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Palazzo  

Philancy N. Holder

[It.: ‘palace’]

Italian term originally applied to large or residential buildings but now used more broadly to describe any large secular or urban structure. Although the early medieval Italian palazzo contained residential space, it was primarily civic in purpose, providing the seat of government during the era of the independent city-republics, communes and later rule by individuals. The terms Palazzo Pubblico, Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo del Podestà and Palazzo dei Priori all indicate types of designated government at the time of a particular civic building’s construction. Residential palazzi, on the other hand, are identified by the names of the families who built or remodelled them, as in the Palazzo Rucellai and the Palazzo Medici (later Palazzo Medici–Riccardi; see §2 below).

The architectural characteristics of such medieval civic structures as the Palazzo del Podestà (1255; also known as Palazzo Bargello) in Florence (see Florence, §I, 2) strongly influenced the development of the private palazzo. The massive, fortress-like exteriors, solid, sparsely fenestrated walls and crenellated watch-towers that characterized the medieval palazzo were clear indications of the fierce political climate of the Middle Ages. Until the 15th century, crenellations with rectangular merlons indicated papal or Guelph loyalties, while cleft battlements declared imperial or Ghibelline sympathies. Regardless of allegiance, however, masons throughout Italy built secular structures using identical vernacular building methods, adopting the uncomplicated post-and-lintel bay system. Builders dressed local stone into rusticated blocks for the load-bearing walls. Where stone was not readily available, brick construction predominated....