The Medici of Florence were not only one of the richest families in Europe for a time, but also phenomenal garden makers. They laid out the grounds of their multitudinous palaces and villas to demonstrate power and control, making extensive use of precious water, shading trees, citrus fruits and fragrant roses. The Medici gardens were conceived as open-air galleries in which to display vast collections of fine statuary and sculpture and as pleasure grounds where family and friends could play at hunting. A great many Medici properties having survived the ravages of time, twelve are now included within Tuscany’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The grandest of all Medici gardens, and a superb example of a garden alla italiana, is the complex of Boboli, situated behind Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici’s monumental Pitti Palace. The palace itself is austere and hulking in appearance, no doubt created to impress and intimidate lesser mortals, which would have included almost everyone else in Italy at the time. Indeed the Duke was so fearful of coming into contact with his subjects that he commissioned Giorgio Vasari to build him a corridor from the Pitti Palace, across the Arno to his offices at the Uffizi and the government palace at the Palazzo Vecchio. That way he could move freely around Florence without ever being seen in public. The Boboli gardens were laid out on the site of neighbouring orchards in 1550, just a year after the Medici bought the palace from the banker named Luca Pitti. They are, if you like, the Italian answer to Versailles.
The modern-day entrance to the garden is via a tunnel from the gloomy Ammannati courtyard, then a huge ramp which cuts the palace off from its garden. It’s not a great start. My first impression of the garden was that it felt rather “municipal”, which is not to suggest in any way that Boboli is unkempt, just to say that the garden wants to be appreciated for its scale and ambition rather that its intimate details.
Things soon get better, although anyone hoping for a garden packed with flowers will be disappointed. Those areas blessed with flowers – the forecourt of the colossal Limonaia (Lemon House, P) and the formal garden created on the L’Isolotto (Little Island, L)) at the centre of Island Pond – are sadly not accessible to the public, which is a pity. Elsewhere dense plantings of bay, holm oak, plane, lime and cypress create a decidedly green framework, criss-crossed by grand avenues, serpentine paths and shady arbours. Vistas were carefully planned to offer views over Florence and to increase the apparent scale of the Medici estate.
Boboli is bisected by the impressive Viottolone (Cypress Lane, J), created by order of the first duke’s successor, Cosimo II. Planting of cypresses trees along a broad avenue, plunging downhill from the heart of the garden, began in 1612. I am not sure if the current cypress trees date from that time, but they are certainly very fine old specimens.
At the same time, a series of wooded labyrinths were set out one side of the avenue. Only fragments of the these remain thanks to radical alterations made in 1834.
The traverse of the Viottolone is flanked by numerous sculptures created at about the same time as the cypresses were planted. If the bright path of the main avenue is too much on a hot day, one can follow one of the narrow pathways, arched over with holm oak, that run parallel.
The Viottolone is interrupted, but not broken, by the Vasca del’ Isola (Island Pond, L). Today, an oval basin of soupy green water is surrounded by numerous 16th and 17th Century sculptures depicting rural Italian folk, set into a dense, slightly overgrown espalier of holm oak. This is a lovely place to stop and cool down in the heat of the day. From a shady vantage point one can enjoy the colossal statue of Oceanus fashioned by Giambologna. The original now resides in the city’s Bargello Museum and what one sees is a copy. Masculine Oceanus presides over smaller figures representing the Euphrates, Nile and Ganges, and all four stand atop a gigantic fountain basin carved from a single block of granite transported to Florence from the island of Elba.
The Isolotto has recently been restored and is now home to hundreds of potted citrus trees and a collection of historic rose varieties, all fringed with colourful geraniums. I was aching to get in to have a closer look, but the gates, upheld by tall columns topped by lithe capricorns, stood firmly closed.
As the garden narrows one arrives at the Prato delle Colonne (Meadow of Columns, N) which is something of a disappointment – a vast semi-circle or grass bounded on its curved edge by towering plane trees and punctuated by two red porphyry columns. A nice spot for a picnic perhaps, otherwise no reason to dwell for long.
Working one’s way back to the heart of Boboli one passes Zanobi del Rosso’s immense Rococo barn, built in 1777 to overwinter over 500 potted citrus trees. The Medici held citrus in high esteem, valuing their therapeutic, aromatic and aesthetic beauty. The Lemonaia (P) is still used to protect Boboli’s citrus plants to this very day, many of which are now rare in cultivation. In July the vast doors stand ajar and the Spartan, whitewashed interior is cool and empty. The box-edged flower beds in front of the building are used to cultivate and display ancient varieties of rose, camellia and bulbous plants. Sadly they may only be appreciated from the far side of Giuseppe Cacialli’s impressive wrought iron gates.
Returning to the rear of the Pitti Palace, with the Fontana del Carciofo (Artichoke Fountain) at one’s back, one can admire the spectacle of the Anfiteatro (Amphitheatre, F). It was from this area that the caramel coloured stone used to build the palace was quarried, hence the large level expanse of lawn and gravel. Originally the terraces (G) were planted with beech, oak, ash, olive, plane and cypress. The six tiers of stone topped by a balustrade were added at a later date, creating a perfect arena for the first ever opera performances. In the centre of the Amphitheatre stands a Egyptian obelisk, transported to Florence from the Villa Medici in Rome.
From the Anfiteatro, the route is all up hill, which is quite challenging in 38ºC of heat. Sadly none of the garden’s water features is seems capable of producing more than a dribble of water, or looking clean, so one has to imagine how the Medici would have taken pleasure in watching their mighty fountains play. Up a gentle incline visitors arrive at the Vasca del Forcone (Forcone Basin, H). At its murky centre stands a bronze sculpture of Neptune brandishing his trident.
Having climbed several flights of steps we are almost at the highest point of the garden and here stands the statue of Abbondanza (Plenty) which began life in 1608 as portrait of Giovanna of Austria destined to crown a column in the Piazza San Marco. The piece was rededicated in 1636 to symbolise the prosperity of the Tuscan State. Abbondanza reminded me a little of the Statue of Liberty, a sheaf of wheat in place of the familiar burning torch.
One final set of steps and one is on top of the world, or Florence at least. On one side all the city is laid out below, train lines straggling into the hazy distance. On the other there are delicious views over olive groves and smart suburban villas to the Tuscan countryside beyond. July is too late in the year to really enjoy the flowers in the Giardino del Cavaliere (Knight’s Garden, I), which is home to roses, peonies and pomegranates. In this exposed spot the cool shelter of the Porcelain Museum is very welcome. The building, known as the Knight’s Lodge, was originally conceived as somewhere to store pots (!), but was later used by the Medici as a meeting place for scientists and scholars. The garden is named after the Bastion of Cavaliere Maltesta designed by Michaelangelo in 1529, and was originally filled with medicinal plants.
From the Giardino del Cavaliere one can trace one’s footsteps back past Abbondaza, through dense, fragrant shrubbery to another lovely rococo building by Zanobi del Rosso called the Kaffeehaus (D). This pale green and white-painted building reminded me of those I’ve seen in Russian gardens. Designed as a resting place for the Medici Court on their lengthy perambulations around Boboli, the Kaffeehaus is now home to one of the most humorous sculptures you may ever see, depicting a fat, naked dwarf riding a turtle. The sculpture by Valerio Cioli is made of white marble and shows Cosimo I’s court dwarf, styled as Bacchus, astride the tortured creature with no small detail left unobserved.
There are hundreds of other features at Boboli worthy of mention, but alas the heat and hunger had taken their toll over a three hour period and we retreated to the banks of the Arno for a long, boozy lunch. Admission to the Boboli Gardens, Porcelain Museum, Silver Museum, Costume Museum and the neighbouring Giardino Bardini is €10 at the time of writing but, this being Italy, this could change at any time. One could easily fill a day by visiting all five attractions.
There’s no doubt there are more beautiful Medici gardens, but few compare with Boboli’s scale grandeur. As much as it is a garden Boboli is also an open air museum. When visiting Florence Boboli is a must if you’re craving fresh air, respite from other tourists, or if you just want to enjoy some of the best views over the city.
- The Boboli gardens can be baking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. Visit in spring or autumn for the most pleasant experience. If visiting in July or August, as we did, wear sun block, a hat and take lots of water as there is very little shelter from the sun, especially at midday.
- The complex is enormous, so if you plan to make a complete circuit then leave a good 2-3 hours.
- There are absolutely no catering facilities within the garden, not even a kiosk selling gelato or water, so take all refreshments in with you. The café in the palace courtyard is very expensive, but your only option if you don’t plan ahead. A small consolation is that there are toilets both immediately inside the garden and in the courtyard café.
- There is a small bookshop with guide books published in different languages to the left of the amphitheatre. At €6.20 the official Boboli Gardens guide book is small and informative.