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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.