The First Renaissance Gardens – Part III – Villa Medicea di Castello

Throughout my most recent trip to Tuscany – mid May to June, 2013  – I was plagued by bad weather.  It was the coldest (several mornings the temperature gauge in my car hovered between 6 and 7) and rainiest (not just a nice, April showers kind of rain, but torrential downpours) spring on record.  There was flooding in the north of Italy and in Tuscany they were worried about the olives and grape vines.  If it didn’t stop raining soon…

One particularly miserable day it even hailed.

One day it even hailed.

An unexpected upside to all the terrible weather was that I was often the only one in gardens that under normal conditions would have been overrun (sorry) with tourists.

An unexpected upside to all the terrible weather was that I was often the only one in gardens that under normal conditions would have been overrun (sorry) with other visitors.

When I arrived at Villa Castello, it was just me and the gardeners.

When I arrived at Villa Castello, it was just me and the gardeners.

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Some serious box trimming has been going on here

Some serious box trimming has been going on here

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Nearby – a lesson in boxwood trimming.  I hope they get to practice in a less conspicuous part of the garden.  A bad haircut is one thing, but boxwood grows very slowly – make a mistake, mess up the line and it will be there for all the world to see – for a LONG time.

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For places that we normally associate with calm and tranquillity, there is a lot of violence going on in many of Italy’s gardens.  At centre stage in the parterre at Castello, Hercules is busy strangling Antaeus.  A not so subtle allusion to Cosimo’s victory over his Florentine rivals.  If, like me, your Greek mythology is a bit rusty (I confess – had to look it up), Antaeus was the son of Earth.  The message?  Cosimo/Hercules rules.  At the time, anyone on Tuscany’s “Who’s Who List” was up on all this stuff, so they all got the point.

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Beyond the fountain is the limonaia.

Beyond the fountain is the limonaia.

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The lemon trees spend the winter months in the limonaia (lemon greenhouse, which for some reason is usually translated into English as “orangerie”?…).  Many of the plants – some are a couple hundred years old – have large scars from the three winters during World War I when the limonaia was used as a military hospital and the plants left outdoors.

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Castello has one of the biggest and most important collections of potted citrus in the world – around 500 specimens.  When the weather warms up, usually around mid-April, the pots are taken out into the garden again.  It takes about a month.

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All the pots are watered by hand.
The gardeners gently tap a pot and only give it water quando il vaso canta (when the pot sings).

Fingered Lemon, aka Buddha's Hand

Fingered Lemon, aka Buddha’s Hand

With the discovery of America and new trading links with Far East, enterprising explorers started bringing back rare and exotic plants, which soon were all the rage, not just in Tuscany, but throughout all of Italy.  In a sort of horticultural “keeping up with the Joneses”  there was intense competition to be the first to have one of these bizarrie.  No friendly rivalry, these plants often had to be guarded night and day.   My favourite is the citrus medica digitata – in English the “Fingered lemon” – literal, but not quite as suggestive as Mano di Buddha (Buddha’s Hand).

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The pots range in size from big to absolutely gigantic. There was no-one around – have you noticed the clouds? – when I first went by this one.  The only thing I could think of to give a sense of the size of this pot was to take off my shoe… size 8 1/2 in case you’re wondering.

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Along the northern wall of the citrus garden are three large niches, filled with animals.  To my 21st century eye, they seem totally out of place.  Maybe in a zoo, they’d look OK, but in a garden?

This is where knowing a bit about the history of a garden and what the person who created it had in mind helps.  You still may not like it, but at least you know what’s going on.

As more and more discoveries poured out of the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, it became apparent that all the best gardens of ancient Rome had a grotto.  The Romans called them nymphaeum, for the nymphs, the mythical water spirits who inhabited them.  So Cosimo had to have one – make that three – in his garden and, since no opportunity for self-aggrandizement was ever lost, his Grotte degli Animali were stuffed with creatures symbolizing the virtues and accomplishments of the Medici family.

The goat represents the sign of Capricorn, Cosimo’s emblem.  The unicorn, with its magical power to purify water, a scarce resource even then and therefore a symbol of enormous wealth, represents the Duke of Tuscany.  It’s all quite fascinating, I suppose, but when you think of the hubris underlying it ...

The goat represents the sign of Capricorn, Cosimo’s emblem. The unicorn, with its magical power to purify water, a scarce resource even then and therefore a symbol of enormous wealth, represents the Duke of Tuscany.

It’s all quite fascinating, I suppose, but when you think of the hubris underlying it … Maybe it’s one of those things where you had to be “of the times” to get it.  Certainly, with water flowing over the various surfaces – spugna (a volcanic porous rock), mosaics, pebbles, sea shells, imitation stalactites – the effect would have been quite different.

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Nowadays wrought iron fences keep visitors from entering the grottos and … doing what?  No idea.  In any event, during the 16th century visitors were free to wander around inside for a close-up look.  Now and then, without warning, a gate would close, trapping them all inside.  They would then be drenched by water spurting from hidden spigots.  These were called giochi d’acqua (water jokes).  Like the grotto, they were in all the best Renaissance gardens.  People loved them.  They no longer work.  Meno male.  (Thank goodness)

There’s lots happening up on the ceiling too.

There’s lots happening up on the ceiling too.

In a niche next to the Grotte degli Animali.  No comment.

In a niche next to the Grotte degli Animali.  No comment.

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It’s not easy to find – I missed it on my first visit – but between the grottoes and the limonaia is a set of stairs leading to the highest level of the garden – the bosco (forest), where Cosimo and his guests would go hunting. As I shivered my way through Tuscany, I often thought of this poor creature – Appennino. It represents the mountain range – Apennines in English (that dropped “p” always keeps me second-guessing myself) – that runs down the centre of Italy from the north-west to the far south and is the source of almost all its rivers.   In Cosimo’s grand design, it symbolizes the source of the rivers that irrigate Tuscany, a land made lush and prosperous under his rule.  Putting a spin on things, 16th century style.

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Back down on the parterre, I saw there were now three of us touring the garden.  I rushed over.  “Parlano italiano?” I asked.  They did.  In fact they were turisti italiani  – a not so common breed.  (Like Canadian tourists in Canada?)  They observed me, somewhat bemusedly, as I told them about the “shoe” shot.  But in the end, the signora very graciously agreed to let me take a photo of her standing next to one of those enormous pots.

Don’t you just love the pose la signora struck?  Much better than my shoe shot.

Don’t you just love the pose la signora struck? Much better than my shoe shot.

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I took my time heading to the exit.  There were lemons of all sorts of sizes and shapes and it was such a peaceful place after all the noise and congestion in Florence.  Until a mini-van came hurtling along the path next to the limonaia.  The branches of the tree in the back crashed into the overhanging foliage the whole way.  It’ll be a wonder if there are any lemons left on that poor tree by the time it reaches its summer resting place.

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Maybe, after this cool, rainy spring, there will be a long, hot, typical Tuscan summer and the tree will have plenty of time to recuperate before it’s time for the journey back to its winter resting place.

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