Come home to the fifteenth century in the Museo Davanzati

Ellen Wert
July 2, 2009

It's easy to miss many of Florence's most delightful treasures. Walk along via Porta Rossa, for example, looking in the shop windows, and the facade of the Palazzo Davanzati, built around 1450 for a family of wool merchants, will blend into the city's familiar background of dark wood and stone.


Not tall and narrow enough to be a medieval torre (tower), not low and wide like a Renaissance palazzo, the Davanzati, one of the city's few extant examples of a Renaissance-era home (the Museo Horne, at via de' Benci 6 is another), is especially important because so much of its original structure and interior decoration remain.


However, the massive doors of the Davanzati have been closed for so long that many residents and visitors do not even know it exists. For the past 14 years, the Davanzati has undergone an extensive, 5-million-euro structural restoration, from cellar to rooftop. In 2006, the ground and first floor were re-opened, and on June 11, 2009, as the voices of Musica Ricercata sang period songs celebrating the cucina and the cantina, the entire house was officially re-opened to the public.


That the building, much less its exquisite interior, exists is little short of miraculous. From 1578 to the end of the nineteenth century, the Davanzati family owned it (their coat of arms adorns the facade). It escaped demolition during the nineteenth-century ‘urban renewal' that resulted in the arcades of the nearby Piazza della Repubblica, and was purchased and restored in 1904 by Elia Volpi, an antiquarian who used it as a showroom-before going bankrupt. Eventually, the state purchased it and opened it as a museum in 1956.


Its scale is such that one can imagine living there. On each upper floor, four rooms surround an open sandstone core, lined with balconies. Amenities include a system for diverting and catching rainwater, an interior well with access points at every floor, a dumb-waiter and bathrooms with privy toilets and metal bathing tubs.


In the ‘pappagallo' (parrot) room, floor-to-ceiling frescoes suggest that we are inside a lush garden. A ‘curtain' decorated with parrots and geometric designs in warm blues and reds creates the ‘room' that parts at doors, corners and windows to reveal the ‘ground' thick with flowers; over its top edge appear the tops of the garden's trees. The bedrooms on each floor are similarly frescoed to suggest a curtained ‘room' within a garden. In the rooms without frescoes, ghostly sketches, notes and calculations on the walls suggest what was being planned.


From the top of the house, where the loggia offers a 180° view of nearby rooftops and distant hillsides and the kitchen displays the implements for making the household's meals, to the cool depths of the cantina, furnishings and ample signage (in English and Italian) help the visitor imagine daily life. Even those who find heights intimidating will want to peer over the interior balconies and imagine the sounds of life in the fifteenth century.


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