Our second Florence garden was the Boboli Gardens, just behind the Pitti Palace. Originally built for the Medici Family, and constructed on a hill once covered with olive trees and vineyards, it still retains an air of a perfect Italian classic design although apparently…
‘During the brief period of French rule, the Boboli gardens ran the risk of being turned into an English Park.’
But if it was saved from nasty English influence, records show that in 1932, the majestic amphitheatre was the scene of flag throwing performance of Hitler and Mussolini before being turned into a vegetable garden. Hard to imagine now.
Although records are sketchy, or those that I can find anyway, it does feel that the extension to the Palace and the gardens were done at the same time. There’s a pleasing organic feel to them, and also, given the scale of these gardens, a surprising sense of personality coming through.
Today we miss the ‘thrushery’, a hunting ground for the Medici but what for? Thrushes? And talking of birds, there was once apparently a magnificent aviary near the Kaffehaus, as well as an exotic menagerie. The Garden of Madama, a market garden of citrus trees and flowers commissioned by Giovanna of Austria, the wife of Francesco 1, has gone but her grottinca still remains, begun in 1553, it was one of the first of its kind.
Still very much present is the famous ‘fountain of Bacchus.’ I’d read that this was a portrait of Cosima’s household dwarf, but when I investigated, this is apparently untrue as Cosima was too fond to have him ridiculed like this, but even so. (The turtle is a Medici symbol.)
But practical jokes were welcome elsewhere. Like many gardens of their time, especially one built round water like Boboli, there was much play with watertricks. One jet at the Isolotto could shoot upwards to a height of 71 feet, 8 inches. Mind you, on this rainy day in Florence, it felt as if the water was coming down, not up..!
But it’s the Grotto of Buontalenti which is really special. Open only at certain times during the day, it once featured four sculptures of slaves by Michelangelo, which have since been replaced by plaster of paris copies, but you can still imagine what it must have been like.
I would have loved to have seen it in its heyday, when hidden water jets drenched unwary visitors, and a central jet could be adjusted to reach the ceiling. The statue of Venus in the third chamber, by Giambologna, has its own secret story. Although the artist begged in vain to be allowed to work on it further, Duke Francesco was so pleased with it that he apparently kept it in his personal chamber for a while before moving it to the Grotto.
When the grotto was originally built, Buontalenti suspended a crystal fish basin from the vault’s skylight, but it proved too difficult to keep the fish alive due to the temperature changes. However, it’s wonderful to think what the lights and reflective splashes from the basin would have added – a real feeling of being underwater.
This is the poem I wrote in the gardens:
Wanting to see everything, we queue
to visit the grotto, have our pictures
taken by a naked dwarf riding a tortoise,
imagine the wild animals, wild
parties, but the real fantasy would be living
in a world when you would hire Michelangelo
to sculpt mighty slaves emerging
from the underworld, and yet
you’d still feel safe, on top.
Here’s a piece by Monty Don from his television series on Italian Gardens which interestingly shows the contrast between Boboli and Villa di Castello:
- Bardini Garden, Florence (writerinthegarden.com)