The British Institute made its first public ‘appearance’ in the Renaissance Rucellai Loggia, which stands across the Via della Vigna Nuova from Palazzo Rucellai. It was a curiously appropriate choice, since family loggias such as this one had originally been conceived specifically for the staging of public ‘appearances,’ although admittedly of quite a different kind.
Florentine patrician families used to build loggias either on the ground floor of their palaces or as separate structures nearby, in which they celebrated weddings and other significant events. The Florentines were always welcome spectators at such festivities. Eventually, these types of semi-public loggias fell out of fashion and were replaced by more private ones on the top storeys of palaces. As a matter of fact, the Rucellai Loggia is one of the last of its kind to have been built.
The loggia probably was already on Giovanni Rucellai’s list of ‘things to do’ as early as 1457, but work wasn’t started until the 1460s, and it was finished just in time for the spectacular wedding of Giovanni’s son Bernardo to Lorenzo the Magnificent’s sister Nannina dei Medici in June 1466. On this occasion, the family and guests filled not only the loggia but also the entire piazza between the loggia and the palace. They were treated to sumptuous meals prepared by cooks in a huge outdoor kitchen set up just for this purpose in the street running along the left flank of the palace. Interestingly, the loggia was not designed by the architect of Rucellai’s extraordinary palace façade, Leon Battista Alberti; the name found in the records is that of the virtually unknown Antonio di Migliorino Guidotti.
A year before the end of World War I, in the autumn of 1917, Lina Waterfield and Edward Hutton obtained a lease of the Loggia Rucellai and opened the British Institute’s first reading room and classroom. The library was installed downstairs, and classes were held upstairs, presumably in a no-longer extant mezzanine storey. Director was Dr Arthur Francis Spender, uncle of the poet Stephen Spender.
The Rucellai Loggia was the ideal location for such a British establishment, since the English bakery Balboni & Müller (offering ‘the finest bread buns, biscuits and cakes’) was just a few doors down the Via della Vigna Nuova to the east. The old bakery’s name is still visible on the façade above the modern boutiques now occupying the site.
Entirely in keeping with the ephemeral nature of the celebrations for which the Rucellai Loggia had originally been built, the British Institute departed after less than a year to settle in more spacious premises. In June 1918 the books and desks were moved a few streets north to Via dei Conti 3, the 18th century Palazzo Malespini, which had been enlarged in the 19th century by the Marchesi Conti, ancestors of the present-day Ginori Conti.
Five years later, in May 1923, the British Institute moved again, establishing its headquarters in Palazzo Antinori, where it remained until December 1965. Palazzo Antinori stands on its own small piazza, at the north end of Via Tornabuoni. The palace was built between 1461 and 1469 for the banker Giovanni Boni, and although no architect is named in the documents, it is generally attributed to Giuliano da Maiano, based on its similarity to Palazzo Spannocchi in Siena, which Giuliano designed just a few years later.
After the Boni family’s financial failure in 1475, the palace was bought by Lorenzo the Magnificent dei Medici, who quickly sold it to Carlo and Ugolino Martelli. The Antinori acquired it from the Martelli heirs in 1506, and it has stayed in their possession ever since.
There have been many illustrious Antinori inhabiting the palace over the last 500 years, but one in particular—Senator Vincenzo, High Constable of the Knights of St Stephen—is remembered by local historians because of the social brilliance of his wife Teresa Capponi, who he married in 1734. Teresa had a flair for cultivating the friendship of foreign visitors and residents of Florence, such as the famous Horace Mann. One of the most memorable events ever staged at Palazzo Antinori is the grand ball Teresa hosted in 1752 for Prince and Princess Esterházy de Galántha. The guest list was studded with VIPs, among them Tuscan statesmen such as the Prince of Craon, Marc de Beauvau, who had served as Chairman of the Regency Council from 1737 to 1749.
While the British Institute occupied a part of Palazzo Antinori, some changes were undertaken to the interior, including the raising of walls inside rooms to create smaller spaces. The palace rooms were restored to their original dimensions after the Institute left in 1965.
Nowadays most people come to Palazzo Antinori to seek refreshment in the famous wine-bar ‘Cantinetta Antinori,’ which was opened about three decades ago in rooms off the courtyard. During the 1920s, readers and staff of the British Institute also took refreshment in the courtyard. But then it was tea, not wine, that they enjoyed: in the months from September to July, the Palazzo Antinori courtyard was transformed into a genteel Tea Room, where it was possible to indulge in ‘homemade American cakes, biscuits and jams.’
When the Institute’s lease in Palazzo Antinori expired, Sir Harold Acton, at a token rent, offered space he owned in the Palazzo Lanfredini at Lungarno Guicciardini 9—parts of the ground floor, the first floor and the mezzanine—to accommodate the library. His father Arthur had purchased this space in the 1920s, probably to store furniture and paintings that he bought and sold.
The palace was built by Baccio d’Agnolo at the turn of the 16th century for Lanfredino da Jacopo Lanfredini, Gonfalonier of Justice and member of an old and important family whose homes and tower were in Via Santa Spirito. In 1515 Jacopo da Pontormo frescoed the Lanfredini coat-of-arms—three concentric circles—supported by two angels above the inner entrance door. The angels have disappeared, but a recent restoration brought to light the Lanfredini coat-of-arms. Sgraffiti were applied to the facade by Andrea Cosimo Feltrini, presumably before November 1515 because the designs honor Pope Leo X who visited Florence then. In the late 1600s an allegorical fresco was painted on the ceiling of a room on the ground floor by Baldassare Franceschini, known as Volterrano. The palace passed to the Corboli family in 1741 when the Lanfredini became extinct with the death of Cardinal Leopold Lanfredini, whose sister had married a Corboli. The Corboli kept it for over a hundred years. For a period the palace became a hotel.
In the 19th century, four windows on the ground floor were closed, two additional doors opened and a two-storey crenalated structure was added at the top, altering the original appearance of the palace.
When Sir Harold Acton died in 1994, he left his portion of the palace to the British Institute. Signora Wanda Ferragamo generously restored the room where lectures and concerts are held today in memory of her daughter Fiamma. In 2000 the antiquarian Giovanni Conti, whose galleries are on the ground floor, had a historic plaque placed on the facade.
Although Sir Harold Acton resolved the problem of housing the library in 1966, there was no room in the Palazzo Lanfredini for classes and lectures. The Institute rented space from the Ferragamo family in the Palazzo Spini-Feroni in Piazza Santa Trinità for these purposes. For the first time the British Institute was not all under one roof.
The Spini, wealthy Guelf merchants and bankers, had lived in Florence from the time of the city’s foundation. Their original homes, on the site of the Palazzo Spini-Feroni, were severely damaged by the Ghibellines in the 1260s and almost totally destroyed by the flood of 1288. Soon after the flood, Geri Spini began construction of the fortress-like palace we see today, dividing it into two parts. His family occupied the northern half, and another branch of the family the half which extended to the Arno with an arch that permitted traffic to pass. The identity of the designer of the palace is uncertain; it has been attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, to his father Lapo Tedesco and to Spini himself.
Geri’s half of the palace remained in the family until 1651 when a later Geri died without heirs. It changed hands several times before Francesco Feroni bought it in 1768. The Feronis bought the other half in 1807. The entire palace was bought by the Hombert family in 1834. They turned it into an elegant hotel, named Hôtel de l’Europe. Among the many illustrious guests who stayed there were Prince Metternich and his family in 1838, and the hereditary Grand Duke Alexander of Russia. In 1846 the government of Florence acquired the palace. Florence was the capital of Italy from 1865 until 1871, and the municipal government was moved to the Palazzo Spini-Feroni for this period.
Salvatore Ferragamo bought the property in the 1930s and today it houses the flagship Ferragamo store and the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum.
In 1996, the Institute moved its classes to the fourth floor of the Palazzo Strozzino, in the Piazza Strozzi. The Palazzo Strozzino was constructed in the second half of the 15th century for two brothers, Agnolo and Carlo Strozzi. Michelozzo Michelozzi is believed to have been the original architect, and his design was probably followed for the construction of the ground storey and courtyard. He probably turned the project over to his follower Giuliano da Maiano when he left Florence in 1460. The original structure was enormous, consisting of 121 rooms. Most of the original palace was pulled down in the early 20th century to be replaced by Marcello Piacentini’s structure, today the Cinema Odeon. All that remains of the Renaissance building is the façade on the piazza.
Classes are still held today in the Palazzo Strozzino. The Library now has a permanent home in the Palazzo Lanfredini.
This page last updated: January 21, 2008.