In Florence: A Rare Antique Show in a Jewel Box

Detail of grotto in palazzo Corsini in Florence
Whimsical artistry flows in Palazzo Corsini's grotto

There were a dozen possible choices for a day ashore as Crystal Serenity docked in Livorno. Crystal Cruises’shore excursions offered expertly guided tours in the hill towns of Tuscany, rambles in Umbria , Pisa and Verona, along with exotic choices like a day of driving a Ferrari on the back roads to Siena.

But for me, there is only one option for a day trip from Livorno: an on-your-own transfer to Florence to people watch, shop and explore new corners of the city where the Renaissance bloomed.

Every time I have a chance to do the hour and a half transfer from the coast to Florence, I do an Internet search of what’s on. By great fortune early October was the time the bi-annual Florence International Antiques Fair that brings together antiques sellers and buyers from all over the world.

A chance to explore a noble family’s private palazzo on the Arno and see the largest selection of European art outside of museums comes around only once every two years and the timing of Crystal Serenity’s port stop in Tuscany just happened to be perfect.

Not only did the exhibition attract many of the finest pieces of classical and modern art remaining in private hands but the 10 euro admission charge also provided the chance to see Palazzo Corsini in Parione. It’s one of the most opulent private homes in Florence and little known even though it’s only three blocks from the famous and busy Ponte Vecchio.

Fresco work on ceiling of Palazzo Corsini in Florence
Cherubs and fantasies adorn the ceilings of Palazzo Corsini

The Palazzo was built in the 1600s by the Corsini family, who rated among the richest in Florence after the Grand Dukes, and its decoration took 50 years to complete. The family’s influential members included Lorenzo Corsini (who became Pope Clement XII in 1740 and, among other things, commissioned Rome’s famed Trevi Fountain).

The walls and ceilings of the vast rooms in the three-story mansion are decorated in brilliant frescoes done by an army of masterful Renaissance artists. The ground floor rooms are known as the Halls of the Nymphs and each is decorated in suitably whimsical themes.

But that’s only for openers. Up a grand staircase presided over by a huge statue of the family’s Pope are even grander rooms, including one vast space modestly named the Throne Room. No, it’s not known for its plumbing but rather its grand frescoed ceiling.

The jaw dropper is the grotto room, a Baroque tour de force of sculpture done in shells and water motifs that was designed by Silvan Ferri in 1692. Its monumental statues and numerous fountains and pools are decorated in mother of pearl.

Grotto room of Palazzo Corsini in Florence
Palazzo Corsini's grotto is a Baroque wonder

To keep the rooms from completely dominating the displays, salon spaces for each of nearly 100 dealers were crafted in wood and faux finished as marble to match the decor of the halls. The dealers had come from across Europe and some from North America to display their best pieces. Not only were there fascinating medieval and Renaissance pieces but also remarkable sculpture, furniture and ceramics from the 16th through the 20th century.

Prices were not openly displayed, as might be expected when you’re looking at masterpiecs that may never before have been on the market. When last I checked, Canalettos and complete sets of Meissen China don’t often show up for sale. The pieces have all been in private hands for most of their existence and many of them were being seen in public for the first time, but it was clear from their quality that a lot of them are destined for museums.

A painting by Teodoro Errico
The Sermon of St. Dominic by Dirck Hendricsz, known as Teodoro D’Errico

In fact, several of the pieces from the show may already be on their way into public collections. The painting judged the most signficant in the show — The Sermon of St. Dominic by Dirck Hendricsz, known as Teodoro D’Erricio in 1578 — was given the award with a request: “The Committee hopes that the State may order the acquisition of the winning work so that it may be reunited with the Altarpiece conserved at the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples.”

When I got back to the Crystal Serenity, I checked out the website for the palazzo, and found that the family still lives on the upper floor while the vast rooms on the first two floors are available for art shows, elaborate parties and weddings.

The palazzo is also opened for private tours on request. If you can’t wait for the next Florence International Antiques Fair in 2013, see if you can make some arrangements for the next time you sail into Livorno. It’s a rare opportunity to experience one of the most elaborate private homes anywhere.

Detail of fresco in Palazzo Corsini in Florence
A lion suveys the domain in a Palazzo Corsini fresco

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