such could be dropped on the heads of unwelcome guests in the Loggia below. The room contains a beautiful 16th-century table and cupboard, and luxuries such as an automatic bellows and flues at the fireplace, glass windows and a prettily painted ceiling.
The bright and cosy dining room next door, the Sala dei Pappagalli is frescoed with parrots, cleverly painted with pretend hooks to resemble far more costly tapestries. Off the Sala Piccola, a child's bedroom, is one of the palazzo's bathrooms with a hole linking up to the palace's draining system, which must have seemed decadently luxurious in the 14th century, when the laws declared that one had to shout three loud warnings before emptying one's chamber pot into the street; Florence was not only a forerunner in rediscovered the art and culture of antiquity, but also its plumbing.
The ensuite Camera dei Pavoni, with its bed and cradle has an almost Moorish-style pattern painted on the walls with costs-of-arms, topped by a frieze of peacocks and other exotic birds flitting among the trees.
Lace, clothing, embroideries majolica, furniture, sculpture, cassoni (wedding chests) and other items from the time are also on display.
It's worth trying to get on the hourly tour to see the most charming room of all, the Camera della Castellana di Vergi, decorated with a lovely fresco from the 13th-century French romance, the Châstelaine de Vergy, painted in honour of the marriage in 1350 of Paolo Davanzati and Lisa degli Alberti.
The room also has a Desco da Parto (a painted tray given to parents to celebrate a birth) by Lo Scheggia, showing two little boys engaging in a no holds barred wrestling match (for the grown-up version of the same, see Vicenzo de' Rossi's Hercules and Diomedes in the Palazzo Vecchio).
The kitchen, as usual in Florentine palazzi is on the top floor in the hope that in case of fire, only it would burn, and to prevent the hot air rising from cooking from heating the lower rooms in the summer. The women of the house would spend most of their day here, supervising the servants, sewing and chatting; as no servants' quarters existed, the help probably had straw bedding and sacked out on the floor. It houses a collection of the latest in Renaissance kitchen gadgetry
Another room here is the Camera delle Impannate, named for the cloths dyed in wax that admitted light and were used in windows in place of expensive glass.
Via Porta Rossa, 13
Hours Mon-Fri 8.15am-2pm, Sat & Sun 1.15pm-6.50pm. Closed on the 2nd and 4th Sunday and on the 1st, 3rd and 5th Monday of the month.
Visits to the 2nd floor and 3rd floor are with a guide, Mon-Fri at 10, 11 and noon; Sat & Sun at 3, 4 and 5pm. Numbers are limited; in season it's best to book to be sure of a place by phone or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Adm €6, €2 ages 18-25
+39 055 064 9460
Images by: Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License, PD Art