Step by Step

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Have you noticed how some stairs make you feel as though you’re hobbling along in tight, heavy boots, while others make you feel like you’re floating in a pair of soft leather slippers? If you live in one of the narrow houses that make up the bulk of the buildings in Florence’s historic centre, the first comparison will sound familiar. These old working-class houses are usually only two bays wide, with a shop at ground level and a small door next to it that gives access to a narrow and steeply rising stair. For the longest time, stairs were considered an inconvenient necessity in architecture. They took up valuable living space, and whenever possible they were relegated to the exterior of houses. There are surviving examples of Medieval houses with external stairs in Trastevere in Rome and in some small towns in central Italy, such as Civita di Bagnoreggio near Viterbo.

The stairs in Medieval monumental architecture were just as narrow and awkward to climb as those on the interior of old houses. You encounter them in the 13th century Bargello when you go to the uppermost floors; the exterior stair in the Bargello courtyard, which leads to the piano nobile, is steep but atypically wide for the period. The 14th century Palazzo Davanzati, a rather grand residence for its time, still has an old stair clinging to the wall of the courtyard. The first flights are in stone, after which the steps are of wood to lighten the load.

At some point in the second half of the 15th century, the form of interior stairs started to undergo a significant transformation. Palazzo Medici, begun in the 1440s, still had a narrow, steep main stair (the present one dates from the 17th century), only about 130 cms wide, the steps with treads just 38 cms deep and rising 18 cms. Cosimo de’Medici, who built Palazzo Medici, also modernized the Badia Fiesolana, beginning in 1456. Here, in the stair that runs between the church and refectory, we have a very early hint of what would eventually, over the next two centuries, develop into the ceremonial staircase of Baroque architecture (as you find in Palazzo Pitti). The Badia Fiesolana stair is more than twice as wide as the original stair of Palazzo Medici, and although its treads are still shallow, the risers are down from 18 cms to 16. The difference may seem insignificant in figures, but it is perceptible as you ascend or descend.

The development in stair design was taken even further about ten years later in the ducal palace at Urbino. The main stair between the courtyard and the piano nobile is so wide and rises so gently that it could be (and often was) climbed by horses. It is over three metres wide, with treads 50 cms deep and rising a mere 12 cms. These proportions were unrivalled in private architecture until the 1540s, when Antonio da Sangallo designed the Palazzo Farnese in Rome and built a stair that was even wider.

By the time of the High Renaissance, when a VIP paid an official visit to another VIP, certain rules of ceremony were observed. The more important the visitor was, the further he would be allowed to penetrate into the private apartments of the host, and the earlier along the way would he be met by his host. The stair played an important role in this ceremonial. If the visiting VIP happened to be extremely magnificent, the host (unless he happened to be even more magnificent) might meet him at the bottom of the main stair, so that they could ascend together. Otherwise, the host would wait for him at the top of the stair. In either instance, it was clearly undesirable for there to be a lot of huffing and puffing and jostling while one or both were climbing up.

Sometimes, though, this couldn’t be avoided. In 1538 Guidobaldo della Rovere, son of the Duke of Urbino, paid an official visit to the Doge of Venice. The letter in which he describes the event includes an amusing account of what can happen to a VIP when the stair is too steep. In order to reach the room where the Doge was waiting for him, Guidobaldo had to climb up a very long stair in the (medieval) ducal palace, which left him breathless. The Doge had no choice but to wait until Guidobaldo had sat down for a few minutes to recover his breath. Guidobaldo was accustomed to the stairs in his family’s palace in Urbino.

From the Renaissance on, architects designed stairs keeping the ceremonial requirements in mind as far as possible. But there were also other considerations that could influence the design. Leonardo da Vinci produced some fascinating drawings for double ramp stairs, which were just the thing for a tyrant, who would often feel the need to make a secret escape. On Leonardo’s kind of double ramp stair, two people could run up and down contemporaneously without ever encountering one another. This kind of stair is likely have interested a lot of Renaissance VIPs.

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This page last updated: June 6, 2007.