Today I’m heading to the hills west of Florence to visit two gardens. My plan was to start with Villa Medicea di Castello and then walk over to Villa Petraia. Hopefully the rain will hold off.
It seemed fitting to start with Villa Medicea di Castello – Villa Castello for short – because it was the first ever Renaissance Garden and then Villa Petraia, a close second, geographically and historically.
Even if you don’t speak Italian, you probably figure Villa Castello means “Castle Villa”. A reasonable guess. In modern Italian castello means … castle. Momento! (Hold on a moment!) That would be too easy. Unlike English, Italian is loaded with words that are positively chameleon-like. Just when you think you’ve figured out what a word means, you come across a situation where it acquires a totally new identity. (more on that in a later blog) This particular castello has nothing to do with castles and everything to do with water. Close to the property are traces of an ancient Roman aqueduct. At regular intervals along the aqueduct were castelli (from the Latin castellum, meaning cistern or reservoir). So it’s not “Castle Villa”. It’s “Cistern Villa”.
Let’s just stick with Villa Castello.
If you’re like me, knowing a bit about the history of a garden – a bit, not too much – adds an extra layer of interest. Wo created the garden? Why? Why this particular location? Why this design? But for those who aren’t into all that – or maybe just not in the mood for that kind of thing today – I’ve divided the outing into three parts: in Part I (the one you’re in right now) I look at the history behind the creation of the two gardens; Part II is my visit to Villa Petraia and Part III to Villa Castello. I know, from an historical point of view, it should be the other way round, but you’ll soon see the reason for the reversed order.
As you may already know, Italy didn’t become a unified country until rather recently (1871). Even then some would argue “unified” is a misnomer. In any event, for most of recorded history this boot-shaped piece of land was a collection of independent city states, ruled by a variety of leaders – kings, Popes – essentially whoever had the most power and most money.
In mid 13th century Tuscany the greatest concentration of power and wealth was in the hands of the Medici family. In those days, to advertise your authority, the most effective strategy was to build things – BIG things (somehow sounds familiar even though we no longer, technically speaking, have “rulers”). So the Medici’s spent the rest of the 13th and most of the 14th century on a building spree, not just in Florence, but throughout all of Tuscany. And they made sure the family emblem – balls on a gold shield – was prominently displayed on every building they had a hand in.
One of several theories as to the meaning of the balls is that they represent pills – a reasonable idea, given that medici means doctors, the family’s first profession.
For me, the most convincing theory, given that the Medici’s would one day be known as “the Bankers of the World”, is that the balls represent Byzantine coins, like those on the coat of arms of the Moneychangers Guild, the bankers’ organization to which the Medici belonged.
Not everyone was happy with the proliferation of the Medici logo. One disgruntled citizen came up with the following brilliant, if somewhat earthy complaint: “He has emblazoned even the monks’ privies with his balls.” And yes, in case you’re wondering, the Italian word palle (pal-lay), is used a lot like “balls” in English .
Since the hills surrounding Florence offered the greatest visual impact, this area was soon littered with severe, fortress-like structures – ostensibly residences or farmhouses – but there was no mistaking the real message.
All that was to change at the beginning of the 15th century, when a startling discovery was made in the hills just north of Rome – the long-forgotten ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, the most extravagant imperial residence of the Roman Empire.
The most famous scholars, artists, architects, painters of the time – Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Andrea Palladio – scoured the site, looking for clues to the engineering skills, formulas etc. that had formed the basis of Roman architecture. As they explored the site, they also uncovered detailed descriptions of magnificent villas and gardens. It became clear that these had been considered essential to the “ideal” life pursued by the rich and famous of Ancient Rome. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before the Medici’s, the richest and most powerful family of 16th century Tuscany, set about transforming their fortresses into replicas of the villas of those ancient Romans.
They started with Villa Medicea di Castello.
Cosimo dei Medici was barely 17 years old, when life threw him a big curve ball. In 1537, after several failed attempts, a rival faction finally succeeded in killing his older brother, Alessandro. The personal crisis this created for him had little to do with overcoming the loss of a sibling who had been a corrupt and tyrannical ruler. It was having the Duchy of Tuscany thrust on him so suddenly – a challenge made all the more overwhelming by the fact that Florence was teeming with powerful, wealthy families who had had enough of Medici rule.
Like others of his era, Cosimo was enthralled by the revelations pouring out of Hadrian’s Villa. With an astounding combination of audacity and vision – remember what you were up to when you were 17? – he hit upon the idea of transforming the fortress at Castello into a magnificent Roman-type villa which would serve as “a grandiose, living, political allegory of the Medici reign over Florence and Tuscany” . Like the most successful advertising campaigns of today, this would create a link between his product – Medici rule – and the desires of his target audience, who also wished to relive the glories of ancient Rome. Medici domination would be photoshopped, 16th century style. Cosimo and his successors would be presented as “benevolent guardians of a peaceful and prosperous territory”, just like the gardeners who tirelessly and unselfishly care for and keep watch over their plants.