Category Archives: Europe 2010

Dafne at Palazzo Corsi

The splendid Palazzo Corsi Salviatti in Via Tornabuoni conceals a series of curious historical facts that are still relatively unknown to the general public. These include the fact of having been built around a piazza, the apartments of the “Flash Pope” and the room where the very first opera in the world was held, making this one of the most original buildings ever to be erected in Florentine Renaissance style.

Today the structure, which sits at the intersection of Via degli Strozzi and Via de’ Tornabuoni in the heart of Florence, is part of the Palazzo Tornabuoni, a Four Seasons–managed private residence club. The space where Dafne was performed more than 400 years ago is now one of 37 residences — each dramatic in its own right — available for whole or fractional ownership at Tornabuoni.

Library in present-day Palazzo Corsi Tornabuoni

The Brunelleschi suite sits on the third floor of the palazzo, above the library, and overlooks Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s Duomo.

Other residences include the Strozzi suite and the Galileo, with its own private rooftop terrace with a 360-degree view of Florence.

Galileo suite roof top terrace

The private residence club has 10 club suites (available for share ownership) and 27 private ownership suites (at prices from about $2.5 million to $6.8 million – 2009 dollars).

Turning the palazzo into a residential property required extensive renovation that took five years,led by Florence-based architect and interior designer Michele Bonan. The renovation involved maintaining the architectural integrity of the structure, updating it with modern systems, and restoring its sculptures, frescoes, and other objets d’art. The Department of Fine Arts in Florence supervised the restoration of the palazzo’s artworks, which took 14 artisans three years to complete.

Upon entering, the huntress Diana welcomes you. Resplendent salons and suites follow, each a timeless repository of successive generations of frescoes and sculptures.

The palazzo dates to about 1450, when the architect Michelozzo constructed it as a private residence for the Tornabuoni family. Since then the building has changed hands several times. Alessandro Ottaviano de’ Medici, who would become Pope Leo XI, acquired the property in 1574. Then, in the 1590s, Corsi took ownership of the property, which remained in his family for more than three centuries. In 1901, the building became a bank, and it served in that capacity until the Florence-based Fingen Group purchased it in 2004.

The palazzo rises up over the foundations of three pre-existing medieval buildings that once belonged to the Consorteria of the Tornabuoni and Tornaquinci families; and in one of these Lucrezia Tornabuoni, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s mother, was born and spent her childhood.

The three houses faced onto an internal piazza connected by two lanes to the adjacent main streets. Commissioned by Giovanni Tornabuoni, famous architect Michelozzo Michelozzi took inspiration from this piazza to build the present day palazzo all around it, creating the splendid courtyard that can still be seen today.

When Alessandro de Medici, Archbishop of Florence, became the owner of this palazzo, he transferred the city archbishopric here temporarily seeing that the old headquarters in Piazza San Giovanni had been devastated by fire and required extensive restructuring and renovation. The Archbishop surrounded himself with renowned artists like Agostino Ciampelli and Lodovico Cardi, known as “Il Cigoli” for these building and redecorating operations. Ciampelli was famous for having frescoed various halls to the theme of the Old Testament, whereas Il Cigoli, in his role as architect, had previously restructured a loggia located at the corner of the building facing onto Via de Ferravecchi (old irons) and Via de Belli Sporti (beautiful architectural projections), now via Strozzi and Via Tornabuoni, known as “Canto a Tornaquinci”. Alessandro de Medici’s rapid ecclesiastic ascent soon took him far from Florence. On becoming cardinal he moved to Rome taking with him his faithful Ciampelli, and at the age of eighty, he was nominated Pope with the name of Leone XI. However this was an extremely short-lived pontificate that lasted a mere 27 days (1-27 April 1605), so short in fact that he was called the “Flash Pope” by the people of that era.

In the meantime the palazzo had passed into the hands of the Corsi, an ancient Florentine family which boasted a history of priors and gonfaloniers of the republic. Jacopo Corsi was certainly their most outstanding member. A refined benefactor and great music lover, he was in the habit of holding gatherings in the palazzo with a selection of the greatest poets and musicians of that time, like Claudio Monteverdi, Torquato Tasso, Ottavio Rinuccini, Jacopo Peri and Giovanbattista Marino, who called themselves the Academy of Music.

Jacopo Peri was born in Rome but relocated to Florence to study music. In the 1590s, he met Jacopo Corsi, the leading patron of music in Florence, and they decided to recreate a form of Greek tragedy, following in the footsteps of the Florentine Camerata, which had produced the first experiments in monody.

Jacopo Peri

Based on an account by Jacopo Peri it is commonly thought that the first performance of Dafne took place in 1594. However Peri’s account is misleading. He might have meant that Jacopo Corsi and Ottavio Rinuccini requested him to compose Dafne in 1594 or that he composed Dafne in 1594 at the request of Corsi and Rinuccini. He definitely did not state that the first performance was held in 1594.

The only definite date of performance of Dafne is given by Marco da Gagliano. He says that Jacopo Corsi had Peri’s Dafne performed in the presence of Giovani Medici and some of the principal gentlemen of Florence during the carnival in 1597. He does not specifically state that the performance took place at Palazzo Corsi nor that it was the first performance but it is reasonable to interpret his remarks to that effect.

Ottavio Rinuccini, who composed the libretto to Dafne, did not a date of performance. He merely said that Dafne was performed before a few enthusiastic listeners and later in an improved form of the text at Palazzo Corsi before a large audience of Florentine noblemen, the Grand Duchess and the cardinals Del Monte and Montalto. That date could have been around 18 January 1599 when the household accounts of Palazzo Corsi show expenses incurred for a performance of Dafne. Sala delle Muse at Palazzo Corsi seems like the obvious choice of venue.

On 21 January 1599 Dafne was performed again, this time at Palazzo Pitti, before the same cardinals and a large audience of Florentine nobility.

From the household accounts of Palazzo Corsi, we know that Dafne was again performed at the palace in late August 1600 and it was perhaps for this performance that the libretto was printed.

Dafne was revived on 26 October 1604 at Palazzo Pitti, in Sala Bianca, in honour of the Duke of Parma. A libretto of this performance exists.

Cover page of Dafne libretto

The libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini survives complete, but Peri’s score has been lost. The surviving music fragments are by Jacopo Corsi, who was the first to compose parts of Rinuccini’s text.

Peri’s later composition, Euridice, written in 1600 based on a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, is the earliest surviving opera and was initially performed as part of the wedding festivities of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France, thereby catapulting opera into the mainstream of court entertainment. Some of the music used in the first performance of L’Euridice was composed by Peri’s rival at court, Giulio Caccini.

Cover page of Euridice libretto

Vienna opted for 1598 as the year of first performance of Dafne and in 1998 it celebrated opera’s 400th anniversary with the event Universe of Opera held over three days and showcasing 53 internationally known singers offering solo arias and duets.

A Wonder of Islamic Art and Architecture

To paraphrase Monty Python, what has Islam ever done for us? You know, apart from the algebra, the trigonometry, the optics, the astronomy and the many other scientific advances and inventions of the Golden Age of Arabic Science.

Well, if you like art and interiors, there’s always the stunning patterns that grace mosques, madrasas and palaces around the world.

Muslim societies produced art of tremendous vitality and diversity for around 1500 years in centres from Spain and West Africa to South-East Asia and China. Their artistic production includes architectural monuments such as mosques, palaces, and civic centres to textiles, manuscripts, and portable objects in ceramic, gold, silver, metal alloys, ivory, and rock crystal.

Islamic craftsmen and artists – who were prohibited from making representations of people in holy sites – developed an instantly recognizable aesthetic based on repeated geometrical shapes. The mathematical elegance of these designs is that no matter how elaborate they are, they are always based on grids constructed using only a ruler and a pair of compasses. Islamic patterns provide a visual confirmation of the complexity that can be achieved with such simple tools.

Robert Byron, in The Road to Oxiana, wrote about Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan:

I know of no finer example of the Persian Islamic genius than the interior of the dome. The dome is inset with a network of lemon-shaped compartments, which decrease in size as they ascend towards the formalised peacock at the apex… The mihrāb in the west wall is enamelled with tiny flowers on a deep blue meadow. Each part of the design, each plane, each repetition, each separate branch or blossom has its own sombre beauty. But the beauty of the whole comes as you move. Again, the highlights are broken by the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces; so that with every step they rearrange themselves in countless shining patterns… I have never encountered splendour of this kind before.

The interior side of the dome. The decoration seems to lead the eye upwards toward its center, as the rings of ornamental bands filled with arabesque patterns become smaller and smaller. (Wikipedia)
The interior side of the dome in Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan. The decoration seems to lead the eye upwards toward its centre, as the rings of ornamental bands filled with arabesque patterns become smaller and smaller. (Wikipedia)
Mihrāb, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan (Wikipedia)
Mihrāb, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan (Wikipedia)

Little Puffles and Honey haven’t been to Isfahan, but they have been to Istanbul, home to an incredible wealth of historical sites, Byzantine and Ottoman.

The mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent occupies a commanding position over the old city of Istanbul.
The mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent occupies
a commanding position over the old city of Istanbul.

In selecting a building site for his most magnificent foundation, Süleyman decided against a site located directly on the triumphal axis. Instead he cut into the grounds of the Old Palace, on the north side. At the time, there were already four magnificent buildings along the triumphal axis – Haghia Sophia, and Beyazıt II, Şehzade and Fatih Mosques, as well as some more modest mosques. Süleyman used the opportunity to emphasize the skyline above the Golden Horn seen form the north of the city by placing his complex on a small peninsula.

Süleymaniye Mosque
Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleyman had just reached the height of his power: Western Europe had acknowledged the Ottoman Empire as the supreme world power. The Habsburg Empire had become his vassal. Once again he tried to challenge the imperial church, Haghia Sophia. Like Mehmet II with the Fatih Mosque, he tried to achieve a unification of teaching and religion in one large complex. Like Justinian, he wanted to legitimize his power through religion. One of Justinian’s specific goals has been overcoming the dogmatic rift between the East and West Christian churches. The aging Süleyman understood himself to be the guarantor of the Sunni faith who tried to counterbalance Shiite heterodoxy, which had begun to spread among the Turkomen tribes in Anatolia to the antinomian brotherhoods, even though they had once helped consolidate his power base and that of the young Ottoman Empire.

Haghia Sophia
Haghia Sophia

Süleyman’s mosque had to be able to stand up to the comparison with Haghia Sophia. At the same time, it had to meet strict rules and regulations of orthodox Islam and evolve as a new centre for religious teaching. The foundation deed of the Süleymaniye complex addresses these issues in detail: “If decorating the temple with silver and gold would agree with the religion of Islam and the laws of his excellency, the Prophet, we would certainly have adorned it with gold and silver; its walls and doors would have been studded with rubies and pearls to honour the temple and God in gratitude for his benevolence. But for the said reasons we have decided against it, focusing instead on a solid architectural construction.”

The cascading domes of Süleymaniye Mosque
The cascading domes of Süleymaniye Mosque
The cascading domes of Süleymaniye Mosque
The cascading domes of Süleymaniye Mosque

With these specifications in mind, Sinan went to work, adapting features from Haghia Sophia: the central plan, two semidomes above the central axis and the side rooms. Wisely, he chose more modest dimensions. The prayer hall of the Süleymaniye is 58.5 by 57.5 metres, almost a perfect square, while the main nave of Haghia Sophia is a rectangle, measuring 73.5 by 69.5 metres. The diameter of the Süleymaniye dome is 26.65 metres (making it larger than the dome of Fatih Mosque but smaller than the dome of Haghia Sophia) and the height of its calotte above the floor is 49.5 meters.

Süleymaniye Mosque Interior
Süleymaniye Mosque Interior
Süleymaniye Mosque - Legend
Süleymaniye Mosque – Legend

In all other matters, Sinan focused strictly on the functional and aesthetic requirements of the Ottoman mosque, as he did in the design of the Şehzade Mosque. The side rooms are not separated from the main hall, and the exedras have their correspondence in the floor plan. To east and west the dome is flanked by semidomes and to the north and south by arches with tympanums filled with windows. The dome arches rise from four great irregularly shaped piers. The side rooms that reach to the arches and tympanums, because there are no galleries, have no vaults, which are not an element of classical Ottoman architecture, but domes. Unlike the side domes in earlier imperial mosques, these side domes vary in size. Those in the middle have a diameter of 10 meters, corresponding to the corner domes, and are flanked by smaller domes with a diameter of 7 meters. On each side there are five domes, and three large supporting buttresses alternate with two smaller ones.

Süleymaniye Mosque Interior
Süleymaniye Mosque Interior

Haghia Sophia was the creation of two architects and mathematicians of genius who had been provided with the necessary means by a generous and enthusiastic ruler. Many generations had been involved in trying to maintain this monument, the symbolic meaning of which had increased over the centuries. A millennium later, another ingenious architect, who had been granted similar means and was driven by the same obsession, found a solution to the engineering problems that Haghia Sophia had formulated. The Süleymaniye was his solution.

In Haghia Sophia, exedras are used to give the plan its particular form. Sinan used them as a vital element in the dome construction, to help absorb and distribute the weight of the central dome. The same concept had entirely different functions. In Byzantine architecture, the exedras connected the roof construction to the floor, thus symbolically connecting Heaven and Earth. In Ottoman architecture, the unified interior space symbolized the community of the faithful and was therefore designed to be as open as possible.

Hagia Sophia - Exedra with Sultan's Loge
Hagia Sophia – Exedra with Sultan’s Loge

Entering the mosque, the visitor is immediately taken by its severely simple grandeur. The marble sheathing of the walls that reaches up to the arches is reminiscent of Haghia Sophia. The frescoes, which have been restored to the original designs, are surely far from providing the original impression, but other elements prove that this is indeed an imperial mosque. On the prayer wall (qibla), interspaced with verses and quotations from the Koran, as well as descriptions of paradise, have been executed in two new materials. The ceramic tiles that used to frame the mihrab are the earliest known examples of the new techniques of the Iznik kilns. The lovely stained-glass windows, by the glazier known as Sarhoş İbrahim, are framed in Ottoman tradition with rich stucco decoration. Similar windows are found in the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, which was built in 1548 in Üsküdar, on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus.

Süleymaniye Mosque Mihrab
Süleymaniye Mosque Mihrāb
Süleymaniye Mosque - Iznik tile calligraphic roundel flanking the mihrab
Süleymaniye Mosque – Iznik tile calligraphic roundel flanking the mihrāb
Süleymaniye Mosque - window detail
Süleymaniye Mosque – window detail
Süleymaniye Mosque - window detail
Süleymaniye Mosque – window detail

According to contemporary admirers, the Süleymaniye surpassed by far the mosques of earlier rulers of the world, at least partly because of the meaning given to the four massive columns in the central hall from which the arches that hold the side tympanums rise. Sinan’s autobiography and the records of the imperial architects organization reveal that the first column came from Alexandria and represented Alexander the Great; the second from Baalbek, which in Islamic literature is the Temple of Solomon; and the third and fourth from Byzantium, from the Augusteion and the Hippodrome. The columns, like other precious marble such as the round porphyry plates of the courtyard, symbolized the claim of the Ottoman Empire to imperial power.

Süleymaniye Mosque interior - Close-up of porphyry column
Süleymaniye Mosque interior – Close-up of porphyry column
Süleymaniye Mosque interior - view of two of the four massive porphyry columns. One originated in Alexandria, on in Baalbek, and the other two in Constantinople. Contemporaries made reference to this when they wrote that this mosque rests upon the thrones of ancient rulers. The pillars do not absorb much of the dome's weight, but carry the arches with the tympanum wall, which are filled with windows.
Süleymaniye Mosque interior – view of two of the four massive porphyry columns. One originated in Alexandria, on in Baalbek, and the other two in Constantinople. Contemporaries made reference to this when they wrote that this mosque rests upon the thrones of ancient rulers. The pillars do not absorb much of the dome’s weight, but carry the arches with the tympanum wall, which are filled with windows.

The entrance portal, flanked by two buildings on three different levels, is another such manifestation of power. It is possible that the entrance area was fashioned after the Topkapı Sarayı and “Gate” and “Courtyard” are the sacred correspondents of the secular models.

Süleymaniye Mosque - View from courtyard entrance towards mosque portal (P. Blessing)
Süleymaniye Mosque – View from courtyard entrance towards mosque portal (P. Blessing)
Süleymaniye Mosque - View from courtyard (P. Blessing)
Süleymaniye Mosque – View from courtyard (P. Blessing)

In order to achieve the size, Sinan returned to a rectangular courtyard with nine niches instead of seven. The exterior of the portico and the three niches on both sides of the entrance portal on the central axes are higher than the others, so that one column has to carry arches of varying height, a problem that is solved through half-capitals with corbels in the middle of the column shaft.

The entire complex was completed in the year 1558. The mosque surrounded by additional building complexes, all covered with domes. They contained four medreses and the Dar-ül-Hadis, a medical college that remained unique in Istanbul, a hospital, a charity kitchen for the poor, an inn for travellers and Dervishes, a hamam and shops. The two medreses sloping toward the Golden Horn have special features. Because they are built on terraced terrain, each niche of the portico is six steps lower than the preceding one. The domes over the porticos and the adjoining rooms cascade from top to bottom. The classroom is on the upper floor. The mausoleums of Süleyman and his wife Hürrem, better known in the West as Roxelane, are located in the walled garden behind the mosque. The plan of the tomb of Süleyman, which lies directly behind the prayer wall of the mosque, is almost identical to that of the prayer hall.

Süleymaniye Mosque - Mausoleum of Süleyman the Magnificent (P. Blessing)
Süleymaniye Mosque – Mausoleum of Süleyman the Magnificent (P. Blessing)
Süleymaniye Mosque - Mausoleum of Süleyman the Magnificent (P. Blessing)
Süleymaniye Mosque – Mausoleum of Süleyman the Magnificent (P. Blessing)
Süleymaniye Mosque - Mausoleum of Hürrem Sultan (P. Blessing)
Süleymaniye Mosque – Mausoleum of Hürrem Sultan (Roxelane) (P. Blessing)