Plaster removal from the vaulted ceilings and walls of an unused “secret” staircase in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio has revealed 500-year-old frescoes in the grotesque style. Surviving records note that the secret staircase was built in the middle of the 16th century to provide a quick escape route to Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Tuscany, and his wife Eleonora di Toledo, from the Terrace of Saturn to the ground floor exit on Via dei Leoni. Over the centuries, the barrel vaulted ceilings and walls were covered in multiple layers of plaster. The grotesque paintings emerged after restorers painstakingly removed layer after layer to reach the original plaster. There has been some paint loss and delamination of the plaster from the wall, so as the decorated surfaces are exposed, conservators having been working to restore and stabilize them.
The Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall built in the early 1300s, became the Medici ducal palace as well as the seat of government in 1540 when Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici moved there. He was the second duke of Tuscany, the first to inherit the title since its establishment as an inherited title. The first duke, Alessandro de’ Medici, was embroiled in scandals and was ultimately assassinated by a family member with a competing claim to the duchy. Alessandro had no legitimate issue, so the dukedom went to Cosimo, a distant relative from a junior branch of the family.
The teenager had never even lived in Florence and was a complete unknown in the city. He was on shaky political ground, and sought to shore up his power by associating his rule with Florence’s (and his family’s) history. Moving into the Palazzo Vecchio conveyed continuity and strength while reinforcing his position as the sole ruler of the duchy. Given the tenuousness of his position, having a secret escape route built so he and his new bride could get out of the building without having to descend the monumental staircase was only prudent.
When conservation is complete, the staircase will be integrated into the emergency exit system for the palace offices, thereby returning it to its original function.