The Palazzo Medici was built in 1444 by the architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo for the Medici Duke Cosimo the Elder. Cosimo requested that Michelozzo build him a palace large in proportions but sober in outward signs of luxury, in order not to inspire any dangerous envy in Florence’s other patrician families; at this time Cosimo was the most powerful banker in the city, but there were 80 other banking dynasties to compete with. The palace was built not only as living quarters, but also as office space for Cosimo’s bank. Michelozzo worked on the building for 20 years. The palace is rectangular in form, with the huge ground floor walls created from roughly-hewn local stone. On the upper levels, the façade is decorated with rounded arches framing paired windows, and this transition from the rusticated masonry of the ground floor to the more delicately refined stonework of the upper levels makes the building seem lighter and taller as the eye moves upward. The ground floor would have once been accommodated kitchens, servants’ quarters and stables. The grand chambers of the Medici family were located, naturally, on the upper floors. The most famous room in the palace is the so-called ‘Magi Chapel’, which contains a vast series of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli entitled the ‘Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem’. Gozzoli knew how to flatter his patron; the faces of the biblical wise men have been replaced by those of key Medici scions.
In 1659 the Medici sold their palace to Marquis Ricardo Ricardi, who had the northern wing of the building widened and the interiors modernised. During the refurbishment, Ricardi insisted that the Renaissance exterior be carefully preserved, but that the interiors be transformed according to the latest Baroque tastes. In 1814 the palace was acquired by the Grand Duke of Lorraine, but soon after was transferred to the state. Today the building accommodates the city prefecture, however the courtyard of the palace is always open for visitors, together with the modest family chapel of the Medici, where Gozzoli’s frescoes can be seen. An arched gallery stretches around the edges of the courtyard, which is adorned with Corinthian columns and medals bearing the Medici coat-of-arms. An engraving on the southern side of the courtyard glorifies the history of the palace and its owners. Nearby there is a beautiful sculpture: ‘Orpheus, soothing Cerberus with his song’. On the ground floor of the palace there is a hall of mirrors, and other chambers open for the public decorated with 17th-century frescoes. These frescoes were commissioned from the painter Giordano by the grandson of the Marquis, Gabriello Riccardi. The centre of the composition is dominated by the ‘Triumph of the Medici at the Clouds of Olympus’. Also of considerable interest is the work of Filippo Lippi: the ‘Adoration of the Child’. Today the painting that hangs in the palace is only a copy, and the original is kept in the Berlin Dahlem Gallery. The first floor, where the Medici had their chambers, is especially richly decorated, with marble-covered walls, gold-leaf ceilings, and intricately carved door frames inlaid with mosaics.