Francesco – you-can’t-get-much-more-private-than-a-coffin – de’Medici

All hail Francesco de’Medici, the richest, most powerful man in Renaissance Italy. He lived in a stonking great palace and put the fear of God into everyone. You’d think he’d have been able to lay his hands on a bit of peace and quiet, wouldn’t you?

Well, you’d be wrong.

Apart from being the Grand Duke’s princely pad, the Palazzo Vecchio doubled up as the headquarters of the Florentine government. In the Salone dei Cinquecento – at 1,145 square feet, probably the largest room in Europe – the 500-strong membership of the People’s Assembly would gather. What a noisy, raucous place it must have been. Crowds of colourfully-dressed politicians doing deals. Their dogs running around marking their territory. Servants milling around moaning about their paltry pay. Everyone overlooked by the military heroes depicted in Giorgio Vasari’s murals plastered over the 59-foot-high walls. Commissioned to commemorate the city’s martial prowess, they reflected both the glory of Florence and Medici muscle.

Actually, Francesco did manage to find himself some ‘me’ time. But he had to manufacture it, and – because he wanted to hang on to it – he had to keep schtum: until his death, no one but he and a handful of trusted retainers knew of its existence. Francesco’s Studiolo (like its English equivalent ‘closet’, the word originally described a monk’s cell) is just 24 feet long, 9 feet high. With its barrel-vaulted ceiling and lack of windows, it’s dark and claustrophobic. Much like the inside of a coffin and just as cheery.

Francesco sorely needed his privacy. In 1574, a stroke had led his father, Cosimo, to abdicate. The polar opposite to his dad, Francesco wasn’t remotely interested in politics. Introverted, scholarly, not to mention eccentric, he spent much of his boyhood in scientific enquiry or taking solitary nocturnal walks. Nowadays he’d be diagnosed as depressive or socio-phobic.

Francesco’s Studiolo was hidden within the structure of the palace, built within the thickness of its walls. It could only be reached through a secret passageway linked to a small door at the back of Francesco’s bedroom. And that’s not all; once ensconced in his Studiolo, Francesco could pass through a door hidden behind a painting into a secret laboratory, just 6 foot square. Here Francesco, who loved dabbling in the occult, alchemy and medicine, searched for a cure for his melancholia.

How must Francesco have felt as he turned the cold metal key and felt it grating in the lock, knowing he – and he alone – could access his secret space? Though the Studiolo was next to the rowdy People’s Assembly, perhaps he felt safe in the knowledge that not even a spider would dare invade his private sanctum.

How precious that must have been in a world where privacy was so rare.

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