Tuesday, 25 October 2016

In Florence, on the Arno, near the bridge - By Henk Th. van Veen

On the south bank of the Arno, right next to the Ponte alle Grazie and facing the Piazza dei Mozzi, stands palazzo Torrigiani già Del Nero.

Palazzo Torrigiani già Del Nero

The building offers only a feeble reflexion of its erstwhile grandeur. Here the Del Nero resided. In those days the palazzo rose straight from the river-bed and formed one massif whole – a veritable bridgehead – with the  Ponte à Rubaconte, the longest bridge of Florence, also known as Ponte alle Grazie, because of the characteristic chapels that were built on it.  

Print of the family tree of the Del Nero

It was Agostino del Nero who, from 1552, had this remarkable palazzo built, although he would not see it finished. It features on a late sixteenth-century print with the Del Nero family tree. A print from the eighteenth century nicely shows how towards the east the palazzo was looking out on the ancient, imposing and most picturesque mill of San Niccolò, which, now long disappeared, protruded into the Arno as a mighty castle. 
Eighteenth-century print showing palazzo Del Nero and the mill of San Niccolò

Let’s speculate on the question why Agostino Del Nero chose this location to build a new residence for himself and his posterity. Important of course was that, in the old days, the Del Nero, had owned houses and wool shops in this area. However, to my view, Agostino must have had other, less prosaic reasons to have his family home built in exactly that spot. The location in question, immediately attached as it was to the most representative bridge of Florence,  must have made him think of the locations in which two of the oldest and most venerable Florentine families, the Frescobaldi and the Soderini, had their ancestral seats. Palazzo Frescobaldi formed a bridge-head with Ponte Santa Trinita and Palazzo Soderini did likewise with Ponte alla Carraia.

Palazzo Soderini

Palazzo Soderini especially must have been on Agostino’s mind, for he, in 1537, had married Nannina, daughter of Tommaso Soderini, who in his days had been one of the most powerful politicians in Florence. Compared to the Soderini, the Del Nero were basically upstarts and now Agostino, with the location of the new Del Nero palace, was offered the chance to measure himself with his illustrious in-laws.
What is, however, equally possible is that while choosing the spot for his residence, Agostino was thinking of the ‘domus grande’ which his only and much older brother Francesco had commissioned to be built in Rome. Francesco was a banker and pope Clemens VII’s tesoriere-generale. Not only was he in business with his younger brother, Francesco also furnished to Agostino the capital with which to build the Florentine Del Nero residence. Francesco’s house was situated in the rione del Ponte, the neighbourhood where many Florentines were living. The house stood perpendicularly on the Tiber and rose immediately from its bed. Although is was not attached to a river, there was a ferry right next to it, which was owned by Francesco. 

The ‘domus grande’ and the ferry of Francesco del Nero

A third association Agostino could have had when he was erecting his palazzo, was with the famous Roman palace of the mighty Florentine banker and patron Bindo Altoviti. This palazzo, alas demolished during the construction of the Lungoteveri, was also situated in the rione del Ponte, a stone throw’s distance from Francesco’s ‘domus grande’, demolished on that same occasion. As to its location and form, Palazzo Altoviti exactly resembled what Agostino’s palazzo would become: rising directly from the river-bed and built on the southern bridge-head of ponte Sant’Angelo, to its west side. When, between 1550 and 1552, Bindo bought some neighbouring houses to enlarge his palazzo, it lost its perpendicular form. 

Palazzo Altoviti and ponte Sant’Angelo

 Palazzo Altoviti

Photograph of Palazzo Altoviti shortly before its demolition

That Agostino has been thinking of this palazzo is all the more probable if one realizes that he was Bindo’s brother-in-law – Bindo was married to Fiammetta Soderini, a sister of Agostino’s wife Nannina - but also because Bindo was the most powerful business rival of the Del Nero brothers in Rome.  
On the print of the Del Nero family-tree we not only see the tree and the palazzo, but, in the background, also an imposing castle, almost a fortified town, that is very near to the seashore. This appears to be not just a ornamental, fictive piece of architecture. In February 1568, Pope Pius V made Agostino and his son Tommaso barons of Porcigliano, an ancient and important fief in the diocese of Ostia. The pope awarded them this title in recognition of the important role they had played in administrating the papal finances. The castle on the print with the family-tree is without any doubt Castelporcigliano, that was and is indeed located very near to the seashore. It still exists, but is now called Castelporziano and serves as a luxury-residence to the presidents of the Italian Republic.

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To read part II of this blog, click here

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