A New Garden for a New Home – Boboli Gardens – Part I

My last day in Florence.  And my last day without a car.  Bittersweet.  I wanted to spend it strolling around the centro storico and visiting two gardens – Boboli and Bardini.

Right next to the Duomo is the Campanile (Bell tower).

Right next to the Duomo is the Campanile (Bell tower).

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It’s 414 steps to the top of the Bell Tower, but this is your reward for all that huffing and puffing.
The green area on the left beyond Palazzo Vecchio marks the Boboli Gardens.

I had visited both gardens a few years ago in the fall.  There had been a bit of colour.   I wanted to see if the overall effect was much different in the spring.  I set off for Ponte Vecchio, the bridge closest to Pitti Palace.

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Ponte Vecchio, Ponte Santa Trinità, Ponte alla Carraia and a glimpse of Ponte Amerigo Vespucci in the background.
Piazza Ognissanti is between the last two.

As I got closer to the river, I started to hear a muffled rumbling sound above the normal din of a Saturday morning in Florence.  Even before I reached Piazza Ognissanti the roar of revved-up motorcycles was unmistakable.

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Apparently, the vintage car regatta that had blocked traffic by Ponte Vecchio just a few days before was not a one-time event.  Marshalls had halted all traffic – including a luxury tour bus – along Lungarno Vespucci.

I watched, mesmerized, along with all the other passersby, as the motorcyclists roared around the piazza.

I watched, mesmerized, along with all the other passersby, as the motorcyclists roared around the piazza.

From the logos on the back of their jackets, it looked like the were from all over Italy.  The fellow with his back to us, under the Librairie française sign, belongs to the ‘Firenze Chapter”.  The rider to his right is with the Vesuvio gang.   Let’s hope things are calmer on the other side of the Arno.

From the logos on the back of their jackets, it looked like they were from all over Italy. The fellow with his back to us,
under the Librairie Française sign, belongs to the ‘Firenze Chapter”. The rider to his right is with the Vesuvio gang.

I hoped things would be calmer on the other side of the river.

Vendors of all sorts offer their wares to visitors on their way to the Pitti Palace, which is just a bit further along the road where I had seen the vintage cars a few days earlier.

Vendors of all sorts tempt visitors on their way to the Pitti Palace.

After you’ve paid the entrance fee at the biglietteria (ticket office) and enter whatever it is you happen to be visiting, this is not what you want to see.

After you’ve paid the entrance fee at the biglietteria (ticket office) and enter whatever it is you happen to be visiting,
this is not what you want to see.

Fortunately, whatever restoration work was in progress wasn’t happening in the garden.

Fortunately, whatever restoration work was in progress wasn’t happening in the garden.

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Il Giardino di Boboli is enormous.  11 acres.  There is a lot to see.  You could easily spend the entire morning here, but the clouds seemed to be getting darker by the minute.  There were a few things I really wanted to see before it started to pour – again.  The Isolotto was one of them.

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The Isolotto in mid-October.

It had been my favourite part of the garden during my previous visit.    Lemon trees in terracotta pots lined the stone walkway to the little island.  It was lovely, but the only colour came from the lemons and a few oranges.

There was another reason I wanted to have a second look.  Gialli (jal-lee).  Giallo, which means ‘yellow’ most of the time, is also the term for murder mysteries.  It’s not a genre that I usually read, but since my last visit a friend had told me about one that was set in Florence – “The Innocent” by Magdalen Nab.  A lot of the action takes place in Boboli.  It was a great read and I was pretty sure the murder scene was set by the Isolotto.  And of course there were also some scenes in Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, “Inferno”, that are set in the garden.   (A movie version is probably already in the works, but if you’d like a sneak preview, there are all sorts of great websites that trace the beleaguered Professor Langdon’s itinerary through Florence.  Just google ‘Dan Brown’s Inferno’.  My favourites were ‘goitaly’, ‘florenceforfree’ and ‘visitflorence’.)

I set off at a brisk pace up the hillside towards the Viale dei Cipressi (Cypress Avenue). On the map above it’s the long straight line running through the middle of the garden.  The circle at the end of it is the Isolotto.

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Things got moved around a lot in the past.  Nowadays, visitors to Villa Medici in Rome have to make do with a replica of the Egyptian obelisk, which dominates Boboli’s central axis.  Francesco dei Medici had the original, which belonged to Ramses II, brought here, far from the Pope’s grasp.  The sunken amphitheatre, used for all sorts of extravagant shows and ceremonies, had an inauspicious beginning.  It was the  quarry that supplied the building blocks for the palace.

Its official name is la Fontana di Nettuno but Florentines prefer la Fontana della Forchetta (Fountain of the Fork).

Its official name is la Fontana di Nettuno (Neptune’s Fountain),
but many Florentines prefer la Fontana della Forchetta (Fountain of the Fork).

In one of those strange tricks our eyes play on us, the Duomo looks as if it’s right next to the Coffee House at the other end of the garden.

In one of those strange tricks our eyes play on us, the Duomo and the Kaffeehaus
at the east end of Boboli look as if they are side by side.

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On the way up, the Goddess of Abundance and a few Muses.  Deciding to trust in the weather gods, instead of turning right onto the Viale dei Cipressi, I continued to the top of the hill. I had never been to this part of the garden before and who can resist the promise of a view?

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The peonies were gorgeous ...

The peonies were gorgeous …

... but the view from the railing made it really hard to press on.

… but it was the view from the railing that made it really hard to press on.   And there was lots more to slow me down on the way to the Cypress Avenue.

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After all the Greek and Roman statues who would have expected this?

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More of those dogs.

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Finally I reached the Viale dei Cipressi.  It’s a long way to the end, which is probably why the Florentines, who as you may have gathered were keen on nicknames – the more irreverent the better – renamed it Il Viottolone (the Big Lane).

One of the things that makes Italian so much fun – and such a minefield for foreigners – is that almost anything can be made into something else.  For example, attaching “one” (oh-nay) onto the end of a word turns it into a larger version of itself.  Usually.   So don’t go making up these words yourself or you may end up in places you never wanted to be. Later on, I’ll write a blog about it.  For now, please trust me and just keep an ear out for them.

In any event, the Medicis made sure there was plenty to hold their guests’ interest along the Big Lane.

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The fig leaf was added in a later, more modest era.

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Hard to fathom why some of the other statues were left “as is”.

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The one on the left is obviously having a lot worse time of it than I, but I am beginning to feel a little anxious.  It’s quite a hike to this end of the garden.  Rain is a constant threat and the entrance to Giardino Bardini is at the opposite end of Boboli.  I hope this isn’t a big waste of time and energy.  How much more beautiful could the Isolotto be in May?  A cold, rainy May to boot?

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As soon as I reached the end of the Viale dei Cipressi I knew it had been worth coming all this way.

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A brilliant blue sky to set it all off would have been wonderful, but even with those dark clouds it was still beautiful.  The way the roses trailed off into the water…

Boboli was of course a political statement, an ostentatious display of enormous wealth, but there is another side to all this that I find reassuring.

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In 1630 most of Italy was stricken with the plague, which in Florence had also led to a severe economic depression.  Thousands were unemployed; fresh water was in short supply.  In these circumstances city leaders usually distributed a few alms and then shut themselves up in their luxurious residences, waiting for the calamity to pass.  But Ferdinando II, the Medici ruler at the time, decided that he would also build a garden for his new home, Palazzo Pitti.  The construction of this garden provided employment for hundreds of sculptors, masons and stone cutters.  Additionally, to ensure there was an adequate supply of fresh water for the garden, he commissioned the construction of a new aqueduct.  And so it was that Florence, unlike the rest of Italy, got not only a new source of fresh water, but also a beautiful garden during those troubled times.

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I walked around and around the little island.  It was so hard to leave.

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Where did those clouds come from?  Good thing I tore myself away from the Isolotto when I did.  There was still more of Boboli and a whole other garden to explore.

TBC…

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