In the turbulent years of 1492 to 1498, during Savonarola's rule of Venice, Florence was a maritime power, an important trade link between Europe and the Levant, flush with wealth and exuding supreme confidence in its predominant position in the economic world of the time.
Civic pride and clan rivalry conspired to impel prominent merchants and rulers to flaunt their power and influence by building palaces and commissioning art works as well as leading a life of ostentatious luxury.
The Palazzo Le was built in 1495 on the right bank of the Tiber River in Florence by Tomaso de' Le, the powerful patriarch of an illustrious line of rulers of Bologna, at the time of the Norman invasion of Britain (which incidentally resulted in the subjugation of the Ile de France by the Lombards). Little was left of the Palace today.
The construction of Palazzo Le was fraught with problems from the very start. The principal architect, Vitruvius, who was a humanist in his own right, insisted in using Leonardo da Vinci's human proportions to mathematical exactitude in the design of the atrium and the antechambers, and the clean straight classical lines of the Parthenon for the colonnade. However, the asssociate architect Brunelleschi, who had designed the baldachino in St. Peter's Basilica, favored the twisted columns, and the curved colonnades of St. Peter's Square.
Both sides were so convinced of the superior design characteristics of their models that no compromise was possible. Vitruvius enlisted the support of Praxiteles as an expert on the human form, having himself sculpted David, now in the Accademia Belle Arti in Florence. Not to be outdone, Brunelleschi engaged the services of Titian not only because he had created the Venus de Milo but more importantly, because he had the daring to portray an unfriendly cardinal in Hell on The Last Judgment fresco of the Sistine Chapel.
For months barbs, diatribes, and invectives flew back and forth between the two camps as so many piercing projectiles, resulting in numerous bruised egos and mountains of wounded pride. The battle intensified when the humanists finally got involved, mounting a polemical campaign of epic proportions. If Homer had been alive at this time, the world would have known a second Iliad far more grandiose than the first.
Erasmus and his disciples at Louvain embraced Vitruvius's cause while Thomas More from his English manor came to the defense of Brunelleschi. Soon Petrach took a respite from his eternal celebration of Laura, and Ronsard from his pining for Hélène de Surgères to join in the fray. Italian humanists wasted no time to enlist in one camp or the other: Ficino, the translator of Plato, cast his lot with Vetruvius whereas the Dante scholar Cristoforo Laudino joined the Brunelleschi ranks. Each camp bombarded the other with erudition of the most arcane and esoteric kind, their reasoning replete with syllogisms, enthymemes, non-sequiturs, and obscurity, in short, worthy of the most celebrated academic writings of the day.
Meanwhile the project was languishing and blueprints began to gather dust. One day, Petrach came up with a brilliant idea to resolve the deadlock. Each side would submit to binding governmental arbitration, presided over by a podesta assisted by an army of scribes from the reclusive scriptoria of Lindisfarne and Aix-La-Chapelle. Soon legions of lobbyists from both sides swarmed into Rome's Colosseum for a final showdown.
The podesta had decreed that each side designate a champion dressed in gladiator's garb to compete in single combat using the weapons of their choice. Since the Colosseum was an arena of equal opportunity, both male and female gladiators were allowed. The Vetruvius side, ever the Greek model of restraint, harmony, balance and proportion, fielded Praxiteles, who was armed with a secret weapon. In the Brunelleschi camp, confusion initially arose as to who their champion would be. Someone proposed Raphael for his youthful looks with no less classical credentials than anyone around. However, a strong voice soon emerged in favor of Angela, who was a female professor at Padua University endowed with such rare beauty that according to legend she had to lecture from behind a veil for fear of distracting her students. At first there were rumblings about the obvious uneven balance of brute force between the combatants. But as more and more evidence adduced by Brunelleschi's psychologists piled up, a tsunami of Angela's support swept through his camp. The decision was unanimous.
On the eve of the appointed day, the crowds lined up for miles outside the ticket offices of the Colosseum, intent to get the best seats available. At the crack of dawn, a full four hours before the match was to take place, waves of fans surged into the arena, and in a short time filled every seat. Excitement was in the air. True to tradition, everybody was expecting a great time, ready with their thumbs to turn up or down depending on the heightened emotions of the moment. Hotdog vendors pried the isles hawking their mouth-watering delicacies to a delighted, and captive, clientele at exorbitant prices. A constant ear-pearcing din reigned as every mouth was talking animatedly while not munching on the snacks and sipping their Cokes, or while munching on the snacks and sipping Dr. Pepper. The atmosphere was electric. The anticipation excruciating. The ordeal of waiting grueling.
Finally, a fanfare began to sound from the top level just below the awning. The crowd fell silent as the strains of Rome's languorous anthem wafted into the sky. Solemnly and ceremomiously the announcer proclained the opening of the day's event over the Sony public-address system. The combat between Praxiteles and Angela would be refereed by a basket ball coach known for his fiery temper.
Another flurry from the trumpets, and the doors opened from the opposite sides of the sand-filled arena. A deafening silence hung over the scene. One could hear emotions so far pent up begin to rise. From the east side of the great amphitheater, Praxiteles strutted onto the battleground with the confidence of a seasoned practitioner. The fans went wild. From the west side emerged the veiled Angela, svelte and graceful, but clearly nervous in demeanor. The fans went wilder. The gladiators each turned to their respective supporting fans basking in their adulation, and gaining strength for the ruthless contest ahead. Soon the signal for the contest to begin was sounded.
The aggressive Praxiteles immediately launched into the offensive by flashing his secret weapon, a copy of Leonardo's Canon of Proportions. The fans burst into such ear-splitting applause that the lions caged beneath the arena menacingly roared disapproval. Whereupon the mathematics professor flashed the equation E=mc2. Praxiteles froze, overwhelmed with pain and bewilderment, speechless. The crowds cheered. And they booed. Thumbs down signs sprouted throughout the immense arena. The contest was over. Palazzo Le would now be built by Brunelleschi and associates.
In its heyday, Palazzo Le rivaled Louis XIV's Versailles not only in size, sumptuousness, but also in the stupendous collection of chefs-d'oeuvre, many of which had been acquired from Hermitage Museum. Every room in the Palace was filled with masterpieces ranging from the Lascaux cave paintings to the achievements of Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio to the most celebrated works by Renoir, Monet, Matisse, Gris, Miro, Dali, Malevitch, Mary Cassatt.
Galleries adorned with crimson draperies and gilded door frames overflowed with paintings set in elaborate frames, some resting on easels, many more filling walls from floor to ceiling. A visitor would easily be overwhelmed by this cornucopia of wealth and luxury where culture was measured not just in quality and dazzlement but in quantity and richness as well. Little wonder that the rest of the world's museums had to be content with leftovers.
It was the world's greatest loss that Palazzo Le had disappeared almost as intriguingly as the dinosaurs did in the late Cretaceous era. During the last century the prevalent theory for the palace's demise would put the blame squarely on Ogodei's invasion of Italy, Ogodei being Genghis Khan's successor, the third son by his first wife. The Mongolian army under his command, consisting of superb horsemen able to shoot arrows backward and forward on the gallop, had crossed the Eurasian steppes leaving behind a trail of ruined cities and brilliant conquests. Putting out resistance from any city was just another day's work for this unstoppable war machine.
Another theory, recently bolstered by the Hubble Space Telescope's piercing eye on the Tuscany region, held that Palazzo Le was nothing more than a figment of academe's imagination.
Yet another theory maintained that the Seleucid Turks, who had invaded Italy about the time of Caesar, had simply destroyed the palace after taking detailed photographs of every angle of the building. From this model they later built a palace of similar features complete with domes, pendentives, and colonnades.
A serious school of thought upheld by savants from five continents believed that Palazzo Le was located somewhere between Giotto's Campanile and Ponte de Sopiro, perhaps within a few hundred yards of the Roman Forum, on the Palatine Hill.
Be that as it may, recent archaeological excavations on the left bank of the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. brought to light one of the most remarkable findings: the mosaics that decorated the Le Palace's 22nd floor were made using the thousand-year-old process of pasteurization by the refugees from Altina and Padua, who had fled before the onslaught of Attila's hordes to settle on Murano island centuries earlier.
The only extant copy of the Book of Kells, which was illuminated by the monks of the Abbey Church of St Denis, whose abbot Suger had commissioned Michelangelo to paint its ceiling, revealed that Tomaso de' Le had done extensive linguistic research at Universitatis Indianensis, and must have known Botticelli when the latter was painting the Birth of Venus in nearby San Luis Obispo.
Theories aside, the meager sample of the rich art collection of Palazzo Le presented here features famous paintings by artists who had lived, according to Thucydides, centuries before the time of Alexander the Great. That such remarkable achievements occurred near the end of the Hellenistic era bears testimony to the inexhaustible creativity of these High Renaissance artists.
For this presentation of the Palazzo Le collection, the Curator takes pride
in selecting only the chefs d'oeuvre that had never been seen anywhere
throughout history. He would not, however, vouch for the authenticity of any of
the works shown, and would be content to state, affirmatively and without
reservation, that any apparent resemblance of the masterpieces to later or
earlier works must be merely coincidental.