Bartolini Salimbeni: speaking of “you snooze you lose”!

Let’s talk about another important family of Florence, this time with the Bartolini Salimbeni .. that were actually native of Siena, and exactly at the time when these two cities were bitter enemies: during the fights between Guelphs and Ghibellines, in the 13th century. Their last name was then just Salimbeni, and its members were, in fact, Ghibellines: thanks to their merchants’ money, they were able to help the Senese Ghibelline troops against the Guelph troops of Florence in the Battle of Montaperti (1260). After its great defeat, Florence will become Ghibelline for about six years: the Guelph power will be restored only six years later, after the defeat of Manfred of Sicily in the Battle of Benevento (1266). But this is another story!

Let’s go back to our family, that very soon moved right to Florence, to follow the paths of commerce and mercantile activity. It was Bartolino Salimbeni that wanted to move, and so the last name was first changed to Bartolini, so to hide their true identity of Ghibellines in enemy territory, but it was later integrated with the original name, that became so Bartolini Salimbeni.

Like other wealthy families in Florence, they also contributed to the artistic heritage of the city, commissioning important artworks: in 1363 they acquired the patronage of a chapel in Santa Trinita church, and in the 1420s they entrusted Lorenzo Monaco with the wall frescoes representing the cycle of the Stories of The Virgin Mary. Lorenzo Monaco, whose real name was Piero di Giovanni (1370-1425 ca.), was also Senese, and was a Camaldolese monk in the Florentine monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli. He was also an important painter, representative of the so-called “Late-Gothic” style, namely an artist that still worked following the rules of the Gothic style, in a time when Masaccio was already spreading the new Renaissance ideas in Florence. And Gothic is the style of these wonderful frescoes, as well as of the altarpiece with the Annunciation, placed in the same chapel, also by Lorenzo Monaco. Approximately twenty years later, Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni commissioned Paolo Uccello (Paolo di Dono, 1397-1475), an important artist that combined the courtly and fairy-tale aspects of the Late Gothic style with a real obsession for the Renaissance perspective, to produce three great paintings telling the victory of the Florentines against Siena and its ally Milan, in the Battle of San Romano of 1432. The three panels, later acquired by Lorenzo the Magnificent Medici, are now split between three different museums: in Florence, at the Uffizi Gallery, is the episode of “The Unseating of Bernardino della Ciarda”; in the National Gallery in London is the part with “Niccolò da Tolentino leading the Florentine army”; finally, in the Louvre Museum in Paris is the episode of “The Counterattack by Michele da Cotignola”. Lionardo had taken part in this battle, ironically on the side of Florence against Siena.

But their name in Florence is particularly tied to their palace, completed in 1523 by the architect Baccio d’Agnolo, soon at the center of controversies and anecdotes.

The palace, commissioned by Giovanni Bartolini Salimbeni, is in the Santa Trinita square, right in front of the church that houses the above mentioned chapel, and with its 16th century façade, it harmonizes with the medieval and Renaissance façades of the other buildings on the square. This building is a masterpiece of the 16th century architecture, with its classical and elegant lines. This was something new at the time, a modern “Roman style” stone building, the result of Baccio’s brilliance and his innovative methods: however, it was all this innovation that did not convince the Florentines at all. The palace was heavily criticized, for its squared aspect, for its classical tympanums, for the statues in the niches (no longer there). Baccio d’Agnolo, fresh from other stinging criticism by Michelangelo, who had described his decoration of the drum at the base of Brunelleschi’s dome as a “cricket cage”, had clearly enough, and let engrave a Latin inscription on the architrave above the entrance door, saying “carpere promptius quam imitari”, which means “criticizing is easier than imitating”!

But we can locate other inscriptions on this facade, this time in Italian, engraved on the crossing elements of the windows: it is the motto of the family “Per non dormire” (“For not spleeping”). The whole decoration is completed by reliefs representing a bouquet of three opium poppies. Why all these references to sleep? The explanation comes from an anecdote-legend, that also tells us how the family’s fortune started. We must go back again, in the Middle Ages, when a member of the family, a merchant, was able to acquire a precious lot of cloth (or spices, according to a different version) at an auction. Obviously, many other rich merchants in Florence were interested in these goods, but Bartolini was able to cunningly eliminate the adversaries: the night before the auction, he invited all his rivals for a big dinner, to celebrate the event. Food and wine, however, were “doped” with opium, and so the next morning, while everyone was still sleeping soundly, Bartolini, alone and triumphant, went to buy the entire lot at a cheap price!

His method is certainly debatable: it was more a question of cunning rather than ability, and it is probably only a legend. This story and the motto it generated, however, send a clear message: to be successful in business you have to be always alert and awake!

It seems that Gabriele d’Annunzio, the Italian poet (1863-1938), liked this motto, and also adopted as his own!