Monday, 1 July 2013

Medieval Skyscraper: the Palazzo dei Consoli in Gubbio Italy

The Palazzo dei Consoli rises dramatically above the medieval Umbrian town of Gubbio.

Gubbio's soaring Palazzo dei Consoli is a symbol of the town's once great medieval power and is one of the most beautiful gothic palaces in Italy, reports Jeanne-Marie Cilento from Umbria. Photographs by Jeanne-Marie Cilento and Ambrosio De Lauro

Driving through the rugged green terrain of Umbria you eventually reach Gubbio in the far northeastern corner of the Italian region. The ancient town is located on the slope of Mt Ingino, one of the mountains that form the spine of the Apennines running through central Italy. Looming above the town is the grey-pink stone mass of the castellated Palazzo dei Consoli.

Built between 1332 and 1337, the design of the building is attributed by some scholars to Gattapone and by others to Angelo da Orvieto. The majestic palazzo has plain walls made from blocks of local stone and decorated with a row of windows on its upper storey with a series of hanging arches and a Guelph battlement above. It is easy to imagine in this austere setting, the scene from Herman Hesse's novel Steppenwolf where the isolated protagonist consoles himself by recalling a scene the author may have seen during his travels: "That slender cypress on the hill over Gubbio that, though split and riven by a fall of stone, yet held fast to life and put forth with its last resources a new green branch at the top".

The imposing complex of Palazzo dei Consoli, the Palazzo Pretorio and the piazza which links them were first talked about between 1321 and 1322. The aim of this early urban plan was for the buildings to be erected in a place that could link the different quarters of the town. To construct the buildings, huge vaults were designed underneath to support the piazza which appears suspended above the town.

Tremendous engineering works were needed to create a large enough flat space on the side of  the hill to construct the Palace and the Piazza della Signoria in front of it. The building was erected on the massive arched structure below and is the largest in the world. The piazza and the surrounding architectural complex represented a new style, one that would only flower into full bloom a century later in Florence during the Renaissance.

The palace has a square plan and sits above a series of terraces corresponding to the building's lower floors. The palace was the first in the city served by a public hydraulic system, which fed a fountain - still found in the main salon of the interior. The palace's façade on the piazza is stone with round arched windows in the upper part. Above them are merlons supported by ogival arches. The lower part of the building features mullioned windows enclosing the Gothic-style portal with a 16th century fresco in the lunette. The entrance, preceded by a fan-shaped staircase, leads to the arengo, a big hall with barrel vaults that was used in the Middle Ages by Gubbio’s parliamentary assembly.

Today, the Palazzo dei Consoli houses the Civic Museum exhibiting archaeological finds from Gubbio's ancient Roman Threatre and other sites plus the famous bronze Iguvine Tablets.  Gubbio’s important picture gallery in the palace contains works by local painters and Tuscan masters. The building still retains a Medieval iron cage which was once used for public humiliation of robbers and criminals.

The rest of the historical centre of Gubbio looks essentially medieval with dim, narrow Gothic streets and dark-grey stone houses dating to the 14th and 15th centuries built for wealthy merchants. But the town has more ancient origins and the hills above Gubbio were first occupied in the Bronze Age. An important centre of ancient Umbrian peoples in pre-Roman times, the city became famous for the discovery of the Iguvine Tablets, a set of bronze tablets that constitute the largest surviving text in ancient Umbrian. After the Roman conquest in the 2nd century BC, the town originally called Iguvium, remained an important city with a Roman amphitheatre ~ the second-largest that survives in the world.

The city reached the height of its power at the beginning of the Middle Ages, sending one thousand knights to fight in the First Crusade under Count Girolamo Gabrielli. The following centuries were turbulent as Gubbio was constantly engaged in wars against surrounding towns in Umbria. With the decline of the political reign of the powerful Gabrielli family, Gubbio became part of the territories of the Montefeltro. Federico de Montefeltro rebuilt the ancient Palazzo Ducale creating a studiolo veneered with intarsia just like his renowned study at Urbino. The famous maiolica industry at Gubbio reached its apogee in the first half of the 16th century with metallic lustre glazes imitating gold and copper. A major centre for the production of Italian pottery during the Renaissance, the most important potter was Maestro Giorgio Andreoli.

Click on photographs for full-screen slideshow
The arcaded loggia on the palace's top floors with views across the town to the surrounding Apennines.
From Gubbio's lower town, the Palazzo dei Consoli dominates the medieval city.

Walking through Gubbio past 14th and 15th Century houses, the palace's crenellated battlements are always in view. 





The entrance to the palace is through a great round-arched doorway which predates by a century the rise of Classicism during the Renaissance in Florence.

Built from the local pink-grey limestone, the Palazzo dei Consoli has a mixture of both Gothic and Classical elements that made the design at the forefront of architectural fashion when it was built between 1332-1337.


A brick and stone walkway leading up from the town to the Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo dei Consoli

Looking down from the main portal of the palace to the wide-open space of the terracotta-coloured piazza supported, like the palace, on great arched vaults below ~ a tremendous feat of engineering for the medieval period.

One of the medieval doors in oak with cast-iron locks that opens from the palace's main entrance into the ground floor's enormous vaulted assembly room.

During the Middle Ages, this large room on the ground floor of the palace was the meeting place for Gubbio's local government. 

Today, the barrel-vaulted space is home to the town's civic museum with it's collection of ancient Umbrian, Roman and medieval artefacts.

Roman terracotta storage pots are mixed with fragments from ancient buildings that pre-date the town's medieval buildings we see today.


Terracotta and stone coat of arms in the palace's assembly hall
Marble sarcophagus with portrait busts and genii of the Seasons 3rd Century A.D

Ancient  Roman stele or gravestone found in Gubbio and exhibited in the Palazzo dei Consoli's main hall.

A worn stone internal stairway between the top floors of the palace.

One of the iron-barred windows on the top floor of the palace looking out across the town.

The Palazzo dei Consoli's ample loggia that provides views right across Gubbio and the surrounding countryside to the mountains.

Looking down from the palace's loggia to the medieval centro storico and out to the newer parts of Gubbio built on the flatter land outside the centre. 

An early photograph of the largest room on the piano nobile that was used for formal dinners with it's long oak table and chairs and walls hung with the works of local and Tuscan painters. 
The Palazzo dei Consoli today with it's original furniture, fountains and paintings.
A massive stone fireplace with Classical rather than Gothic decorative details that was used to heat the main salon on the piano nobile. 


 The famous maiolica made in Gubbio during the Renaissance and created by Maestro Giorgio Andreoli between 1525-1530.

Maiolica plate from Gubbio with a sophisticated decoration of hand-painted grotesques and a central medallion of woman in dress of the 16th Century.


A solid walnut chest for storing materials dating from the 15th Century.
 Maestro of the Cross Gubbio, Crucifix 14th Century, tempura on board. 
Earthenware pots made in gubbio in the 14th Century.

An iron Roman jug with decorative handle dating to 500 B.C found in Gubbio

A Roman marble architectural fascia from a building in Gubbio. 

A bird carved into the local stone that decorated one of the towns traditional Umbrian houses predating the Romans.
A Classical Roman male figure in white marble discovered in Gubbio. 
One of the bronze Iguvine tablets discovered in Gubbio that show the Etruscan and Latin alphabet used to describe Umbrian rituals. 

A stone carved panel created by the pre-Roman Umbrian people that lived in Gubbio.
Terracotta ancient Roman oil lamps found in Gubbio
An early Classical door surround in marble above the entrance to a 15th Century house.

Gubbio is built on terraces rising up the hillside and the town has strategic views across the countryside.
One of the tall 14th Century houses built above the carriageway leading up to Gubbio's piazza and the Palazzo dei Consoli

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