The Miraculous Pee

Palazzo Rucellai

Opening up about half way down Via della Vigna Nuova is Piazzetta de’ Rucellai with its famous palazzo of the same name facing on, which was designed by Leon Battista Alberti and commenced by Bernardo Rossellino in 1446.  The Rucellai family, whose members all belonged to the Wool Guild and the Silk Guild, was one of the richest and most powerful families in Renaissance Florence.  However, the origins of this family are somewhat bizarre, likewise the reason for their great wealth.  Legend has it that one of the merchant ancestors of the family, a certain Alemanno del Giunta, during one of his periodic journeys to the East, on dismounting from his horse for a normal physiological need, was surprised to see that a certain wild grass had turned purple on contact with his urine.

Despite his ignorance with regard to chemical reactions, Alemanno tried to find out more about this phenomenon and discovered that when left to soak in urine, this grass was capable of dying garments an intense purple color.

Palazzo Rucellai

He brought the grass back to Florence, where it took on the name of “oricella” (from urine), due to these particular features, and was used in great quantities for dying garments.  As a result it was cultivated in a widespread area of the city that became known as “orti oricellari” (oricella vegetable garden).

The family was by now extremely wealthy thanks to the trading skills of its members, and also thanks to this miraculous grass which was first called Oricellari, and then later took on the more genteel name of Rucellai.

The splendid fifteenth century palazzo that can be admired in Via della Vigna Nuova, was erected thanks to the unusual combination of this grass with urine.

Ciarleglio, Franco. “The Miraculous Pee.” Strolling through Florence (Discovering the City’s Hidden Secrets). Trans. Susan Mary Cadby Berardi. Florence: Edizioni Tipografia Bertelli, 2003. 19-20. Print.

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