You’ve got to hand it to those Italian Dukes, they sure knew how to live. Florence is a spectacular example of this, where the ruling Medici Family shaped the city – quite literally – throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
The city has no shortage of examples of the influence and money that these folks had, with the most spectacular example in my mind being the Vasari Corridor – a mile long private corridor that stretches across the city from one side to the other, linking their residential palace with the government palace.
If you can afford to build a corridor across (and above) a city, just for your use, I think you’re doing ok. That corridor was the subject of one of the Context Travel Tours we took whilst in Florence, and Jess wrote a post about our tour of the Vasari corridor here.
In this post, I’m going to talk about the building at one end of the Vasari Corridor, specifically, the Pitti Palace. This was where the Medici family lived during their rule of Florence and Tuscany, during which time they turned Florence into a monarchy, naturally with themselves in charge.
Of course, the Medici Dukes didn’t last forever – inbreeding pretty much did them in, as it did with many other aristocratic bloodlines of the time. Keeping it in the family really meaning something back then. But the palace survived them, as giant structures of stone have a wont to do. It was used by the Lorraine family when they ruled the area, and even hosted Napoleon when he wandered in this direction late in the 18th century.
Now, the palace serves as the largest museum complex in Florence, having been donated to the Italian people in 1919, with the majority of the exhibition given over to the Medici Family. These guys were, to put it mildly, a bit nuts about art, and they absolutely stuffed their palace with as much of it as they could.
Bear in mind that they were living in Renaissance Italy at the time, so art was pretty much growing on trees, and with Florence at the centre of this art revolution, they had some of the finest artists in the world at their doorstep, as well as the financial means with which to acquire copious quantities of their output.
So, that’s a bit of scene setting. As you can imagine, there was a lot to take in at the Palace, and we figured the best way to do that was by taking a tour with Context Travel. These guys specialise in absolutely tiny group tours (usually no more than six people), led by seriously qualified people. You can read about my experiences with them in Rome here, as well as Jess’s thoughts on our Venice tour here. Spoiler alert – we’re big fans. The tour we took of the Pitti Palace was titled Art and Power at the Palazzo Pitti.
Our guide for the Pitti Palace tour was Dr. Alessandra Becucci. Alessandra was born and raised in Florence, and her qualifications included a degree in art history from the University of Florence with a specialization in seventeenth-century painting, as well as an MRes from the European University Institute in Florence, where she defended her Ph.D in history, focusing on the patronage of Tuscan nobility in Europe during the seventeenth century.
In case that’s not enough, Alessandra also holds a diploma in archival administration, palaeography, and diplomatics from the State Archive in Florence and has been teaching art history and Italian for several years in various schools and institutions in Florence.
I think you could say that Alessandra was pretty much the perfect person to lead our small group around the Pitti Palace. And the group was indeed small, other than Jess and I, there was only one other person on the tour, making a grand total of four of us including the guide.
Our group met outside the Pitti Palace, and after buying our tickets (not included in the price on the majority of Context’s Tours, although the advantage being if you qualify for any discounts you can apply them), we had a small chat outside before heading in.
Every Context Tour we’ve been on has has this small pre-tour chat, with the goal being to figure out the level of knowledge of each tour participant, and their particular interest. I’ll freely admit, I was easily the least qualified person on the tour. Jess is way more into museums than me (and has a PhD), and the other tour member was studying art history. Not being hugely qualified is of course not a problem for a tour, but you should definitely be aware that Context Tours are billed as being for the intellectually curious, so be prepared for a wealth of knowledge to come your way if you take one!
With Alessandra up to speed on our knowledge, she suggested that we do the tour in reverse. Usually the tour starts in the Pitti Palace and finishes in the Boboli Gardens behind the palace. However, as the weather was so nice, heading out to the gardens first seemed like a more logical option. So, our first hour or so was spent exploring and learning about these truly lovely formal gardens, and the people who used them.
Designed in the 16th century for Eleanor of Toledo, wife of Tuscany’s first Grand Duke, Cosimo the First, the gardens were a fairly elaborate statement of wealth and power, as well as being some of Italy’s first formal gardens. Designed exclusively for the close Medici family, the gardens were (somewhat surprisingly) never used for entertainment purposes, and were solely an area of retreat and relaxation for the family. They are filled with garden temples, water features, avenues and of course, trees and plants, with multiple stairways spanning the hillside.
We also learnt that a part of the gardens was designed especially for hunting purposes, with the layout of the large hedgerows designed to help catch birds that would later arrive on the Medici tables. They ate pretty well, as you might imagine.
From the gardens there are excellent views of the city itself, including that magnificent Duomo, which would have been visible in the time of the Medici family as well. We also dropped in to the Porcelain Museum, which can be found at the top of the gardens, home to examples of some of the most famous European porcelain names in the world.
After our tour of the gardens, we headed inside the Palace complex, starting off with a tour of the costume gallery. This contains clothes that span from the 16th century to the present day, largely of a theatrical bent. Rather gruesomely, the gallery also features the funeral clothes of Cosimo the First and Eleanor of Toledo.
From here we headed into the Pitti Palace and its main gallery – the 28 rooms of the Palatine Gallery. This is predominantly made up of the art collection of the Medici family, which features over 500 paintings, the majority of which are from the Renaissance period, and are a veritably who’s who of Renaissance Art, with pieces from Raphael, Titian, Rubens and more. There’s so much art in fact, that it overflows into another part of the museum – the 14 rooms of the Royal Apartments, where the Medici family lived.
What I found most fascinating about the Porcelain Gallery and the Royal Apartments was the arrangement of the art. Which, as far as I could tell, wasn’t arranged in any way at all. The idea was to impress, which basically involved covering as much of every wall as possible with as much art as possible, hung to the whim of the owner rather than following any kind of rhyme or reason. This was bling on a Renaissance scale, and wow, those Dukes and Duchesses sure knew how to show it off.
Of course, the rooms that we visited as part of the tour were themselves works of art, with frescos and gilding everywhere you look, jostling for attention alongside the hung artworks. It could have been overwhelming, but thankfully we had Alessandro on hand to guide us through and ensure we saw the highlights, and truly understand the magnificence of what we were witnessing.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and after two hours inside the Palace itself, our tour came to an end, with Alessandro wishing us farewell. The good news though was that we were free to continue exploring the palace at our leisure, and we visited a number of the other museums, including the Silver Museum, Gold Museum, and gallery of modern art. You can probably guess what each of those contains.
As you can likely see, there’s no shortage of experiences and sights to be seen in the Pitti Palace and accompanying Boboli gardens. Taking a tour with Context really opened my eyes to the sheer opulence and power of the Medici family, and helped me to understand their position, influence, rise and fall, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the art of this time period as well.
If you’re heading to Florence, I can highly recommend visiting the Pitti Palace, and if you can, doing it with a Context tour. You’ll learn an amazing amount, and come away with a new appreciation for what being wealthy in 16th century Italy was all about.
- Context tours feature a maximum of six people, with private tours also possible
- Tour cost at the time of writing this article was $90 (save 10% with this link!)
- Tour cost doesn’t include your entry to the Pitti Palace or guide gratuity
- This tour is a three hour tour, although our Context experience was that tours often ran a little longer than the allocated time, depending on your enthusiasm!
- If you’re planning on staying in Florence, we recommend this site to find the best deals on hotels
- Save 10% when booking any Context Travel tour with this link (discount applied at checkout)
And that’s it! Would you like to visit Florence and take a tour like this? Let us know in the comments below!
So you know: We received complimentary walking tours with Context Travel in exchange for sharing our honest opinion of the walking tours, and being given a discount code to share with you. We retain 100% editorial control and all opinions remain our own. For more on how we choose who to work with, see our code of ethics.