The Porta Rossa district



hat is the Porta Rossa district ? In fact, it is difficult to establish a real homogeneity, either geographical or historical, for this region of Florence.


The ancient period

At the very beginning, the district is marginal, one of the borders of the roman rectangle (Roman primitive wall map),in 59 before J.C. following the traditional datation, but probably later, during the Augustean period, if we trust the archeological excavations at the original roman camp (castrum). The district, as the whole city, emerges in a marshland. Its most outstanding elements were the Arno river and the surrounding hills, for the landscape, and the Adrian’s period’s bridge, for the economical and military importance. Limit of the current district, the present via Por Santa Maria, “Ad pontem” street at the Roman time, was the principal axis, leading to the door, probably flanked by two towers, over the bridge. Another limit, the present via Tornabuoni, marked the western limit of the Roman city. Its current configuration is very recent.

Archeology gives more complex informations. The roman wall was irregular, and ended by reaching, in the Porta Rossa district, if not the river Arno itself, at least the back of beyond the traditionally reputed city’s limit, along the via delle Terme, on which stands the present Hotel Porta Rossa. This street marks, by its name, the existence there of a Roman thermal bathing establishment, even if external to the oldest city’s layout. We date this Roman urban expansion around the Adrian’s period (76 - 138 a. J.C., reign from 117 to 138). It was a prosperous period
for the city, particularly for the district, directly connected to the via Cassia, starting from the present Piazza Santa Trinita. The Roman castrum’s layout is immediatly visible on aerial sights and photographs.

The present palaces Bartolini-Torrigiani (Hotel Porta Rossa)and Bartolini-Salimbeni stand thus along the Roman site’s layout. Via Porta Rossa was probably the last interior way, parallel with the decumanus (East-West street, economic axis in the heart of a Roman or Gallo-Roman city) of the castrum. In correspondence with this street a door had been built in the wall, brought to light in 1894 by archeological excavations, which frame was made of red brick. This is a first possible origin of the Porta Rossa name, not only for the door, but also for the street, and thereafter for the hotel.
We dont know many things about the district’s life during the Roman period. We can however imagine that the proximity of large circulation’s axes and the bridge, as well as the thermal baths for relaxation, would make of this district a pleasant place, also equipped with taverns and hotels, for travellers and merchants. Surely this was the sector where the activities related to the road traffic and the fluvial movements on the Arno river were located. Archeology let us think that some activity of small metallurgy had taken place near Por Santa Maria, while the textile workshops were around via Porta Rossa, and the tanneries near the river, because of their great requirements in water.
The current streets of the district, between via Porta Rossa and the Arno, the “chiassi”, have the same rectilinear layout of the old Roman streets and lanes.
The barbarian invasions destroy houses, baths, and especially the bridge on river Arno. The whole zone is abandoned to the invaders, who burn and plunder everything. The Byzantines will then strengthen and defend a very reduced sector, compared to the original Roman city. The layout shows that only 40% of its area was left occupied during this unpropitious period.


The medieval period

The bridge on the Arno was rebuilt only in the IX century. That allows, between the IX and the XI centuries, the rebuilding of the whole district, with new and heavier infrastructures. The woodden constructions are the majority, but one also can see “case-corti”, commercial houses articulated around courts, as stores and warehouses, or the ”case-torri”, articulated around a noble family’s stone tower and their consortery (groups of clients), in town.


The barbarian invasion destroy houses, baths, and specially the bridge on river Arno. The whole zone is abandoned to the invaders, who burn and plunder. The Byzantines strengthen and defend a very reduced sector, compared to the original Roman city.shows that only 40% of surface remain occupied during this harmful period.


The district, marginal during the Roman period, and out of the walls under the Byzantines, finds itself after the XII century’s city extension, fully downtown. It develops around three churches (S.Maria sopra Porta, SS. Apostoli, S. Trinita), and contains 20 family’s and consortery’s towers (in 1180). The new city wall construction, from 1173, and the rebuilding of the bridge in 1178, contribute to the district fast developement.

We need to evoke here the districts’ organisation, where private and public spheres are inextricably mingled. Around nobles and leading families’, “magnati” or “potentes”, as the Florentines called them, houses and towers, a group forms, similarly to what occurs in the country castles. One or more noble families dominate the group, imposing their prerogatives, and organise the group in a feudal type’s structure. Thus, the Monaldi organize around their tower (Torre Monalda) a consorteria, i.e. a common interests’ group. The various buildings of the consorteria’s members
are connected by footbridges, corbellings, and are strengthened towards exterior. They contain everything necessary to the group survival: food, water, a chapel… From the prestige, power or force of these groups depends the height of the tower, often in competition, sometimes washed in blood, with other groups and consorteries. From that probably comes the Torre Monalda’s nickname, "la Rognosa".

The authorities want to bring these uncontrollable citizens back to the standards. They act in all possible ways, coercive or softer, trying to impose and generalize in any case control structures, in order to restore the safety and the social peace in the town centre.
The smaller territorial community gathers around the parish church. It is the first level of administrative and social organisation, with an autonomous profile, for religious, military and fiscal matters. In Florence, the vicinia (gathering of the heads of household resident, regularly convened to discuss the common matters) coincide with the parish, i.e. with the populus, or capella, contrata or parrochia, according to their terminologies. These parochial communities are attested since XII century.They are 40 for the whole city in XIII century, almost 60 at the beginning of the XIV, many more in the year 1420. Around 1300, Florence counts approximately 110 000 inhabitants. Thus, each parish reaching on average 1800 inhabitants, it means that some are very wide and populated, others minuscule.

It is a well defined organization: to the ecclesiastical personal is added a secular administrative structure, the heads of household council. An appointed mayor represents the community before
the authorities of the Comune. He is helped by administrators, messengers and collectors, to exert the delicate functions of tax imposition and perception, and to ensure the management of the community’s inheritance. The cappellani del popolo (chaplains of the parish) exert the police tasks.
Also important in the district’s structure are the Arti, i.e. the Florence corporations. With a jurisdictional capacity, they take care of certain professions’ interests, and regulate their practice. They exert a quality control, guarantee honest practices, and ensure to their members the monopoly on their specific products. Arts have the autority to prosecute, judge and condemn whoever infringes the statutes’ imposed rules. The Societas mercatorum appeared in XII century, a single
" Art of the merchants", it subdivides towards the century’ end in six other Arts, known as Arti Maggiori, the majors. At their sides, little by little, Arti known as minor were formed, for the lower scale professions, held by the small and middle class, with a lesser political and economical role. Certain trades are excluded from it, because the membership fee is so high that small employers and isolated craftsmen cannot pay it. Since the ordinances of 1293, are only allowed in the political life of the city those who are members of major arts. The Arti are directed, in an identical form, by two consuls, elected for six months, and by two councils.
Among major arts we find:
• doctors and apothecaries Art, to which Dante and Giotto were attached
• the Arte della lana, most important between 1340 and the XVI century, occupying a third of the florentine population
• the Art of the goldsmiths, manufacturers of jewels, weapons, crockery, where are to be found some major artists of the Rinascimento, as Donatello, Luca della Robbia, or Benvenuto Cellini
• the Art of the notaries, honoured as essential auxiliary to the others
• the Arte di Calimala, first-born of Arts, includes national and international business, industry (cloths, exotics products …), banking and financial transactions, loan and exchange. Its the most international of the arts.
• the leather masters, resulting from fusion, in 1534, of three minor corporations (skin dressers, manufacturers of belts and shoe-makers). This Arte occupies around 3000 craftsmen.
.the Arte della Seta, Art of silk, or di Por Santa Maria was born at the end of XII century, and grows in the Mercato Nuovo zone, today known as market or Loggia del Porcellino. Its symbol, a red door, is another possible origin for the via Porta Rossa name, and consequently for the Hotel Porta Rossa.


XV century's Shops and craftsmen in the Porta Rossa district

The two most commercial arteries of the district are Borgo Santi Apostoli and Via delle Terme,
and probably also Via Tornabuoni in the west side, and via Porta Rossa. They belonged to the Gonfalone Vipera of the large district of Santa Maria Novella. They join, as today, via Por Santa Maria with the piazza Santa Trinita. It does not seem that it was a site of activities’ particular concentration. In a chronicle of 1470, the only specifically noted shops are in via Porta Rossa : an important spices’ merchant, a goldsmith, some sculpture’s “botteghe” in piazza Santa Trinita and close to the Bartolini palace. As Francesco Datini’s letter in 1386, other documents quote in 1519 the “Osteria del Cammello in Portarossa", current Hotel Porta Rossa, as well as "dipintori, chalzolai, e un fornaio", painters, shoe-makers and a baker. The present building probably causes the loss of the ancient inn, putting in its place the Bartolini's Palazzo degli Sportici, while the hotel’s vocation of the building will be mantained.

Tax and cadastral sources give us some more informations. They mention (1363, 1427) for via Por Santa Maria, Borgo Santi Apostoli, and surroundings, the presence of specialists in painting on trunk, “cofanai” or “forzinerai”, registered as Arte di San Luca, but also of painters (1435, 1452), organized in several botteghe, around the Piazza Santa Trinita, on the other side of the district. Their number grows, as it appears for example in the land register of 1469, in second half of XV century. Borgo Santi Apostoli counted at least six of them. The Libro Rosso della compagnia dei Pittori, red book of the painters’ company, shows that there are much more painters in the zone between via Porta Rossa and via Pellicceria than in the rest of the city. Other people stated to work in the same district, painters, goldsmiths, were probably associated in the above mentioned botteghe. The shops are mainly located in the case-corti or case-torri, which, on court or street, had space enough to receive these activities. After the great plague of 1348, the spaces used before for trade were free. The land’s registers and other books indicate that these shops are very small, but the artistic activity requires few square meters, ultimately. Obviously, not always is it easy to locate precisely the shops, nor their successive holders. The files, often incomplete, and the changes in the district frame do not allow it anymore.

Other shops are documented in the current palazzo Bartolini-Salimbeni site. A painter and a carpenter at the via Porta Rossa and Piazza Santa Trinita corner. A shop of painting on wax and candles exists in the site at the beginning of the XVI century. "Technical" collaborations exist, for instance between a painter and a mattress maker, who provided complete decorated beds, with their bed linen. In second half of XV, the via Porta Rossa was well provided in handicrafts shops
of all kinds, painters, certainly, but also goldsmiths and gold beaters, wood merchants… If some are well known, the major part of them is known from us only by a single mention in archives.

In these shops several configurations are to be found. They can belong to the same owner, who rents them to different craftsmen, in a same space at a same time. The Bartolini lodge thus carpenters, painters, goldsmiths, in the shops of their palaces. It is rare that a small holder rents a shop, using it for himself. Sometimes, the same contractor rents several shops in the same zone to several different owners. Its, for example, Bernardo Rosselli's case, who holds several painting botteghe in the piazza Santa Tirinita sector, around 1500. But the majority of craftmen tenants occupy one shop for one activity.

The forces working at the district’s scale, nobility, parishes and cappellani of justice, Arti, are an important power. But the situation changes as the time passes. When the commune reinforces its structures, the magnati lose power, and find themselves integrated, little by little, among the common run of citizens. As a symbol, their towers are limited in height and lose their military role, finishing integrated in the rich lately made palaces. When the city power, starting from the great Plague of 1348, is centralized and reinforced, the local authorities lose their role as first level in justice administration, keeping just an administrative and fiscal second-rate role. When the city, besieged by Charles V in 1530, evacuates the Arts’ houses, their ruin starts, pushing them to a final decline.


Renaissance modifications are superimposed on medieval urban fabric, rather by isolated blocks, as in the two palates of Baccio d’Agnolo , or in the Palagio di parte Guelfa, than by large alterations. They introduce new construction typologies, palate and palazzetti, less scale palates. The streets' and lanes' network yields, a little, to the new layouts requirements and communicatioin axes in the city. But the district remains surprisingly stable, and marked by some beautiful achievements. Among them, Palazzo Strozzi, started in 1489, in the district center which the Strozzi family controlled, Palazzo Davanzati, built towards half of XIV century, as the Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni, in via Porta Rossa, the palaces of Piazza Santa Trinita, Palazzo Spini Feroni, built starting from 1289, and Palazzo Buondelmonti, of the beginning of XVI century, and which still integrates the Torre Buondelmonti, the palazzo Borgherini, now known as palazzo Rosselli-del-Turco.


The palates in the district of Porta Rossa

Palate Address Period To remark (architect, architecture...)
Palazzo ANTINORI 3, piazzetta Antinori About 1550 Allotted to Baccio D’Agnolo.
Palazzo BARTOLINI SALIMBENI 1, piazza Santa Trinita XIV and XV C. Baccio D’Agnolo. Pretty frontage, two stages, mullioned windows.
Palazzo BUONDELMONTI piazza Santa Trinita XVe C.  
Palazzo CORSINI 11, via del Parione, Lungarno Corsini 1650 Important painting collection from XV to the XVII centuries. Helicoid baroque stone staircase by Pier Francesco Silvani.
Palazzo DAVANZATI 13, via Porta Rossa XIV to XVII C. Cortile of XV, staircases and wooden slopes, painted decoration of XIV century.
Palazzo FERONI and SPINI-FERONI via Tornabuoni XIII C.  
Palazzo dell' ARTE della LANA via Calimala XIII C. Frescos of XIV century.
Palazzo di PARTE GUELFA via delle Term    
Palazzo GONDI piazza San Firenze XV C. Built for Gondi, family shared between Florence and France.
Palazzo LARDEREL via Tornabuoni   Frontage of Giovanni Antonio Dosio.
Palazzo NONFINITO 12 via del Proconsolo   A legend.
Palazzo ORLANDINI LED BECCUTO via Pecori End of XVI C. Anton Maria Ferri
Palazzo PAZZI via del Proconsolo XIV C. Brunelleschi and Giuliano da Maiano
Palazzo PORTINARI SALVIATI 6 via del Corso   Beautiful court, painted frescos of XV century. Grotesque decoration.
Palazzo RICASOLI piazza Goldoni    
Palazzo ROSSELLI DEL TURCO 17 borgo Santi Apostoli    
Palazzo RUCELLAI via della Vigna Nuova   Principal frontage decorated with pilasters.
Palazzo STROZZI piazza Strozzi   Giuliano da Sangallo. Frontage with cornices. A model.
Palazzo STROZZINO piazza Strozzi 1462 Michelozzo