The First Renaissance Garden – Part II – Villa Petraia

The first time I visited Villa Castello and Villa Petraia I went by car.  Unlike some poor tourists – you can read about their misadventures on Trip Advisor – I actually found them.  I don’t know which was more stressful – driving along the narrow back roads of Sesto Fiorentino, trying to find the gardens, or the drive back into Florence.

IMG_0947

Driving in Florence, even at the best of times, is not for the faint of heart.  Until I saw those cars headed in my direction, I had assumed that this street near Ponte Vecchio was senso unico (one way).  In case you’re wondering – I was on foot.

IMG_1154

As if the normal state of affairs isn’t challenging enough, at times you can’t help wondering if the people who work for city planning in Florence aren’t just insane.  When I reached Ponte Vecchio, it was even more crowded than usual.

A vintage car regatta was making its way from Palazzo Pitti (where the bus is) to Piazza della Signoria in the heart of the historic centre.  Pazzesco!  (crazy)

A vintage car regatta was making its way from Palazzo Pitti (just about where the bus is) to
Piazza della Signoria in the heart of the historic centre. Pazzesco! (crazy)

I felt sorry for the people on that bus.  Piazza Beccaria is a bit of a hike, but unless you were going the entire route, walking would have been faster this day.

I felt sorry for the people on that bus. Piazza Beccaria is a bit of a hike,
but unless you were going the entire route, walking would have been faster this day.

This time I was taking the bus – #28 – from Piazza San Marco, a short walk from my hotel and just around the corner from the Accademia delle Belle Arti and Michelangelo’s David (the real one). According to the website, the fermata utile (useful stop)  was Sestese 5 (stop #5 on Via Sestese).  This seemed a little vague to me so, ignoring the NON PARLARE AL CONDUCENTE (DO NOT TALK TO THE DRIVER) sign, I asked the driver to tell me when we got to Stop #5.  He got a puzzled look on his face, so I explained what I was up to.  “Ah.  E’ un po’ complicato.”  You don’t need much Italian to know this didn’t sound good.  According to the conducente, I would have less chance of getting perduta (lost) if I got off at the next stop, and went directly to Petraia, which was – more or less -just up a hill that he pointed out to me.  At Petraia I could ask for directions to Castello.  Somewhat reluctantly I got off the bus.

IMG_0759

Il Belvedere. Literally “the beautiful view”.

There wasn’t a lot of signage and the bus driver’s words had unnerved me, so I was relieved when I caught my first glimpse of the tower above the high stone walls that line the roads in this area.  When, like Villa Castello, the villa was transformed into a luxurious residence, the 13th century watchtower was turned into the Belvedere.

Santa Maria Novella, the church.  Right next to it is Santa Maria Novella, the train station.  Passage to heaven in one place, everywhere else in the other.

Santa Maria Novella, the church. Right next to it is Santa Maria Novella, the train station.
Passage to heaven in one place, everywhere else in the other.

If you’re a fan of Renaissance architecture, you’re probably familiar with the works of Leon Battista Alberti, best known today as the architect who designed Santa Maria Novella.  During his lifetime however, Alberti was more famous for having written “The Ten Books of Architecture”, the definitive guide to all the arts during the Renaissance.

In his observations on garden design, he stressed the importance of a view.

“The construction will give pleasure to the visitor if, when they leave the city, they see the villa in all its charm, as if to seduce and welcome the new arrivals. Toward this end, I would place it on a slightly elevated place. I would also have the road climb so gently that it fools those who take it to the point that they do not realize how high they have climbed until they discover the countryside below.”

IMG_0761

Maybe people were in better shape in those days.  Maybe, more probably, they came by horse-driven carriage.  But I am walking and I am not at all fooled about how high I’ve climbed.  On my previous visit I wasn’t even sure I was at the right place.  The usual minimal signage, no-one in sight – admittedly it was late fall.  But even in May things weren’t much different.  A first there didn’t seem to be anyone around.  Remarkably, there is no entrance fee.  Then I spotted movement in the little office next to the Ingresso (entrance).  I persuaded the custode to give me an opuscolo del giardino (brochure).  I have never been able to figure out why attendants give these things out so grudgingly.

IMG_0764

If you can tear your eyes away from that wall of roses, in the centre of the façade you’ll see the obligatory Medici emblem. IMG_0786From the Piano dei Parterres, the central axis leads to the Piano del Vivaio (Fishpond), the second of three terraces carved into the hillside.IMG_0769

Climbing roses cover the wall between the upper two terraces.

Climbing roses cover the wall between the upper two terraces.

I’m not sure what they spray the roses with - and I’m not entirely sure I want to know - but I love the greenish-blue residue it leaves on ancient walls like this one.

I’m not sure what they spray the roses with, and I’m not entirely sure I want to know,
but I love the greenish-blue residue it leaves on ancient walls like this one.

A school group arrived shortly after I did.  As I fiddled with the settings on my camera - the clouds and sporadic moments of sunlight were a real challenge -  they made their way up to the uppermost terrace.

A school group arrived shortly after I did. As I fiddled with the settings on my camera – the clouds and sporadic moments of sunlight were a real challenge – they made their way up to the uppermost terrace.

This is the best place to view the symmetry and geometrically trimmed box of the lower parterre, essential elements of the classic Renaissance garden.

This is the best place to view the symmetry and geometrically trimmed box of the lower parterre,
essential elements of the classic Renaissance garden.

IMG_0771

The Figurina. Venus, Goddess of Love

This terrace is called Piano della Figurina, after the statue on top of the fountain next to the villa.

This was my second visit to Villa Petraia and I had a new camera.  I had hoped to get a shot of  the statue against a brilliant blue sky.  For now, the following photo, taken with my old “point and shoot” would have to do.  As I said to myself over and over again on this trip, at least it wasn’t raining – for the moment.

DSCF2511 - Version 2

Nothing is merely beautiful in a Renaissance garden.  This fountain was originally at Villa Castello.  The Goddess of Love was meant to symbolize Florence.   Venus was also the planet ruled by Capricorn, Cosimo’s emblem.  Ergo, the fountain symbolizes Cosimo’s absolute rule over Florence.

In another layer of meaning – visitors of the day got all this stuff – Venus is shown wringing out her hair which has been bathed by the two rivers that provide Florence’s water.  Sufficient fresh water was a major challenge even in those days.  To supply all the water needed for his garden at Castello, Cosimo had built not one, but two aqueducts – the second one, which was built after the first didn’t supply enough, diverted water from Petraia.  Somewhat ironic that the fountain would end up here.IMG_0774

Along the walls of the terrace enormous terracotta pots overflowed with roses. The cool, wet spring was wreaking havoc with all manner of things – grape vines, olives, tourists’ plans – but it had done wonders for the roses.

IMG_0790

On the way to the exit, a glimpse of Florence in the valley below

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Florence, Tuscany and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s