From the street the palazzo doesn’t give much away. A high wall of weathered brick; ranks of plain rectangular windows, barred on the ground floor; an arched carriage entrance with the double doors standing open; a glimpse of green through a delicate wrought iron gate.
Piacenza was a prosperous place in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Strategically situated at a junction of two Roman roads and the confluence of the rivers Trebbia and Po, the town was an important calling point for pilgrims and merchants en route from northern Europe to Rome. A free commune from 1126 and a member of the Lombard league, by the 13th century Piacenza was a market place for a fertile agricultural region, a manufacturing town and a banking centre. Under the rule of the Farnese family, dukes of Parma and Piacenza, the town continued to prosper through the 16th to 18th centuries and merchants rebuilt their houses in fashionable palazzo style. These houses look inwards towards their enclosed courtyards and gardens but they give passersby a hint of hidden delights.
In Parisian hôtels particuliers of the same era wooden double doors open straight into the main courtyard. The carriage doors were intended to be kept shut with pedestrians admitted through a small wicket door and that’s how they are still used today. In the palazzo style of Piacenza the main doors open into a passageway which leads through the building to courtyards within. Service doors open off the passage either side and the far end of the passage is closed by an ornate iron gate. The massive wooden entrance doors would serve as security and defence when needed but the doors could be left open, giving a tantalising glimpse of private space beyond the gate. The owners of these houses wanted their privacy but they weren’t above showing passersby a little of what they were missing.
Today these houses are mostly apartment buidlngs, often with offices on the ground floor. Some of the glimpsed courtyards are now car parks or scruffy patches of paving with bins and sheds but many still give a hint of a hidden garden where time moves more slowly.
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