Viewed from practically wherever you are in Gubbio, Palazzo dei Consoli rises proudly as testimonial to Gubbio’s political objectives in the early 14th century.
Palazzo dei Consoli – originally called “Palazzo del Poplo” – together with the magnificent square it faces, Piazza Grande, and the nearby Palazzo del Podestà (Mayor’s Palace), unite to form one of Italy’s most majestic and audacious medieval construction projects:
Inspite of frequent skirmishes with other city-states, Gubbio seems to have flowered in the High Middle Ages with the population peaking at about 50,000 during that period. Sign of the splendor was the decision made in 1321 to build the monumental complex of two buildings facing each other and flanking an ample piazza.
The Palazzo dei Consoli would be erected in the very center of Gubbio so that all four districts – i quartieri – would border on the central civic building, although the building would not be built in any single quartiere. The decision required the leveling out of a slice of the hill and the sustaining of the resulting piazza by four huge open vaults, thus creating what would be called “la piazza pensile” (“the suspended square”):
Intended as the seat of government of the libero comune (“free city state”), Gubbio’s Palazzo dei Consoli was seat of the city’s courts and municipal institutions.
In 1332, onstruction, of the monumental complex started and a Gubbio native son, Matteo di Giovanello – known as “Gattapone” – seems to have acted as project manager. He is never referred to as an architect, although he is often credited with the design of the buildings. Most scholars, however, consider this attribution to Gattapone as Gubbio campanilismo (literally, “belltower-ism,” i.e., loyalty to one’s town).
As of 1362, Il Gattapone was closely linked to the papal legate, Cardinal Gil Albornoz, when he was appointed “offitialeni et suprastantem fabbrice rocche”- that is, in charge of the building of the massive Papal fortress, la Rocca di Spoleto.
Certainly involved in the work was highly-skilled architect, Angelo da Orvieto, probably trained by the Sienese architect, Lorenzo Maitani, capomaestro of the Duomo of Orvieto in 1310. He might have been that “Angelo” documented with Maitani in Perugia in 1317 during work there on the Palazzo dei Priori, civic palace.
A grand staircase leads up to the entryway portal…
…and over the doorway, a sculpted arch in limestone spreads out over a fresco depicting St. John the Baptist and Saint Ubaldo, co-patron saints of Gubbio. The inscription above the fresco records that the portal was started in 1332.
Below the fresco, an inscription asserts that the architrave was put in place in 1337 and that Angelo da Orvieto was responsible for the work:
This simple inscription is of great historical importance for the epigraph was written in the Italian vulgate, not Latin, as would have been customary on a civic building.
In 1338, the year of the inauguration of the Palazzo dei Consoli, the new Statue of the Muncipality was presented, guaranteeing political rights to nearly all the citizens of Gubbio.
The city was to be governed by the city magistrates (consoli) and the Consiglio Generale (General Council) as well as by two magistrates from other cities: the Podestà (with judicial and administrative power – similar to today’s mayor) and Capitano del Popolo (enjoying judicial, administrative as well as political power).
The Consuls were the true force of urban power. Two were chosen from each district and the consuls were to to be of the common people – not nobility – could not be younger than 30 years old and were adamantly Guelf (that is, of the party supporting the Papacy). And the allegiance of Gubbio to Papal power is clearly stated in the merlons of the battlements of the Palazzo dei Consoli which are Guelf, certainly not Ghibelline:
Do note the Ghibelline merlons on the battlements of the medieval Palazzo della Podestà of Fabriano (Marches):
The term of office of the consuls was for 2 months. During their period of service, they could not leave the Palazzo, so as to avoid contact with outside influences – – and consequently, an exploration of the Palazzo will take you past a corridor of medieval toilets on the second floor!
The General Council – made up of the people’s council representatatives (50 per quarter of the city) and representatives of the wealthiest families (40 per quarter) – remained in office for six months.
I’m not sure if they, too, were confined to the Palazzo for their term of six months. Highly unlikely: more medieval sanitary facilities would have been necessary.