Via dei Servi

Or, way too much about a few city blocks in Florence.

Via dei Servi is a short stretch (about 1/3 of a mile) that lays between the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. The street is named for the Servants of Mary, a religious order founded in the 13th century, and whose home church, Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata, gives its name to the piazza.

Starting from the northeast corner of Piazza del Duomo, at the restaurant Le Botteghe di Donatello (formerly the home and studio of Donatello, who rented it in 1454), turn onto Via dei Servi.  

The Renaissance-era palazzo just across from the restaurant is Casa Ghiberti , named for its 17th century owner. At the corner of the palazzo, above street level, you’ll see a small aedicule framing a Madonna and Child.

This tabernacle is a reminder not to get too caught up in window shopping–pause and look upwards to take in a fuller view of these spectacular buildings—many are richly decorated, and there’s a diversity of architectural styles–although most were built in the 16th century, several were added or remodeled in later centuries. Also, be sure to check out the walls at street corners for family heralds, religious icons, and other such treasures. It’s always worth stopping and looking behind as the via offers astonishing views of the Duomo for the entire stretch of road.

At the end of the block, at Via Maurizio Bufalini, a plain façade fronts a church started in the 14th century. Chiesa di San Michele Visdomini (AKA San Michelino) was built to replace a church that formerly stood in what became Piazza del Duomo (the original church had been torn down to make way for the Duomo).

The yellow building adjacent to the Church was built as its rectory. The writing on the building’s side, Fabbrica di Cornici, seems something of a ghost sign as the shop currently sells lamps.

A small plaque at the church’s front notes that the great Renaissance painter Fillipino Lippi (1457-1504) was buried in this place. Allegedly, on the day he was buried all of Florence’s artists closed their studios to mark his passing.

Lippi’s great works include some of the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel, which he completed after the death of Masaccio (who lived, briefly, at #17 on this same street). He included a self-portrait in one of those frescoes: The Dispute with Simon Magus.

Directly across from the church, Palazzo Incontri was home to the Medici in the 15th century; it was later sold to, among others, the families Vespucci, Salviati, and Incontri. It later housed the headquarters of Banca CR Firenze.

Just beyond the church, Via dei Servi intersects with two streets. To the right, along the side of San Michelino, you have Via Bufalina. On the corner here, there’s a sweet 19th century tabernacle of the Madonna and child. It’s affixed to Palazzo Pasqui, which presents 14th and 16th century architectural styles. A plaque on the palazzo notes that the early-Renaissance artist, sculptor Benedetto de Maiano, had a workshop here (de Maiano worked on, among other things, the beautiful marble pulpit in Santa Croce).

Across the street, Via dei Servi meets Via de’ Pucci, a street named for the Palazzo it runs along. Ehe Pucci family crest marks the street corner. The old city walls essentially tracked along the site of Via Bufilina and Via de’ Pucci, and this intersection is marked by a street sign noting “Canto di Balla,” as it was the location of Porta della Balla, a door in the ancient city walls (Via dei Servi was formerly known as Borga di Balla).

Palazzo Pucci as it appears from Via dei Servi. The walls here
used to hide the Palazzo gardens

A short ways down—where Via del Castellaccio runs up at an angle—rises the Palazzo Sforza Almeni, built in the 16th century. The heavy grates before its windows rest on sculpted turtles. Inside, the building features frescoes by Vasari. The palazzo now houses the Museo de Medici, which is the first museum to focus exclusively on the Medici.   

The Palazzo buts up against a structure owned by the Arte della Lana, the powerful wool-makers’ guild (which played a significant role in the Duomo’s construction). The guild’s emblem appears on a plaque above the ground floor.

A few steps away, at number 15, stands Palazzo Niccolini, a magnificent, imposing structure that features exterior decorations that include graffiti added in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, Fascists claimed this building as its Casa del Fascio–the group’s Florentine headquarters (a fine article on fascism in Florence is available here). Following the war, the building housed British and American soldiers.

Number 15
Numbers 15 and 17

Number 17 now provides administrative offices, but formerly it belonged to the Bandini and Boutourline families. A plaque beside the door notes that the artist Masaccio (Tommaso Guidi) lived here in 1427. Giorgio Vasari called Masaccio the greatest painter of his cohort, Brunelleschi mourned his death, and if you’ve ever visited the Brancacci Chapel, you understand why.

Across the street is the Leonardo da Vinci Interactive Museum where you can explore and play with machines da Vinci invented. 

The emblem of the Arte della Lana reappears–it stands above a pair of shopfronts. The Belgian Embassy occupies this building (the floors above the shops, at any rate).

Next door stands a pharmacy that is a half-millennium old: Farmacia S. S. Annunziata. A small, silver Annunciation scene perches over the storefront. The shop specializes in fragrances and cosmetics marketed under their house name (FSSA 1561).

an ideal place to stop and glance back

Reminding us that the street was renamed the Servants of Mary, at number 27, a narrow building with five floors, there remains a small stone plaque, high in a wall, that displays the Order’s emblem: a stylized “S” wrapped around a lily (similar plaques adorn #37 down the street).

Palazzo Durazzo Stacchini stands on the corner of Via dei Servi and Via degli Alfani. This grand home was remodeled in the 19th century, but the architect incorporated elements of the 16th century exterior.

The final monumental palazzo, from the mid-16th century, is the Palazzo Budini Gattai. It’s a stunning structure that overlooks both Via dei Servi and Piazza SS . Annunziata. Its rooms are available for conferences, weddings, and other events.

After three palazzo-packed blocks, Via dei Servi ends in a piazza. This is Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. It’s claimed that this piazza is the first Renaissance square in the world. But those details are for another day.

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