House of Secrets: The Many Lives of a Florentine Palazzo by Allison Levy - review by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant

An American in Florence

House of Secrets: The Many Lives of a Florentine Palazzo


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The façade of the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence is a hidden Renaissance gem. Embedded in a maze of small streets, it’s hard to get a proper perspective; those who make the effort usually know their architectural history. This harmonious marriage of classical architecture to the civic philosophy of humanism was the brainchild of Leon Alberti, who was backed by the wealth of the thrusting Rucellai family. In essence, the story of the palace is the story of the Renaissance.

So imagine her excitement when the young American art historian Allison Levy, on a year away from the academic hamster wheel (‘I wasn’t just burned out. I was profoundly unhappy’), managed to rent a tiny apartment behind the palazzo’s closed doors. House of Secrets is the fruit of her academic gap year. She’s keen to stress the originality of her approach. Citing ‘the performativity of architecture’, she views ‘the built structure as a sentient being with a soul … a living and breathing character … it bleeds ... it blushes and weeps; it shudders at the idea of anyone passing through its portal’. This ‘character driven historical narrative of the Palazzo Rucellai’ is, she tells us, ‘the first of its kind’, with herself as a player in the story, adding her own layer of history to the palimpsest beneath.

Such grand claims inevitably become hostages to fortune. The first chapters on the house are fairly traditional, sinking us deep into the roots of Renaissance history. How to wear knowledge lightly for a general audience is an age-old problem for scholars and we barely get as far as the

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