“I Have Done Myself More Honor by Having Spent Money Well”
The widespread increase of personal wealth in fifteenth-century Italy brought with it new ambitions in building and a new emphasis on the home as a site for the display of beautiful objects. Contemporary texts make it clear that the building and outfitting of a luxurious house was considered a civic virtue. The Florentine banker Giovanni Rucellai expressed his satisfaction at having spent money on his home in no uncertain terms when he recorded in his diary:
I think I have done myself more honor by having spent money well than by having earned it. Spending gave me deeper satisfaction, especially in the money I spent on my house in Florence.5
Giovanni Rucellai’s house, the Palazzo Rucellai—begun in 1453 most likely as a collaboration between Leon Battista Alberti and the sculptor-architect Bernardo Rossellino—represents a complete turning point in Renaissance domestic architecture. Rejecting the weighty, fortress-like quality of earlier houses of the powerful, its restrained façade, composed of three orders that are almost a textbook illustration of classical vocabulary, speaks both of the civility of the city’s public life and of the cultivated elegance of the family life within.
In a letter to his parents, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, a member of the Milanese ruling family, lavishly praised the interior of Cosimo de’ Medici’s palace in Florence, singling out its painted and sculptural decorations and the luxury of materials:
on Easter Day, I arrived here at the house of the magnificent Cosimo, where I discovered . . . tapestry decorations, chest of inestimable workmanship and value, noble sculptures, designs of infinite kinds as well as of priceless silver—the most beautiful I may ever have seen, or believe it possible to see.6
The house of the upper-class patron became, in effect, a carefully crafted celebration of power and wealth. Life in the house—the casa—proceeded according to a set of rules that highlighted certain spaces used for the presentation of objects to reveal the taste and values of the owners. A text by the fifteenth-century Neapolitan humanist Giovanni Pontano underscores this point:
Statues, panel painting, tapestries, benches, seats inlaid with ivory, cloth woven with gemstones, boxes and chests painted with arabesques, crystal vases and other such things with which one adorns one’s houses according to the circumstances. The sight of these things is pleasant and brings prestige to the owner of the house . . . the ornamental objects . . . should be as varied as possible and . . . each should be in its appropriate place.7