In another moment down went Alice after it,
never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Palazzo Rucellai sits quietly in the middle of the narrow Via della Vigna Nuova, today a commercial street in the heart of ancient Florence. As a passerby, I’d long admired the stoicism of its posture, the severity of its sandstone face, the snobbery of its chiseled features. Now here I stood, curbside with my luggage, staring down the aloof neighbor that was soon to become my private abode.
I’d been instructed by the agency to ring at the side entrance. Dragging my suitcases behind me, I walked around the corner and into a narrow alley jammed with metal bicycle racks and blue plastic trash bins. After just a few steps on the stone pavement, I landed on a wobbler, sending my foot into a gulch filled with the previous night’s runoff. I shook the sludge from my loafer and continued along the plaster sidewall of the palace, a montage of barred windows, blind arches, and jerry-rigged drainpipes—by Florentine standards, an anonymous everyday stretch of beige covered in a small army of shiny aluminum placards: PROPRIETÀ PRIVATA, VIETATO L’ACCESSO, DIVIETO DI SOSTA. I smugly scoffed. “No trespassing” no longer applied to me here.
A secondary threshold, safeguarded by four locks,opens up from the side street onto the palace courtyard.
As my eyes scrolled over the colossal entryway, seeking a way in, a little man suddenly appeared in the door. And I do mean in the door; for a hatch not much larger than my overstuffed Samsonites had been cut out of the lower quarter of the wooden portone. The idea had been to make passage from one side to the other easier, but the effect was peculiar. As was the gatekeeper himself.
Niko, whose size nearly matched that of the diminutive trapdoor, wore a long canvas sculptor’s smock that blotted out any hint of a body beneath, leaving in full view only a big, round jack-in-the-box head, his clownish appearance heightened by tufts of white curls, a bushy mustache, and Coke-bottle glasses. The elderly Greek man with the impeccable British accent—and, I’d soon learn, a very short temper—apparently had been expecting me. “Just in time,” he announced. “I’m about to take my break.”
I, on the other hand, was caught completely off guard. I hadn’t anticipated having to shimmy my way into Palazzo Rucellai. Nevertheless, I maneuvered my body, most unceremoniously, through the wicket. Hardly the ideal entrance. But then, as I untucked myself and stood up straight, Alberti’s courtyard opened up around me. It was nothing short of perfection: a vision in chalk white and cool gray pietra serena, without a single cypress in sight. I walked into the center and slowly began to spin around, carefully keeping time with Alberti’s slinking arches, so entranced I might have continued indefinitely had it not been for the grunts Niko emitted as he struggled to get my luggage through the rabbit hole after me.
Niko pointed me upstairs, where I discovered a different story—a quirky assemblage of the magnificent and the misfit. Even more disconcerting than the décor, however, was the apartment’s position within the palace. Archivio was situated in the front corner of the building—wedged between the top two floors. It faced the street, but there was no view and not the slightest suggestion from the facade that there might be a hollow space hiding behind and between Alberti’s carefully set windows. Access to the rest of the palace came via an antique birdcage elevator that opened directly into the apartment (installed in 1928 by “Cosimo and Edith of the Rucellai Counts,” its commemorative brass plaque announced) or via its own secret stairway, an offshoot from the main staircase originating just above the second-floor landing, eerily concealed behind a door within a wall—much like the surprise door within a door that, only a short time before, had served as my gateway into Palazzo Rucellai.
Just as soon as I’d gotten my bearings, Niko rang. “I need you to come down- stairs!” he barked. “Contessa is here now.”
Was I being summoned? How oddly exciting, I thought.
I tucked in my T-shirt and headed down to meet the dowager of my dreams. But when I re-entered Alberti’s cortile, prepared to curtsy, or whatever it was one did, I found a very different picture: the serene space I’d just passed through was now dominated by a tall young woman making a futile effort to discipline three brats kicking one of the courtyard’s weathered columns as though it were a mangy old dog. This must be the daughter-in-law, I reasoned. Or the daughter- in-law’s nanny?
Alas, this was the contessa