Audioguide of the Villa medicea di Poggio Imperiale
The history of the Villa del Poggio Imperiale reflects the passion and care with which its various custodians, from the first half of the 15th century to today, oversaw the phases of its architectural expansion, artistic development and conversion into a place of education. This is a history populated by female figures who shaped the identity of the villa as a centre for arts and culture, firmly rooted in its setting among the hills of Arcetri overlooking the city of Florence, strategically connected, physically and functionally, to the city centre.
Earliest records of the current Villa del Poggio Imperiale date back to 1427, when it was added to the Florentine cadastre. Then, the villa was named Palazzo Baroncelli, after the family who had it built on the Arcetri hillside, together with the “two workers’ houses”, a standard addition for rural noble residences or case da signore at that time.
In the 17th century, Palazzo Baroncelli underwent its transformation into villa. Maria Maddalena of Austria carried out major extension work between 1622 and 1624 and renamed the old palazzo “Villa del Poggio Imperiale”, dedicating it to the future Grand Duchesses of Tuscany. Vittoria della Rovere then continued in her mother-in-law’s footsteps, adding a new building between 1681 and 1683, and enriching the villa with an exquisite art collection, including pieces she inherited as the last heir to the Duchy of Urbino.
When Leopold II came to Florence in 1765, he visited the villa after a few days and chose it as a second home alongside his official residence of Palazzo Pitti. To this end, he began building works which would last for 16 years (from 1767 to 1783), transforming the ancient Medici villa into a renovated example of a royal palace poised between town and country. After him, in the first half of the 19th century, neoclassical renovations were made by Maria Luisa of Borbone (1806-1807), Elisa Baciocchi-Bonaparte (1810-1814) and Ferdinand III (1814-1823), son of Leopold II, who completed in 1823 the complex as we see it today.
The architectural and artistic evolution of this monumental structure is inseparable from the Fattoria del Poggio Imperiale, the expanse of agricultural land comprising large farms, woods and reserves that stretched as far as today’s Porta Romana, forming part of the “Medicean backbone” linking the villa to Florence through Giardino di Boboli, Palazzo Pitti, Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio.
In 1865, the Villa del Poggio Imperiale was converted into a nationally and internationally renowned school, the Educandato Statale della SS. Annunziata.
The Villa del Poggio Imperiale is built around three courtyards, one central and two lateral.
The central courtyard is the oldest, and the only one to remain unchanged in position and size since the 15th century, when the building was named Palazzo Baroncelli after the family who built it.
The central courtyard with its surrounding loggia was preserved in the extension work ordered by Maria Maddalena of Austria and carried out by the architect Giulio Parigi from 1622 to 1624, who respected the original square shape despite altering the elevation that ended with a terrace. The terrace was surrounded by the twelve windows and French doors you see today upon request of Vittoria della Rovere.
The left courtyard was, in Maria Maddalena of Austria’s day, a garden which later became known as the “Orange Grove”. It had a central fountain and orthogonal paths forming the different sections.
In 1778, Leopold II reduced the garden by a quarter, when he converted it into the present neoclassical courtyard, designed by architect Gaspare Maria Paoletti.
The right courtyard, on the other hand, was the villa’s oldest garden, known as the Secret Garden of Isabella de’ Medici. Later called the “Flower Garden”, it remained unchanged until 1776, when it was redesigned as the neoclassical courtyard you see today by the same architect, also as part of Leopold II’s renovation scheme. It took a long time to complete, as building work on the “Nuova Fabbrica”, a new complex of kitchens and stables to serve the villa, now housing the State Police, had begun at the same time.
3. 17th Century building works: the apartment of Maria Maddalena of Austria
The first important extension works date back to the first half of the 17th century and were ordered by Maria Maddalena, wife of Cosimo II de’ Medici.
The architect selected was Giulio Parigi, who in just two years (1622 -1624) transformed the old Palazzo Baroncelli into the royal palace known as Villa del Poggio Imperiale. The villa was dedicated to the future Grand Duchesses of Tuscany, as indicated by the eagle with the coat of arms, originally placed on the façade above the central door and also visible in the 17th-century painting in the Antechamber of Ferdinand II.
The west of the villa housed the quarters of Maria Maddalena of Austria and her eldest son Ferdinand II. They consisted of five rooms, decorated between 1623 and 1624 with cycles of commemorative frescoes by Matteo Rosselli and his students.
Maria Maddalena of Austria’s “Sala dell’Udienza” or “Audience Chamber” is the most representative of these. The Baroque cycles in the lunettes, dedicated to “Christian Queens and Empresses”, depict the female figure as an example of ethical, political and Christian virtues. In the 17th century, the walls of this and the other rooms were covered with fine fabrics and paintings by great masters, which were then removed under Ferdinand III (1814-1823), and replaced with three vedute of Medici villas based on 18th-century engravings by Giuseppe Zocchi: the Villa di Cafaggiolo, the Villa di Castello and the Villa del Poggio Imperiale (on the immediate left as you enter), the latter depicted after Giulio Parigi’s 17th-century renovations.
The commemorative cycle continues in the “Antechamber” and “Bedchamber of the Grand Duke Ferdinand II de’ Medici”, and is dedicated to historical figures in the Hapsburg family, relatives of Maria Maddalena of Austria. The 17th-century Grand Ducal apartment contains two further rooms, the “Sala delle Eroine bibliche” (or “Room of the Biblical Heroines”) and Sala delle Sante martiri” (or “Room of the Female Holy Martyrs”), named after the feminine-themed frescoes in the lunettes.
4. The 19th-century ground floor interventions
In 1814 Ferdinand III, son of Leopold II, was restored to the Tuscan throne, and oversaw the series of interventions that transformed the villa into the neoclassical building we see today, marking the end of the Renaissance and Baroque chapters.
The project was assigned to architect Giuseppe Cacialli who, between 1810 and 1823, completed the main façade, supplementing Pasquale Poccianti’s bossage portico with its five arches (1806-1807), built for Maria Luisa of Borbone, with two new lateral structures: the Chapel to the east, and the Guard House to the west.
Certain rooms in the west of the villa also received a neoclassical makeover, such as the Achilles Room, completely redecorated in Homeric imagery by Domenico Udine Nani, whose paintings of stories of Achilles cover the walls, bordered by monochrome trompe-l’œil bas-reliefs.
Adjacent to this room is the small neoclassical bathroom, featuring stuccoes and monochromes depicting marine allegories and a deep white marble bath.
Located in a corner of the villa, we find the “Green Room”, built in 1818: this airy space, with its continuous vedute depicting landscapes and imaginary buildings, classical and medieval, painted by Giorgio Angiolini, offers a visually and spatially seamless transition to the Italian Garden outside.
To accommodate these 19th-century renovations, a few of the small 17th-century rooms were demolished and the “Volticina”, the barrel-vaulted study Maria Maddalena of Austria had built in honour of her husband Cosimo II, was moved for a second time. The frescoes by Ottavio Vannini that covered the walls, initially attributed to Matteo Rosselli, were removed and reassembled on new walls, during both the 18th- and 19th-century building works.
5. The italian garden and the old gardens, now classical courtyards
The current Italian Garden of the Villa del Poggio Imperiale is based on the 17th-century design commissioned by Vittoria della Rovere in 1655.
It was called the “Large Garden” to distinguish it from the other two, now replaced by neoclassical courtyards during the era of Leopold II: Isabella de’ Medici’s “Secret Garden”, the oldest, later called the “Flower Garden”, and the “New Garden”, which became known as the “Orange Grove”.
The “Large Garden” is designed along two axes which meet at a fountain surrounded by geometric flowerbeds. As in the majority of 17th-century gardens, an artificial forest was created, the so-called “Salvatico”, which is still visible today.
Throughout their history, the three gardens have reflected their owners’ tastes and interests, housing their various collections of trees, flowers and sculptures.
In 1761, during the Lorrainian era, an obsolete structure once used to overwinter potted citrus trees was converted into an orangery, which now stands to one side of the current Italian Garden. A sculpture of a two-headed eagle overlooked the entrance, and can still be found today, relocated to the building now designated as the school gym. Giuseppe Manetti’s design, commissioned by Elisa Baciocchi, for a “modern” or “picturesque” garden never came to fruition. It was set out in the style of an English garden, and intended for the site of the current Italian Garden to the west of the complex, in the southern part of the Podere del Palazzo, or palace farm.
6. The Quarters of Leopold II
Upon the extinction of the Medici line, Tuscany came under the rule of the House of Lorraine, and the 1765 arrival of Leopold II, a cultured and enlightened sovereign, marked the dawn of an age of rebirth for the villa, which would become the summer residence of the Grand Ducal family.
Between 1766 and 1783, the Grand Duke commissioned Gaspare Maria Paoletti to carry out extension works inspired by the latest international trends, particularly in terms of the decoration. New rooms overlooking the garden were added to the ground floor and decorated between 1773 and 1777. The first of these is the Hercules Room, named after the frescoes adorning the vault representing Hercules receiving the crown of laurels from Glory, attributed to Santi Pacini. The walls are adorned with architectural paintings by Giuseppe del Moro, and vedute, possibly painted by Terreni.
Next is the Diana Room, with frescoes by Giuseppe Gricci depicting Diana and Apollo and hunting scenes within larger vedute, with paintings by Giuseppe del Moro. This theme of a sweeping, magical forest landscape creates a connection between the painted greenery inside and the garden outside.
Next is the Four Seasons Room, painted by Giuseppe Maria Terreni with allegories of the four seasons and featuring illusionary perspective techniques. On the vault, the painted sky is populated with personifications of the Four Seasons seated on banks of cloud, overlooked by pairs of cherubs. The room is painted to mimic a loggia with ionic columns looking out onto a viridarium, or pleasure garden, typical of ancient Roman domus. The panorama between the painted columns, and the low parapet with its oriental porcelain vases painted in perspective, create a trompe-l’oeil effect.
Finally, we have the office of Leopold II, where it is thought the decree that first abolished the death penalty in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was signed. Frescoed by Antonio Fabbrini, this room marked the end of Leopold II’s contribution to the villa and of his enlightened reign. The room is adorned with architectural quadrature paintings, each depicting the effects of Good Government, as a testimony to the Grand Duke’s reformist policy. On the ceiling, Leopold II, dressed in blue, is presented by Minerva to Tuscany, seated on a throne, who offers the young sovereign the Grand Ducal crown and sceptre. Below is the allegory of the Arno River and the lion with the Hapsburg coat of arms.
Depicted on the walls, in the centre, are the allegories of Commerce, Pastoralism, Agriculture and Navigation, on the sides, those of the Liberal Arts, Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, as well as Parnassus with muses and poets, Pegasus and Apollo.
7. The Chapel and the Scientific Museum, formerly the Guard House
The main façade has two avant-corps designed by the architect Giuseppe Cacialli and built in 1820 for Ferdinand III: The Chapel and the Guard House, now the Scientific Museum.
The Chapel to the east, with its entrance loggia and markedly neoclassical interior, is still in use today.
The Guard House to the west was converted, when the Villa del Poggio Imperiale became the Educandato Statale della SS. Annunziata girls’ school in 1865, it was converted into an art studio and science laboratory so that students at this new institution based on secular and liberal ideas, opened by the Marquis Gino Capponi, could be trained in all fields.
The science laboratory was particularly significant, being highly innovative for its time. In fact, science was not then included in female education, nor was it possible for everyone to access instruments and specimens to study.
The Educandato Statale della SS. Annunziata was, together with the Napoleonic Maison Royale de Saint-Denis, a famous Parisian college, the first school to provide such access, offering equipment and dedicated spaces for the study of science.
From the mid-19th century, numerous instruments and educational models have been collected with important artistic value in their own right, being prized for their originality and workmanship. Currently displayed in various cabinets, these pieces include the Brendel botanical models in the central cabinet, and the decomposable models of the human body in the cabinets around the walls, which were made by the Auzoux company from papier-mâché instead of wax, which was more expensive and less durable.
Displayed in the laboratory is a collection of different instruments for the study of physics.
8. The Hall of Vittoria Della Rovere and the Loggia around the courtyard
Vittoria della Rovere, wife of Ferdinand II, continued her mother-in-law Maria Maddalena of Austria’s extension plans, assigning the building of a new south wing to Giacinto Marmi and Ferdinando Tacca between 1681 and 1682.
On the ground floor, on the entrance to what is now the Refectory, we find an epigraph describing the Grand Duchess as an “arbiter of refinement and elegance”. The hall, overlooking the farms to the south, was intended to house a collection of statues. On the upper floor, the Grand Duchess had another room built to display paintings, which was later refurbished during Leopold II’s 18th-century interventions. In 1691, Vittoria also commissioned Giovan Battista Foggini to redecorate the loggia surrounding the central courtyard at the entrance of the villa: the walls were embellished with architectural elements in white stucco on grey plaster, and oval niches housing ancient busts from the Grand Ducal collections. The wooden corbels and ottomans, designed by Ferdinando Tacca, can still be admired today.
The Refectory is adorned with frescoes painted in 1686 by Francesco Corallo, a Rome-based painter, that were later partially modified during the Lorrainian era by Giuseppe del Moro. They depict mythological, Christian and pagan themes, commemorating Vittoria and her ethical-religious principles: in the centre of the ceiling, the gods of Olympus and, on the smaller side panels, the eagle and oak branch on the Medici crest, and the Virtues driving Discordia away. On the long walls, a loggia frames landscapes depicting trees, castles, rural villas and villages against the backdrop of the Tuscan hills. In the upper section, putti play with festoons and garlands of flowers and, above the doors, eight painted bronze medallions depict scenes of allegorical significance..
9. The Ballroom
When, on September 20, 1765, Leopold II of Lorraine visited the Villa del Poggio Imperiale for the first time, he fell in love with it at first sight, so much so that it became the preferred Ducal residence throughout his reign.
In addition to the extension of the ground floor, in 1779 Leopold II commissioned the same architect, Gaspare Maria Paoletti, to remodel the apartments on the piano nobile, intended for the Grand Ducal family.
The rationalism that inspired the Grand Duke’s political programme also influenced his structural and decorative adjustments, intended to stylistically align the villa with modern European palaces.
On the piano nobile, Paoletti built the neoclassical ballroom, which was used for festivities and decorated with stucco by brothers Grato and Giocondo Albertolli, originally from Ticino, who were decorating the White Hall in Palazzo Pitti at the same time.
The Ballroom or Salone delle Feste, still used for concerts and other events today, has pastel-coloured walls adorned with grooved pilasters culminating in Corinthian capitals and, above each door, tiles depicting the stories of the House of Lorraine, embellished with classical decorative motifs. The five high, archivolted windows, overlooking the Tuscan landscape, flood the whole space with bright natural light. On the ceiling, we can still see traces of the eleven Venetian crystal chandeliers , of which only the largest, central one remains, with its 60 lights.
10. The Chinese Quarters
Heading left from the Ballroom, you come to the so-called “Chinese Quarters”, a series of five rooms containing 18th-century Chinese paper wall coverings, of various sizes, with hand-painted representations of oriental subjects, reflecting the taste for the exotic Far East and chinoiserie that was widespread in the European courts at the time.
The oriental wall papers and fabrics were purchased in Brussels between 1769 and 1771.
The Chinese Quarters as you see them today were set up in 2012, based on the villa’s inventory of movable assets, drawn up in 1784 at the end of Leopold II’s renovation works.
The first room you come to contains numerous small paintings of various sizes representing flowers, birds and couples, as well as the main Chinese production sectors of tea, rice, porcelain and silk, in the smaller images.
Next are two rooms embellished with decorative patterns of trees, flowers and birds. Original Chinese paper wall coverings adorn the walls, framed by a wide chinoiserie border made by a local factory.
The last two rooms feature scenes of Chinese life, set in villages against backdrops of streams and mountain ranges, populated by numerous characters engaged in various activities. They evoke an exotic world, distant, captivating, mysterious and peaceful, reflecting the Western world’s perception of China at the time.
In some cases, upon close examination, you can perceive the difficulties encountered by the grand ducal upholsterers in applying the paper wall coverings to the walls, which came in large rolls.
11. The Red Gallery and Peristyle
Built in 1775, the Gallery runs along the entire perimeter of the central courtyard. The square space is embellished with stucco and houses portraits of members of the Medici family and of the European courts related to the Tuscan crown, some of which were painted by Dutch artist Jan Frans Van Douven.
Furnished in recent years, the room contains 17th-century wooden shelves displaying various busts from the Medici collections, as well Empire-style stools, 17th-century tables, late-18th-century console tables and small sculptures.
With the return of a woman, Maria Luisa of Borbone, to the Poggio Imperiale in 1803, works resumed, this time entrusted to Pasquale Poccianti. However they were prematurely interrupted in 1807 by the arrival of Napoleon’s sister, Elisa, wife of Felice Baciocchi, who had become Queen of Etruria. Between 1807 and 1814, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi enriched the Poggio Imperiale with Empire-style furnishings and objects favoured by French tastes. She also commissioned architect Giuseppe Cacialli to renovate the façade and build the so-called “Peristilio” or “Peristyle”, a ceremonial room above the entrance loggia, on the piano nobile.
The floor of the Peristyle is painted faux marble, and the concept behind the room as a whole is the cyclical flow of Time. Giovanni Spedulo and Luigi Marinelli’s stucco decorations adorn the walls; inspired by the imagery of classical mythology; depicting Time and the Four Seasons, they frame Giuseppe Gherardi’s vedute, which in turn represent Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. The lateral lunettes represent, respectively, allegories of day and night: Apollo in his Sun Chariot on the left, and Diana with the Moon on the right, holding a sleeping child in her arms, with her chariot drawn by owls. The signs of the zodiac, also symbolising of the passing of the months, surround them both. The room contains three exquisite tables inlaid with semi-precious stones. One of them (these), dating back to 16th century, is particularly valuable, decorated with white quartz and monochrome paintings in the style of Raphael.