From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 28
Evolution of a Palazzo
Buildings that have survived several centuries have nearly all undergone changes including complete transformations. One of the most famous examples of this is the Roman amphitheater in Lucca, where in ancient times, Roman citizens watched in delight as gladiators fought to the death. In the Middle Ages, tall narrow houses were built into the amphitheater and remain there to this day.

A very similar transformation occurred above the concentric circle of walls that protected the ancient castle fortress of Gioviano. Sometime during the medieval period, multi-story narrow houses were built side by side over the more ancient remnants of early fortifications. During the late Renaissance, when a wealthy, landed gentry composed of the Barsanti and other notable families arose, medieval houses were sometimes combined together to form elegant palazzi.

Palazzo Margherita is the only intact example that has survived in Gioviano without having been either gutted in modern times or divided into apartments. Wandering through the many rooms on each of the four levels, it is possible to absorb the spirit of the house and speculate about its origins and evolution.

Many of the Palazzo’s secrets are revealed deep within the cool, dark confines of what we call the “dungeon.” The floor is compacted earth, and the walls are of dry stacked stone typical of the Middle Ages. The crossbow slit that is still evident on one of the interior walls predates the construction of another interior stone wall that is at least six-feet thick. This formed a gallery through which was stationed the village cannon, pointing north toward Ghivizzano and further on toward the strife-ridden frontier between Lucca and the Estenses.

A well, now filled in with dirt and perhaps even treasure, dates to the 1500’s according to an inscription scratched into the plaster. By the late 1600’s, the loggias were added after four medieval houses were combined together to create the Palazzo as we know it today. My parents’ bedroom was created in order to join the exterior wall of Palazzo Margherita to the exterior wall of the house next door which belongs to our neighbor, Gianni Lotti. In so doing, the ancient exterior wall became an interior wall, and under the lowest loggia a large bread or pizza oven was installed as well as a pozzo nero (cesspool) off the porch.

Exploring the dungeon at night was a favorite adventure of our children. A standing offer of a $100 reward to any child who would spend the night alone inside the pizza oven was never taken, as spirits from the past seem to fill the atmosphere with foreboding thoughts. How many people had died terrible deaths in the dungeon over the centuries, from wars, earthquakes, plagues, and even torture?

Now that our grandchildren are getting old enough to torment and torture with ghost stories and tales of the Palazzo’s turbulent past, I will continue offering the $100 just in case one of them is ever brave enough to sleep in the pizza oven. I bet I’ll get to keep my $100. I’m too scared to sleep there myself.

There is evidence of doorways dating from the Middle Ages. The stone arched entrance of the 1500’s is now on the interior as a new wing was constructed in 1702. At that time, the owner added the wing to use as his office from which he managed his estates. His built-in desk with its secret compartment is still there, and very few visitors can figure out how to open it.

The next level’s ancient past is only revealed in what we call “ Anne’s dungeon”. It, too, originally had a dirt floor and still has the bars over the window, but it has been converted into a lovely bedroom suite. During the conversion from dungeon to modern bedroom, part of an ancient medieval archway was exposed indicating that this level, also, dated back many centuries.

The main floor’s form and layout is from the late Renaissance, but the frescoes have been changed over time. In the living room, it is still possible to make out the outline of an earlier fresco which was covered up when the portraits of Garibaldi and Dante were painted over it in the Risorgimento period. Later frescoes date from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras.

The “Emilio Wing” that was built in 1732 remains largely unchanged in its primitive state, but our plans call for the retention of all historic elements except for the addition of modern bathrooms on two of the three levels. The only real mystery in this:

In the cantina, a set of steps leads up to a solid wall.

The fourth level consists of the servants’ quarters and remains just as it has been since the late Renaissance. The most bizarre feature is the two-holed, gravity-fed toilet, set into the hallway wall, which was added on in some past reconstruction. I guess this was so family and friends could gather around and continue to chat with the person or persons currently on the potty. It reminded my father of the old three-holed wooden privy on the farm in Missouri where he was born, which boasted a large, a middle size and a small hole.

An entire book could be written about the Palazzo and its evolution which is actually much more complex than I have been able to reveal in this short outline. Descriptions alone are inadequate, even if accompanied by photographs. To feel a house and its soul, it is necessary to visit it. I hope one day that you, the reader, can go into the dungeon where the ancient wine press is still used today. You will savor the atmosphere and discover the Palazzo and its evolutionary history as well as its still-hidden secrets.

Updated December 21, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
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