Audioguide of the Villa medicea di Castello
The Garden of the Medici Villa of Castello is part of the UNESCO series of sites “Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany”, consisting of 12 villas and 2 gardens in the region, once belonging to the Medici family.
From the mid-15th century, and the ensuing centuries, the Medici gradually transformed their properties in the Mugello and the environs of Florence from outposts for the control of the territory and agricultural production centres to suburban villas, places for recreation, meditation and leisure past times.
Closely connected to the villa, the garden at Castello is a perfect example of a harmonious blend of architecture and landscape – highly cherished during the Renaissance – and the relationship between man and nature, where the ingenuity of architects, painters and sculptors was at the disposal of powerful families such as the Medici. In fact, the best artists of the era created extraordinary artistic and technological works, equipped to alter nature to suit mankind and his whims also sending clear political propaganda messages, as in the case of the garden of the Villa di Castello.
2. The Villa and the Garden
The villa’s origins date back to the 12th century, when the building was a defensive tower. In 1477, Giovanni and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici purchased the building, which then began to assume today’s appearance.
The two men, cousins of Lorenzo the Magnificent, transformed the building into an extra-urban villa. There they hosted humanists and philosophers, such as Marsilio Ficino, and collected paintings such as the Primavera [Spring] and The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. This garden also inspired Botticelli to depict flowery meadows in his works. Towards the middle of the 16th century, the duke, later Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, acquired the villa and garden, which followed the family events. When the line died out in 1743, the property passed to the Hapsburg Lorraines, the new rulers of Tuscany. In 1861, it passed to King Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy. It is to him that we owe the name “Villa Reale” or Royal Villa, by which the building is known.
The green space behind the villa is one of the earliest examples of an Italian garden, with hedges, regular shaped box trees and spaces divided geometrically. The garden still has the ancient citrus fruits, dwarf plants, fountains and caves. In front of the villa, there used to be a large basin for collecting water and breeding fish, called a “vivaio” or nursery. For this reason, the property was also known as “Il Vivaio”. In 1919, the Italian State acquired the garden, turning it into a national museum, while the villa became the headquarters of the linguistic academy, Accademia della Crusca.
The painting by Giusto Utens, part of a series of 17 lunettes depicting the Medici villas from a bird’s eye view between the late 16th and early 17th centuries, is a crucial testimonial to better understanding the garden’s original appearance and its allegorical, political and celebratory meanings.
3. The Allegorical Decoration of the Garden
In the mid-16th century, Cosimo I also wanted to show his power in the Giardino di Castello.
For this he commissioned Niccolò Pericoli, known as Tribolo, and artists of his court, such as Giorgio Vasari, Giambologna and Bartolomeo Ammannati, to decorate this huge green space with allegorical statues and fountains. Mythological figures, classical divinities, real and fantastic creatures populate and animate the garden thanks to a complex hydraulic system designed by Tribolo to facilitate spectacular water features.
An examination of Utens’ painting provides some understanding of the allegorical meanings of the decorations, which we can understand by reading the garden from bottom to top and vice versa.
Starting from the bottom we come across the fountain of Hercules and Antaeus, which alludes to Cosimo’s political and military superiority, the Venere Fiorenza fountain, later moved to the nearby Villa of Petraia. Next is the cave of animals, Grotta degli Animali. Finally, in the park, once called “wildland”, is the basin or pool with the Apennine Colossus. If we read the garden from top to bottom, on the other hand, we start right from the Apennine Colossus and follow the course of water to the Grotta degli Animali, where the stream divides between Mount Senario and Falterona, represented in two side niches that no longer exist today. From the two mountains arise the Mugnone and the Arno, the rivers that reach Florence and came together again in the garden in the fountains of Venere [Venus] Fiorenza and Hercules and Antaeus.
4. The Fountain of Hercules and Antaeus and the Venere [Venus] Fiorenza
The first decoration we encounter while examining the lower part of the garden is the Fountain of Hercules and Antaeus, the earliest example of a monumental candelabrum fountain.
Tribolo and Pierino da Vinci created the marble parts and the cherubs that decorate the basin between 1538 and 1560, while Bartolomeo Ammannati made the sculptural group of Hercules and Antaeus, situated on top of the fountain. Hercules is an allegory for Cosimo, whose strength defeats political opponents just like the mythological hero who killed the terrible giant Antaeus by crushing him. in fact, his grip was so powerful that it suffocated his rival. The sculpture depicts the final moment in the life of Antaeus, who, suffocated by Hercules, is screaming with his mouth agape, exhaling his last breath, dramatically represented by a stream of water over 5 meters high flowing from his mouth when the water features are turned on. The fountain we see here in Castello is a replica replacing the original, which was moved to Villa La Petraia for conservation reasons. Originally, besides Hercules and Antaeus, the visitor would have come across the fountain of Venere Fiorenza, made by Giambologna around 1570. The work is named for the bronze figure which crowns the fountain. Venus, depicted as she comes out of the water and squeezes her long hair dry with her hands, is the incarnation of the Florence that dominates the other Tuscan cities, represented at the feet of the goddess through their symbols, merged around the pedestal of the statue. In 1788, Grand Duke Peter Leopold had the fountain moved to the garden of Villa La Petraia, in the so-called Piano della Figurina, the statue level, where today visitors can see a copy of the original bronze, which is preserved inside the villa.
5. Citrus Fruits and the Bizzarria Orange
The Medici family always placed great importance on the cultivation of citrus fruits. It is no accident that some interpret the balls of their coat-of-arms to be stylised oranges.
We are uncertain as to exactly when the cultivation of citrus fruits began in Tuscany. Certainly as early as the 15th century there were espaliers and groves of lemons, oranges, citrons or even rarer and more unusual species. The interest in these fruits was not only ornamental or botanical, but also nutritional and medicinal. It was during the era of Cosimo I that the Castello garden, of all the Medici properties, had the largest collection of potted citrus fruits. Today the collection includes about 500 plants and is one of the most impressive in Europe. Citrus fruits are planted in ancient terracotta pots, some dating back to the 18th century. From April to October they are displayed outdoors, and in winter, stored in the lemon houses. It takes one month to move them all. Furthermore, citrus fruits are watered manually: when the gardener taps the pot and hears a long sound, it means the plant is thirsty and must be watered. Some citrus species that date back to the Medici era are the bitter orange, the lumia, the Lanzichenecchi orange and Bizzaria orange. This was discovered in 1644 in the garden of the Torre degli Agli, on the northern outskirts of Florence. It disappeared in the second half of the 19th century to be rediscovered in 1980 by Paolo Galeotti, the official in charge of the Castello Garden.
Genetically, it is a bitter orange, while morphologically it also has the characteristics of a citron and a lemon. Therefore, it often varies in shape and the wedges can be of different colours. Because of these two unusual features, the plant is called a Bizzarria.
6. Secret Garden
This part of the garden more hidden and sheltered from the elements is called the “ortaccio” or secret garden, where “secret” means “private”.
This place was reserved for a rare few, and there they grew the most delicate plants, which required a protected environment and greater care. These were medicinal plants, grown for medicinal and curative purposes, as the wealthiest families of the time often did on their properties, thereby ensuring that their villas were self-sufficient in similar plants.
This space already existed from the early 15th century, when the villa did not yet belong to the Medici, who purchased it with the rest of the property in 1477. In the 16th century, Cosimo I commissioned Tribolo to restructure the garden. He transformed the environment into a hortus conclusus, an enclosed space, dedicated to Asclepius, god of medicine. In fact, at the centre of the garden is a sculpture which, according to some interpretations, depicts the patron god of medicinal plants and those who use them. Others argue that the sculpture represents Autumn or a generic rural god. On the left we see an 18th-century building, the so-called Stufa dei mugherini which takes its name from a jasmine with double the number of petals, a gift from the king of Portugal to Cosimo III de’ Medici. This flower is from Goa, India, where the Portuguese had a colony. Grand Duke Cosimo III liked the flower so much that he soon deemed it his favourite, so that today it is known as the “mugherino of the Grand Duke of Tuscany”.
Not only did Cosimo III like the appearance of this jasmine, but he decided to use its fragrant petals to sweeten the bitter taste of cocoa as well. For a long time, the recipe remained a secret, and everyone wondered how Florentine chocolate could be so good.
7. Cave of the Animals
The Grotta degli Animali, built around 1558-1559, was part of Tribolo’s initial design even though the decoration was only done after his death by artists of the grand ducal court.
Oggi entriamo nella grotta attraverso un ingresso settecentesco che inizialmente Today we enter the cave through an 18th-century entrance that initially must have been an opening in limestone sponges that recalled an actual natural cave.
Inside, the environment is divided into three arms covered with mosaics made with pebbles, shells and calcareous concretions. Each arm houses a niche with three marble fountains inside consisting of a basin and groups of animals in different stone types and colours. The side basins are the only elements made by Tribolo and are decorated with garlands, which instead of flowers, are representations of different types of fish and marine animals. Above the basins are terrestrial animals, while perched in various points in the cave there must have been bronze birds, many of which were made by Giambologna and today are preserved in the Bargello.
Here we are looking at the reproduction of the entire animal kingdom: creatures of the sea, land and air.
At the centre of the cave there must have been an Orpheus, who was able to tame these kingdoms and restore peace: Orpheus with his music who tamed even the most ferocious animals, just as Cosimo I defeated his enemies, bringing a new eternal spring to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
Hidden by the decoration is an intricate hydraulic system that brought the whole cave to life with streams and jets. The water bathed the animals which then turned different colours and took on a new liveliness, due to being sculpted in different materials. The water splashed from the floor and dripped from the walls, making the environment even more evocative and naturalistic. Even today, on special occasions, the water features in the cave are turned on.
8. The Apennine Colossus
After the death of Giangastone, the last Grand Duke, and the extinction of the Medici family, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Medici patrimony passed to the Lorraine.
The Giardino di Castello underwent some changes, particularly behind the villa and the Italian Garden, where at the time of the Medici there was a wooded area that protected the building from the cold and winds, called the wildland. In fact, today we can admire an English Garden in its place, designed by Joseph Frisch in 1830. At the behest of Grand Duke Leopold II of Lorraine, in fact, the architect joined the Villa di Castello to the neighbouring Petraia by way of the romantic park, which then transformed this area where grapevines and olive trees were once grown. Unlike the Italian garden, the English garden is meant to recreate a natural wild environment, without symbolic allusions or hidden meanings. Everything feels natural, even though it was actually designed very meticulously. At the centre of the romantic park is the vivaio or nursery, a pool of water with a mound, above which we see a bronze representation of a chilled man emerging from the water. A jet of water must have come out of his head and would have surmounted the figure almost like an umbrella. This is Winter or Apennino [Appennine Colossus], created by Bartolomeo Ammannati in 1563. While the garden is intended to be a representation of the entire territory of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, here we are at the source of all the Tuscan waters. From here, in fact, the water flows down towards the cave of the animals, passes through the magical horn of the unicorn in the niche at the bottom, and thanks to this, is purified so as to be able to spray all of Tuscany and thus arrive pure at the fountain of Venere Fiorenza, centre of the garden and the territory, which alludes to the city of Florence.