Living in a Renaissance Palace, an Art Historian Uncovers an Amazing Past

A secret stair, dating to 15th century, found at rear of palace (Alinari, Art Resource, NY)

Five years into a tenure-track position at a respected East Coast college, art historian Allison Levy snagged a sabbatical year in Florence to work on a book about Renaissance tomb sculpture. Burned out from gratuitous faculty meetings, undergraduate grading, and grinding East Coast winters, she felt a little entombed herself. So when an unexpected opportunity arose to spend her year living in the famed Palazzo Rucellai — a touchstone of Renaissance architectural history — though pricey for an academic, she seized on it. House of Secrets: The Many Lives of a Florentine Palazzo, published by Tauris Parke, Bloomsbury Publishing, is about what happens when a staid historian eschews the strictly academic for the adventure of real life. And it’s about the astonishing accretion of significant human history within the walls of a single home.

House of Secrets: The Many Lives of a Florentine Palazzo by Allison Levy (image courtesy Tauris Parke, Bloomsbury Publishing) 

The façade of the Palazzo Rucellai is essential to any story of the Italian Renaissance. It was designed in the mid-15th century by Leon Battista Alberti, who, together with Filippo Brunelleschi, mostly invented the classicizing humanist language of Renaissance architecture. So it’s no surprise that soon after arriving in Florence, Levy gave up on writing about funerary monuments for the annals of the building she now occupied, in a smallish apartment poetically called the Archivio. Her apartment was tucked between the top two stories (pianos) at the front of the building, where, Levy says, “I found myself living between floors, between centuries, between lives.” The Palazzo Rucellai has been occupied throughout its existence — never turned into a museum, retail space, or anything else.

Levy uses the palazzo itself to structure her book, with six longer chapters detailing the building’s history, “one for every century the house of Rucellai has persevered,” and seven shorter pianos where her own story unfolds. The result is a complex narrative as rationally structured as Alberti’s façade, which is damned helpful because a home built smack in the middle of the flourishing of the Italian Renaissance has seen a few things.

Palazzo Rucellai in Florence1890 ca.Rossellino, Bernardo;;Alberti Leon Battista (1404-1472)1455 -1470Florence
Plan of the ground floor of Palazzo Rucellai, c. 1846, with houses numbered in order of acquisition date and original owners identified

A representative sampling: a family’s ascent from merchants to aristocrats via lucrative purple dye; the Quattrocento genius of Alberti; art by Fra Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio, Uccello, and others; an heir turned follower of heretic priest Savoranola; a hidden 16th-century embalmed corpse; an 18th-century bride’s suicidal jump onto an interior courtyard; secret glyphs carved on entry stones; Marie Antoinette’s 35-carat diamond earrings; Fascist Russian émigrés and their orgies; Middle Eastern princesses; psychic readings; the bludgeoning murder of Cy Twombly’s close friend’s ex-husband; and a romance between the author and a Rucellai descendent. Depending on temperament, a reader might find such manic thoroughness exhausting or exhilarating. I was in the exhilaration camp, for sure. Levy is a thorough and thoroughly engaging storyteller, leaving no stone of the Palazzo Rucellai unexamined.

Giovanni Rucellai, attributed to Francesco Salviati, seated against a backdrop of his most celebrated architectural commissions, all by Leon Battista Alberti

The book is at its richest — layered with stories and contextual insight — when it hews to Levy’s own profound understanding of Renaissance history and culture. Levy is fond of the word palimpsest, which appears in the first paragraph of the preface and several times throughout the book, but palimpsest — something reused or altered but still bearing outlines of its earlier form — is not quite how the book reads. A palimpsest is the faint influence of the past on a present iteration. Levy’s book is more like a reverse palimpsest, where what’s farthest away — the palazzo’s Renaissance origin story and early years — is most powerful and distinct, while what’s newest — Fascist Florence, American expatriate artists — feels less solid or historically lasting.

Maybe such feeling is simply the weight of history overshadowing more contemporary stories, since the Palazzo Rucellai embodies not just the very language of Renaissance architecture, but everything those ideals reflect and express. Alberti wrote influential treatises on art, architecture, sculpture, and even on the family. His 1435 treatise On Painting codified and explained Brunelleschi’s rediscovery of one-point perspective and, as Levy observes, “The most fundamental — and far-reaching — tenet of Alberti’s theory of painting was his conception, pre-Microsoft, of the picture plane as a window.” So Levy’s account of a family home is also a tour and tutorial on Renaissance history, another way of relaying Western art history itself. For that alone, House of Secrets is revelatory. But there’s so much more, a whole memory palace embodied by the Palazzo Rucellai for which Levy — author, art historian, inhabitant — is the ideal guide.

Scorcio di Via della Vigna Nuova, a Firenze. A destra si intravede la facciata di Palazzo Rucellai1865 ca.

House of Secrets: The Many Lives of a Florentine Palazzo by Allison Levy is out from Tauris Parke, Bloomsbury Publishing

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