Palazzo Vecchio Staircase Restoration Work Reveals 16th-Century Frescoes

| Wed, 04/19/2023 - 13:05
A restorer works in the "secret" staircase of Palazzo Vecchio

We see it time and time again in Italy: A run-of-the-mill restoration gets underway, only to be interrupted by the discovery of new artworks and artifacts.

This was the case last week when a group of restorers in Florence, working on an unused staircase inside the Palazzo Vecchio, announced they had peeled back layers of plaster — only to find a series of grottesche frescoes thought to date from the mid-16th century. (“Grotesques” or grotesque motifs are decorative, often whimsically arranged depictions of animals, humans and plants.)

The frescoes unveiled are believed to have been completed by Marco Marchetti da Faenza (1528-1588) or one of his immediate contemporaries, who worked on various painted surfaces throughout Palazzo Vecchio.  

The “secret staircase” restoration, overseen by the City of Florence’s Belle Arti (Fine Arts) commission, had been underway for several months prior to the find. In addition to these new grotesques, the restoration team previously uncovered similar grotesques painted on wood and canvas on the small barrel and cross vaults, on Palazzo landings and in some offices. 

The latter artworks, however, seem attributable to a different hand than those on the staircase. Restorers are theorizing that they date to a later period, but will have a more precise idea after cleaning tests are completed.

The staircase’s treasures: Secrets within a secret

View of secret staircase in Palazzo Vecchio
Photo: Comune di Firenze

Historical records show that the staircase was intended to be an escape route for Eleonora di Toledo and Cosimo de' Medici if ever necessary. The passageway leads from the Terrazzo di Saturno (Terrace of Saturn) to the ground floor on the Via dei Leoni side of Palazzo Vecchio. 

In a statement addressing last week’s discovery, Mayor Dario Nardella said, “Palazzo Vecchio is a treasure chest of beauty that lurks around every corner, and this umpteenth discovery proves it: These are grotesque decorations dating from around the mid-16th century that are returning to their original splendor thanks to painstaking work.” 

Once the plaster surfaces have been re-stabilized using laser tools, restoration work can begin on the paintings themselves. Upon completion of the restoration, the staircase will be integrated back into the exit system of the Palace. 

“Beautifully decorated surfaces are coming back to light; it is the result of the commitment of technicians and restorers, a great team effort to protect and enhance a part of the Palace that has yet to be rediscovered,” said Florence’s Deputy Mayor and Councillor for Culture, Alessia Bettini.