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This is something that I have noticed while traveling many northern Italian cities, e.g. Florence, Genova, Bologna, Milano, ...

These cities are covered with impressive late-medieval / renaissance palazzi of rich families. From personal observation it seems that they often follow a somewhat similar layout:

  • big "blocky" appearance, square-ish footprint
  • some 3-4 stories high, some with added towers
  • they stand alone, surrounded by public streets on all sides
  • all ground floor1 windows are barred up with massive iron grates

One of example of many: Palazzo Medici in Florence https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d6/Palazzo_Medici_Riccardi-Florence.jpg/1920px-Palazzo_Medici_Riccardi-Florence.jpg

I'm wondering about the last point. From the look of these iron grates they clearly serve some security / safety purpose - sometimes the iron bars can be easily 3cm thick and maybe 10-15 cm apart, making them quite hefty. And the grates have some drawbacks of course, such as their price (I have to imagine those weren't cheap), limited visibility through the windows, ...

So what where these barred windows protecting against? Theft / burglary? Angry mobs with pitchforks? Feuds/wars with rival families?


1 With ground floor I simply mean the "lowest floor(s)". This is often a raised ground floor, with the first (non-cellar) windows starting maybe some 2-3m above street level.

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    I wonder when those bars were installed? I wonder how to test if they are modern or historic?
    – MCW
    Jun 20, 2023 at 12:08
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    The palazzo itself was looted in 1494, so if the barred windows were designed to hold off angry mobs with pitchforks, it certainly did not work. Jun 22, 2023 at 6:32
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    @MarkJohnson The barred window tradesman couldn't fit them on the schedule till 1495.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Jun 22, 2023 at 16:52
  • I suggest that you read the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales; you will notice the level of casual violence that was normal "in the good old days". Simon DeDeo has argued that society's tolerance for violence declined sharply during the Victorian era. I suspect that everybody who could afford bars on their windows actually had them. Jun 22, 2023 at 20:22

3 Answers 3

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So what where these barred windows protecting against? Theft / burglary? Angry mobs with pitchforks? Feuds/wars with rival families?

Yes.

A little more seriously, in the case of the specific example you give, we can find a web site mentioning the rusticated architecture on the floor in question, and the bars as well (emphasis mine).

The 'rustication' effect is meant to be both imposing yet elegant. 'Imposing' to show the importance of the family, 'elegant' to remain consistent to Renaissance sensibilities of beauty.

On the lower level, there is a heavy, rough look with coarse stones sticking out. The windows have bars to keep people out in the event of insurrection.

So the design was meant to appear imposing, and the combination of the rusticated architecture and heavy bars certainly achieves that effect.

The history of the city of Florence could be summed up as turbulent during this period, with the Medici's being in and out of control of the city several times. The barred windows were installed sometime after the Medici's were driven out of the city in 1494 as a way of better securing the structure.

Part of the original design of the building had an open loggia on the buildings southern corner, and this was filled in with the 'kneeling windows' we see today sometime between 1519 and 1525, designed by the Medici's friend Michelangelo.

According to the book The Medici vol 1, the bars were originally a different pattern than what we see today:

The arches of this loggia were afterwards filled in by Michelangelo who here first invented the particular pattern of curved barred windows often seen in Florence which he called inginocchiate kneeling though these have since been changed for the more ordinary pattern The iron rings seen along the lower storey were for holding banners and torches and for tying up horses And the stone seats were for retainers who might have to wait outside and as a convenience to the people generally

We can see a sketch of the design by Michelangelo here, and an article discussing dating issues concerning the construction time can be read here

So in this particular case we can see insurrection was likely the incentive to strengthen the fortification of the structure.

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  • Also consider the defensive theme of much architecture in Scotland and Germany, both of which suffered from inter-clan etc. violence to a later date than their neighbours (England, France). Jun 21, 2023 at 16:09
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If I may: I am Italian and live in northern Italy. It seems to me that most houses here have bars on their ground floor windows. I live in a small village and my house has bars on the ground floor windows (my house, too, like so many other houses, is centuries old). It's just like that, windows come with bars. Of course, not all houses have bars, but rich people would expect to have bars on their windows: not having bars on your windows (often very elaborate and decorative) was like not having chimneys or paved floors. I think the main reason given to have barred windows is to keep thieves out.

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  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Jun 21, 2023 at 6:54
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    Your answer is a bit like a fish answering why the water is wet. "It just is, it's always been".
    – pipe
    Jun 21, 2023 at 19:09
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    Well, all I wanted to say is that most houses, not just palaces, have bars and that bars are for keeping thieves out and for decoration. Bars are not not for keeping angry mobs out: the Medicis were ousted many times from Florence in spite of their barred windows.
    – Myopicus
    Jun 22, 2023 at 2:58
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    Although this answer might sound tautological, I find it adds the important information that in Italy these bars are seen as conventional architectural features and that they may signal wealth. Jun 22, 2023 at 11:59
  • @henning I'd have thought that a 3 story building that occupied an entire city block would have been adequate to signify wealth, bars or no bars;-) Jun 23, 2023 at 4:27
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The prominent families in Renaissance Florence, the Pazzi, the Strozzi, and most notably were bankers. Don't think of them like the manager of your local bank: these guys played hardball. The Pazzi Conspiracy was a bit more violent than usual, but it will give you an idea of why the bars were there.

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