Audioguide of the Medici Villa in Poggio a Caiano
1. Introduction (to be listened to while walking, approaching the Villa)
Welcome to the Medici Villa in Poggio a Caiano, inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2013 as part of the serial site of “Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany”, which includes fourteen villas and gardens that belonged to the Medici family, scattered throughout the region of Tuscany. These are outstanding examples of the aristocratic country villa geared towards leisure, the arts and knowledge.
Lorenzo the Magnificent wished to have a residence built here that would have avant-garde architectural features and would express directly the new developments in Renaissance thought. We can perceive a new way of interpreting the country residence in the villa before us: not enclosed within its own walls, but open to the landscape, in constant dialogue with its natural surroundings. To this end, too, the building is elevated on a kind of porticoed base and is built in two volumes joined at the centre by a shorter volume, so that, seen from above, it resembles the letter H. This particular shape is unusual, in that it opens the villa up to the outside, and this is also underscored by the terrace on the second floor that runs all around the perimeter, letting the visitor admire the surrounding space at 360°. At the same time, the inner courtyard, from which earlier residences generally received most of the external light, has been eliminated, replaced on the first-floor piano nobile by a monumental reception hall, aimed at glorifying the Medici dynasty.
The project was assigned to Giuliano da Sangallo, who fused Renaissance harmony and classical vocabulary with forms and functions typical of rural Tuscan architecture. Work began in the 1480s, under the watchful eye of Lorenzo himself, who would actually come to stay in front of the building site to monitor its progress, but who died before the villa was finished. After his death in 1492 and the subsequent expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494, building work was suspended and only resumed after the family’s return to Florence in 1512. The impetus for the completion of the building was provided by Lorenzo’s son, Giovanni, better known as Pope Leo X.
In 1737, after the demise of the Medici dynasty, the villa passed to the Hapsburg-Lorraine, the new Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and, at the beginning of the 19th century, first Maria Luisa of Bourbon, Regent of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Etruria; then Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, lived here. Between 1865 and 1871, King Victor Emmanuel II chose it as one of his out-of-town residences while Florence was capital of the Kingdom of Italy. Visiting the rooms of the residence, we therefore come across furnishings and works dating back to different historical periods and notice how the Renaissance spirit can be fully appreciated on the exterior, where it is heightened by the building’s architecture, while inside, the influences of later centuries have led to substantial changes in the furnishings and decorations.
The villa has been state-owned since 1919. Since 2007, the second floor has been given over to the Museo della Natura Morta, the Museum of Still Life: more than 200 works spread over 16 rooms make up this collection devoted to still lifes and various paintings of naturalistic subjects that belonged to the Medici family and come from the collections of the Florentine Galleries.
2. The Façade
When one looks at the façade of the villa, two architectural features are especially striking. Starting from the top, the eye falls on the triangular pediment, clearly classically inspired, whose glazed terracotta frieze is packed with symbolism.
What we are looking at is a 20th-century copy by Manifattura Richard Ginori: the original is kept inside, in a room specifically dedicated to it. The work, attributed to Bertoldo di Giovanni and collaborators, is dated around 1490 and is one of the few in the villa to have been probably commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici: with its complex iconography and wealth of references, not yet fully deciphered, it fits perfectly into the cultural climate of Lorenzo’s time. The glazed terracotta technique was advanced for the 15th century and is typically Tuscan.
The second feature of great visual impact is the colonnade, surmounted by the two wide curved staircases that provide access to the upper level. The staircase is the only structural element of the villa that has been drastically altered over time. Starting in 1599, the painter Giusto Utens depicted all the Medici villas in a series of lunettes destined for a room in the Villa “La Ferdinanda” in Artimino. If we compare the lunette depicting the Villa in Poggio a Caiano, we notice a very significant difference: the two staircases were originally straight and not curved, as we see them today. Although one might think that the change was made for aesthetic reasons, since today’s staircases give greater dynamism to the façade, the reason is much more practical. In 1807, in fact, the stairs were replaced to create a loggia that was deep enough to allow a carriage to pass through. The project was carried out by Pasquale Poccianti, one of Tuscany’s most renowned neoclassical architects. In this way, even if it rained, it was possible to have sheltered access to the villa. Other important changes took place over time, modifying the building’s external appearance: the prominent clock tower, which stands proudly at the top of the façade, was not envisaged originally, but was an 18th-century addition; the windows were “crossed”, that is, divided into four by a cross in pietra serena; the pillars were in ashlar, that is, covered with rough-hewn but unfinished blocks of stone. Don’t miss the model reconstructing its original appearance in the Sala del Fregio, on the first floor of the Villa.
Finally, it should be noted that in recent times, four Roman marble sarcophagi dating back to around the 2nd-3rd century AD have been placed in the shadow of the large colonnade. The various holes that partially damage the decorations show that they were repurposed as basins for the fountains that adorned the Villa grounds.
3. The kitchens and the Torrino della Pallacorda
Originally, the villa was equipped with several rooms used as kitchens, located on the ground and second floors.
For reasons of convenience, however, in 1614, Cosimo II ordered the construction of one large outdoor complex, connected to the villa by a 35-metre-long underground tunnel, known as the “food passage”, so that the food would not get cold.
The young nobleman, who became Grand Duke when he was only 19 years old, used to surround himself with a very large court and, together with his wife Maria Maddalena of Austria, he would give receptions and loved high society life: the single large kitchen, now also known as the “Cucinone”, the large kitchen, would therefore have been convenient for the preparation of banquets. Its location in a separate building protected the Villa from the risk of fire and unpleasant odours and was also considered preferable for reasons of decorum. There was also a separate kitchen for the servants.
The rectangular building is enormous and is spread over two floors, but it seems much smaller than the main building because, being slightly sunken in relation to the level on which the villa stands, it remains half-hidden from the visitor’s gaze by a small wall. The long, narrow central courtyard was used for butchering and all culinary activities that were better performed outdoors. The “Cucinone” was essential to the daily life of the Grand Ducal court and remained in use until the 19th century. The interior cannot be visited for security reasons.
Another place worth mentioning is the Torrino della Pallacorda, which you can see to the right of the kitchen building. Inside one of the turret-bastions of the walls, there is a court where a sport used to be played, the Pallacorda, similar to today’s tennis. Today this building is used as a storage room.
4. The grounds (1)
The green area protected by the walls of the villa is divided into two sections: the garden and the wood. What we see today, however, is very different from how it looked five centuries ago.
The original plan envisaged an Italian-style garden to the right of the building, surrounded by wooded and unpaved areas. We should in fact imagine the villa’s grounds as a first section of the enormous agricultural estate that extended immediately beyond the Ombrone stream, around the Medici farm, on land now largely occupied by the Cascine di Tavola park in the municipality of Prato. From the end of the 15th to the beginning of the 19th century, the farmstead was active and productive: large vegetable gardens and orchards provided the court with sustenance, but production was not limited to agriculture. Cattle breeding ensured the production of cheese and beekeeping that of honey, while a fish hatchery meant fresh fish was always available. The Medici farm was a pioneering agro-scientific hub, where new forms of cultivation and breeding were experimented with, including rice paddies and silkworms.
Back inside the walls, today we can see a green area that has been modified, mostly since the 18th century.
Today we stroll through a garden filled with beds of seasonal flowers, a small but impressive collection of roses, and a few tall trees, such as the two cedars of Lebanon, which we can admire in front of the entrance gate. The area to the right of the villa was designed in its present layout around 1820 and features paths, hedges, and, in the summer, many citrus trees, which are kept in the large lemon house in winter. The English-style wooded area at the back of the Villa, which stretches as far as the Ombrone river, has curving paths, a wide variety of flora that makes the place feel completely unspoilt, and some centuries-old trees, in particular, oaks, a turkey oak of amazing size and a sequoia. What makes the park even more attractive are the bamboo grove and the monumental scenic backdrop with neo-Gothic mural paintings, in front of which stands the rare and imposing Medici black walnut, which has been declared a monumental tree.
5. The Limonaia
The second main building that attracts one’s attention is the large Limonaia, the lemon house, located to the right of the villa. This “citrus room”, as it was called in the 19th century, was designed by the neoclassical architect Pasquale Poccianti in 1825.
Although it is only two centuries old and therefore not of Medici origin, its function was to protect citrus fruits, especially lemons, from the cold. As they were much loved and collected throughout Tuscany by the Grand Ducal family. As we can see in one of the frescoes in the Salone di Leone X inside the villa, the Medici viewed lemons as one of their symbols, a probable allusion to the golden apples of the myth of Hercules, the hero par excellence, for his strength and intelligence. In the Villa di Castello in Florence, there is still the citrus fruit collection started in the 16th century by Cosimo I. In the Still Life Museum on the second floor of the Villa, four large 18th-century paintings by Bartolomeo Bimbi are on display, depicting countless varieties of citrus fruits that were part of the Medici collections, some of which can also be spotted today among these plants.
6. The grounds (2)
The extensive wooded area in the rest of the Villa grounds was called “fagianaia” because it was used for hunting pheasants, fagiani in Italian.
It was enlarged from the end of the 18th century, but the most important changes came in the 19th century, when the road to Prato was diverted and the course of the Ombrone stream was straightened: two radical alterations that led to the extension of the grounds and the unification of some of its previously separate areas. The English garden located in the area behind the villa that stretches as far as the Ombrone river is also 19th century.
In the English garden we also find other buildings, such as the icehouse, used to keep ice for the conservation and enjoyment of food, and the picturesque scenic backdrop with its neo-Gothic paintings.
7. The statue di Ambra and Ombrone
Among the works adorning the villa’s grounds we find the 19th-century terracotta sculpture group depicting the legend of Ambra and Ombrone.
The Villa of Poggio a Caiano is often mistakenly called “Ambra”: this was the name of the hill on which the villa stands – sometimes also used to indicate a previous building – embraced by the bend of the river Ombrone. Lorenzo the Magnificent drew inspiration from it for a poem, while he stayed in Poggio a Caiano to oversee the construction of his villa. “Ombrone, a proud lover, encircles Ambra, she like a small island”, wrote Lorenzo the Magnificent to describe the love between the river Ombrone and this place, which in the poem is personified as a nymph.
It is recounted that the old river Ombrone saw the beautiful nymph Ambra dancing in the moonlight and fell in love with her. Sworn to chastity, the nymph fled and when she was about to be caught by her suitor, she asked the goddess Diana for help, who transformed her into a small rock island in the middle of the river. Ombrone, weeping, began to encircle her with his waters and to consume the rock, day after day, with his liquid embraces. Here, the statue shows the climax of the myth narrated by Lorenzo: Ombrone is caught in the act of capturing Ambra by encircling her with his arms, while she begins to turn into rock, starting from her feet. This is due to the intervention of the goddess Diana, who appears from the left, depicted as a huntress with a quiver and accompanied by a dog.
8. Beyond the walls: Cascine di Tavola, the Stables and the Palazzina Reale
After visiting the villa, we can discover some other places related to it, but located outside the perimeter walls.
Along the descent of the ridge, the small hill on top of which the building is situated, we can find the Palazzina Reale, today the town hall. This building was originally the home of the head gardener of the Medici residence: a fine house, on whose ceilings some frescoes can still be seen. The most interesting room in the building is what has been the council chamber since 2005: the so-called Sala della Giostra, which can be seen from outside from the garden in front of the Limonaia. In the centre of the large quadrangular hall a pivot is still visible, covered by glass on the floor. On this, a merry-go-round with wooden horses revolved, constructed at the time of Ferdinand III of Lorraine together with a swing and a donkey carousel, creating a sort of small “amusement park” in the garden of the villa, which was used outdoors in fine weather.
Looking out from the little wall on the right-hand side of the Limonaia, we find the Scuderie Medicee: not just simple stables for horses, but a complex structure designed by Niccolò Pericoli, known as Il Tribolo, which could also accommodate the riders on the upper floor. Today, the building houses the Francesco Inverni Municipal Library and the Museo Ardengo Soffici e del Novecento Italiano.
In 1919, the villa was donated by the Savoy family to the Italian State and in 1984 it became a national museum. All the properties outside the walls, however, were shared out among various organisations and associations. In addition to those already mentioned, an important complex is the Medici farm, the Cascine di Tavola, on the opposite bank of the Ombrone. This was originally the nerve centre of extensive and innovative agricultural production, commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent prior to the villa and built from 1477 onwards. It is now awaiting restoration.
INTERIORS – Historical apartments
1. The Theatre of Marguerite from Orleans
Welcome to the interior of the Medici Villa of Poggio a Caiano, where one can take a stroll through history. In fact, the interior decoration has not only retained its original Renaissance features, but has followed, especially for the wall decorations and furnishings, the styles typical of different eras and the wishes of those who dwelt here over the centuries.
A striking example of this can be seen by comparing the entrance hall with the one we are now in. As we entered, we could see how the vaults of the first room and those of the portico in front of it were decorated in the second half of the 19th century with neo-Renaissance motifs and monochrome still lifes depicting hunting trophies. The latter are a clear reference to the passion for this pastime of King Victor Emmanuel II, under whose reign this part of the villa underwent restoration by the Piedmont architect Antonio Sailer, as is recalled in an inscription above the entrance door.
The room we are in now, however, is not one would expect to find inside a residence: it is a theatre. It was Marguerite Louise d’Orléans, wife of Cosimo III, who requested a room dedicated to dramatic art and music. From 1672, the French noblewoman, on account of her strained relationship with her husband, preferred to spend her time at Poggio a Caiano instead of the Pitti Palace. To entertain herself during the leisurely days spent at the villa, she accordingly had the so-called “Theatre of Comedies” installed, where artists could perform for her and her guests. The theatre was also very active in later years, when Ferdinando, Marguerite’s son and heir to the Grand Duchy, chose the villa as his summer residence
This room was not used for sixty years: from 1713, the year of Ferdinand’s death, to 1772, when Pietro Leopoldo ordered its restoration. At the beginning of the 19th century, Marie Louise of Bourbon preferred to use a mobile theatre installation in the Leo X Hall on the first floor for performances. It was Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, who was to restore the glory of the villa’s little theatre. She even had the curtain painted, still visible today, with a depiction of the gods Apollo and Minerva by the Prato painter Luigi Catani. The Savoy coat of arms at the base of the stage is also a sliding panel to access the prompter’s pit.
The positive (that is, portable) organ on display here is an original from 1703, the work of Lorenzo Testa; it was part of a rich collection of musical instruments, of which very few pieces remain today.
2. The Billiard room
Moving from the theatre to the billiard room, we are back again in a room decorated in the Savoy era. This games room, apart from the two large 19th-century billiard tables, is interesting for its airy ceiling decoration, depicting a fake pergola that gives the illusion of bursting through the ceiling.
The red curtain with the coat of arms of the Savoy family painted above the door to the outside, raised aloft by the wind, creates a fascinating connection with the real one, uniting the fake open space of the ceiling with the real curtain and the grounds of the villa. This work was created in 1865 by the Turin painter and scenographer Domenico Ferri, who oversaw the decoration of the new court residences of Victor Emmanuel II. In this room geared towards recreation and entertainment, we can see, in the far-right corner, everything needed for the game of billiards – original cues and scoreboards – and, on the left, a game table that worked with a spinning top and skittles, also dating back to the second half of the 19th century, the precursor of the modern pinball machine.
3. The Apartments of Bianca Cappello
The Villa of Poggio a Caiano has hosted many noblewomen who were betrothed to the young lords of Florence.
The wife of Francesco I, Joanna of Austria, and the wife of Ferdinando I, Christina of Lorraine, stayed here to receive the favours of the Florentine nobility; the villa also saw the celebrations of the marriages of Alessandro de’ Medici to Margaret of Austria and of Cosimo I to Eleonora of Toledo.
The most famous and controversial wedding was, however, the one between Francesco I and the Venetian Bianca Cappello: after having been lovers, they married in 1579 after the death of their respective spouses and in turn died in this very villa, just a few hours apart, between 19 and 20 October 1587, in circumstances that are still unclear to this day, from malaria or, as some say, poisoned by Francesco I’s brother, the future Grand Duke Ferdinando I.
What is certain is that Ferdinand, after the death of Francesco and Bianca, took pains to ensure that the name of the Venetian gentlewoman was forgotten, to the point of having her family’s coat of arms erased from the tapestries hanging on the walls of the Villa. Her burial place is also unknown. Bianca Cappello was perhaps the only noblewoman in the Villa who chose to reside on the ground floor, rather than on the piano nobile. In the room we are in, the first of what were her apartments, we can admire four interesting paintings: Moses and the Burning Bush, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and the Resurrection of Lazarus, attributed to the renowned 16th-century Venetian painter Paolo Veronese or his workshop. These works are not originally from the rooms of the Villa, unlike the fourth work on display in the room, the Deposition of Christ between Saints Cosmas and Damian, executed by Giorgio Vasari as an altarpiece for the Villa’s chapel. The chapel is located in the small tower to the right of the main entrance to the park and cannot currently be visited.
In the antechamber, the room immediately next door, we can see a very curious architectural feature: it is a suspended hanging staircase, which allowed internal, and more discreet, access to the upstairs apartment where Francesco resided. Another outstanding sixteenth-century element, opposite the staircase, is the beautiful marble fireplace featuring two impressive telamons.
4. The piano nobile (monumental staircase + camp bedroom + reception room)
We have reached the piano nobile of the villa via the monumental staircase. This imposing staircase was not part of the original design but was added in the 19th century.
The villa originally had two pairs of parallel staircases, both outside and inside; today this symmetry has been broken, however, for the sake of greater monumental effect and architectural variety.
The monumental staircase was created by partially sacrificing the apartment located on the west corner: the highlight of these rooms is King Victor Emmanuel II’s camp bedroom, immediately to the left as soon as you reach the second floor. This is a real fold-up, portable bedroom, which Victor Emmanuel II purchased at the 1861 National Exhibition in Florence. The size of the furniture on display (a bed, a bedside table, a toilet, a desk, and two chairs) can be reduced by means of telescoping legs to fit inside the bed, which in turn can be reduced in size, taking on a cube shape, to make it easier to transport and set up in the sovereign’s tent during wartime travel.
On the piano nobile, the four corners of the building housed apartments; specifically, those on the side opposite the façade were reserved for the gentlemen of the villa: on the right, in the east corner, the Grand Duke or King and on the left, in the north corner, the Grand Duchesses. The four corner apartments are arranged as two pairs, with each pair being separated – the first by the reception room and the second by the dining room. In the centre, there is the Hall of Leo X, the heart of the villa. The furniture that we will see in all these rooms was put here mainly in the Savoy period and is of various periods and origins: in fact, it comes from the royal palaces of the pre-Unification period-for example, from Colorno (the Ducal Palace of Parma), from Piacenza and from Turin – and was brought by the Savoy kings to furnish the royal residences in Florence and, after the capital’s definitive move, in Rome.
The room we are now in is the Reception Room. Among the decorations in this room we should highlight, on the right, the work by the neoclassical painter Luigi Catani, from Prato, in which Lorenzo the Magnificent is depicted as he receives the model of the villa from the architect Giuliano da Sangallo. On the opposite wall, the same artist depicted the poet Agnolo Poliziano crowning the bust of Homer, attended by the nymph Ambra, while Ombrone reposes in the background. Both of these works are intended to celebrate the foundation of the villa, recalling its mythological and fictional sources, as well as architectural and design origins. These monochrome frescoes, produced in the early 19th century, had later been covered with cloth, in line with the fashion of the Savoy period, and portraits of the Medici family had been hung over them. The wall paintings have returned to light thanks to a 20th-century restoration.
5. The Hall of Leo X
Let’s position ourselves in the centre of the room and look around: we are in the Salone di Leone X, the Hall of Leo X, the heart of the Medici villa. Located right in the core of the building, it is the room that more than any other embodies the new concept of the Renaissance residence.
It replaces the usual courtyard, from which medieval residences derived most of the light for their inner rooms, with reduced openings to the outside, as in castles. Here, on the contrary, we find a large interior space, but bright and open 360 degrees to the surroundings. Approaching the openings or stepping out onto the terrace surrounding the second floor, directly accessible from the Hall thanks to the ingenious H-shaped layout, one’s gaze can wander freely over the surrounding landscape. From the loggia around the ground floor of the Villa in Poggio a Caiano, however, the surrounding nature is framed in perspective, as it is in paintings of the same period. From here one can well understand how the Villa constitutes a concrete example of the humanistic aspiration for imposing order over nature.
The name of the hall comes from Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, who went down in history as Pope Leo X. He commissioned three great painters – Franciabigio, Andrea del Sarto, and Pontormo – to undertake the wall decoration of the room around 1520. After the pontiff’s death, the parts remaining unpainted were left undecorated for about 60 years, when they were finished and unified thanks to the work of Alessandro Allori, commissioned by Francesco I. Above, the room is enclosed by a barrel vault, completed under Leo X and made of multi-coloured and gilded stucco depicting the emblems of the Medici family; in particular, in the centre of the ceiling, the coat of arms with red and blue balls on a gold background and above two crossed keys, one gold and one silver, the symbol of the papacy, dominates.
The cycle of frescoes decorating each wall constitutes a veritable celebration of the Medici family, achieved through a metaphorical use of episodes from ancient history.
Among the most significant works, it should be pointed out, is the lunette to the top right (as we enter), a masterpiece by Pontormo in which Vertumnus and Pomona, two rural deities, are depicted: through complex allegory, this work interprets the ideals of Lorenzo the Magnificent, for whom the countryside was not simply a place of rest outside the city, but was also a vast seedbed where experimentation with new agricultural techniques and the relationship with nature were of primary importance. The painting also alludes – through the severed laurel trunk, from which new boughs sprout – to the dynastic succession of the Medici family, with the wish that the new branches of the family tree, after the broken one of Lorenzo, might grow vigorously.
Lorenzo is also referenced in the panel on the left on the entrance side, by Andrea del Sarto and Alessandro Allori. It depicts the Tribute to Caesar, but its intention is to recall the gifts Lorenzo received in 1487 from the Sultan of Egypt. The scene opposite, painted entirely by Alessandro Allori, also alludes to Lorenzo. Here, Syphax, king of Numidia, receives Scipio: the reference is to the journey Lorenzo made to Naples to meet King Ferdinand of Aragon.
Lorenzo’s political acumen is then extolled in the panel to the right on the entrance wall, where Alessandro Allori depicted the Consul Flamininus speaking to the council of the Achaeans – a clear reference to Lorenzo’s address to the Diet of Cremona. To conclude, opposite, Franciabiglio and Allori frescoed Cicero’s Return from Exile, a reminder of the three Medici expulsions from Florence, which always ended with a return home, referring particularly to the return of Cosimo the Elder in 1434. The decoration is completed, again by Allori, with the other lunette on the left depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides and with various Allegories of the Virtues.
6. The dining room and main apartments
Moving on from the Leo X Hall, we find ourselves in the Dining Room, mirroring the Reception Hall, which we previously visited. Here the highlight is the vault, on which we can admire Anton Domenico Gabbiani’s Apotheosis of Cosimo the Elder, painted in 1698.
The fresco was bordered by Baroque decoration, which was replaced in 1865 with the current Savoy decoration. The four portraits on the walls are copies of the originals preserved in the Uffizi: they do not portray members of the Medici family, but were commissioned by Cosimo I to honour such illustrious figures as Camillo del Monte, Philip II of Spain, Gaston de Foix, and Pier Capponi.
From this room we can gain access to the two main apartments, located at the rear corners of the villa. On the right, we find the four rooms reserved for the Grand Dukes and last inhabited by Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, who gave them their present appearance and division into a dressing room, study, reception room and bedroom; the furniture in the rooms is – also in this case – of different periods and origins. In the dressing room, interestingly, we can see, inside a false wardrobe, the exit point of the 16th-century hanging staircase from Bianca Cappello’s apartment on the second floor; in the reception room there are four portraits from the Medici era by Justus Sustermans, depicting Ferdinando II, Vittoria della Rovere, Maria Luisa of Austria and Cosimo III.
On the opposite side, we enter the apartment reserved for the ladies of the Villa, whose current appearance owes much to Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister, who for a short time, between 1809 and 1814, held the title of Grand Duchess of Tuscany. In the drawing room, the cycle of frescoes, again the work of the Prato painter Luigi Catani, depicts, in various panels, Athena, with whom Elisa identified as a supporter of craftsmanship and commerce as well as promoter of peace and protector of the fine arts. Perseus and Andromache are also depicted there.
The most striking room is the bathroom: commissioned by Elisa Baciocchi, it is a neoclassical room with exceptionally refined decoration. It was very modern for the times, having a bathtub equipped with a hot and cold water system. The frescoes invoke classical mythology and particularly, in view of the location, water. They depict Achilles and his mother Thetis, who – in the lunette clearly visible in front of the entrance door – bathes her son in the River Lethe; in the lunette on the opposite side, on the other hand, she watches despondently, on the seashore, as he leaves for war. Opposite the bathroom is the bedroom, where the neoclassical fresco on the ceiling was partly concealed in the Savoy era with rose-coloured tulle, which, together with the walls, covered with a floral fabric of the same colour, honours the name of the “bella Rosina,”. She was Rosa Vercellana, daughter of a gamekeeper of Victor Emmanuel II and his mistress before becoming his morganatic wife with the title of Countess of Mirafiori.
7. The frieze room
The main decoration on the villa façade is the long multicoloured glazed terracotta frieze, which catches the visitor’s eye if he or she looks up to the pediment.
What we see outside today is a copy made by the Richard Ginori porcelain factory, while the original, the work of Bertoldo di Giovanni and collaborators, has been on display in this room since 1992. The frieze, probably one of the few works that were commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici, is divided into five sections, each dealing with a different subject. They are allegories derived from classical mythology, with profound connections that we have been unable to decipher with any degree of certainty to date – especially their overall meaning. The cycle begins with the allegory of Eternity or the birth of souls, followed by the myth of the birth of Jupiter. It continues with dual-faced Janus, who announces the arrival of the new year, with the allegories of the four seasons and the twelve months. It ends with the fate of the soul after death, or Aurora preparing Apollo’s chariot.
The family tree displayed on the opposite side of the room focuses on the Florentine nobility. In this copy of a painting from the second half of the 17th century, a large oak tree represents the Medici lineage: on the branches we see no less than 781 names, corresponding to approximately 18 generations that succeeded each other from the 12th to the 18th century.
Next to this work, we can see the wooden model of the villa, reconstructing its original appearance. We can note, compared to the current appearance of the building, the elevation of the clock tower at the centre of the façade, and the radical modification of the two staircases. In the original project they were perpendicular to the building, to impart order and symmetry, but in 1807, they were replaced with a double semi-circular ramp, which accentuates the sense of movement.
Finally, a wool-and-silk tapestry depicts “The Swan Hunt” and is part of a series of 36 hangings devoted to hunting and made especially for the Poggio a Caiano Villa between 1566 and 1582. Originally, all the tapestries were supposed to depict “bird hunting”, given Lorenzo the Magnificent’s passion for this pursuit, but the idea was abandoned in favour of a wider range of subjects, showing different types of hunting, at the request of Cosimo I. It was his son, Francesco I, who revived the original idea, commissioning four tapestries each focusing on different types of bird hunting, based on cartoons by Alessandro Allori: the “Swan Hunt” exhibited here, the “Wild Goose Hunt” kept in the deposits of Palazzo Pitti, the “Wild Duck Hunt with Pumpkins”, of which two fragments remain in Siena, and the “Heron Hunt”, now lost.
8. The Terrace
Leaving the villa, it is worth lingering on the terrace before heading down the stairs. We find ourselves under the classical loggia that adorns the façade, which had already been built at the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Above us is the barrel vault, decorated in stucco with geometric figures containing the Medici coats of arms, among which the coat of arms with red balls on a gold background stands out in the centre.
On the right wall there was an important fresco work, commissioned by Lorenzo from Filippino Lippi, depicting the Sacrifice of Laocoön. Due to its poor condition, the painting was removed and is currently being restored. It will then be relocated inside the Villa. When the fresco was detached, the sinopia , a preliminary sketch, was revealed, although in a very fragmentary state. Looking at the façade we can admire the classical-style tympanum, with the Medici coat of arms in the centre, and the frieze below, a 20th-century copy of the original inside the villa.
From this elevated point, we can also admire the view around us and appreciate the building’s prominent position in relation to the surrounding area and the other buildings in the park, such as the Limonaia on the right of the Villa, and the kitchen, the “Cucinone”, on its left.
On the hills to the right, we can see the church of San Francesco perched on the hill of Bonistallo. To its right, we see the older church of Santa Maria Assunta. The villa a little further to the left, known as “Il Cerretino”, was one of Bianca Cappello’s residences.
Looking beyond the church on Bonistallo, we see the majestic outline of Montalbano with the village of Carmignano. A 4-kilometre-long aqueduct ran from the springs on this hill, bringing fresh water to the villa. The water was deposited in a large cistern called the Conserva, from which it then branched into several small conduits: some entered the residence, the rest went down to fountains and drinking troughs.
Finally, looking around us, we can get a clear idea of how the perimeter walls protect the residence, allowing it to open up to the surrounding space with terraces, loggias and wide apertures. The stretch that connects the two turret-bastions, erected in the mid-16th century perhaps to a design by Tribolo, is especially striking. One of them houses the chapel with an altar painting by Vasari, currently kept inside the Villa.