It’s a long way from the Isolotto to the eastern edge of Boboli. Close by is a path that leads to the last garden in Florence I wanted to visit. Hopefully, not in the rain.
It takes even longer than you’d think, because no matter which path you take, there are lots of distractions to slow you down.
Nice place to store your lemons. To make sure Boboli was at least as magnificent as the gardens at Villa Castello, Ferdinando hired the same architect, Niccolò Tribolo. I wasn’t able to sneak a peak as I had done at Castello, but from the outside of this limonaia, it looked to me like there was a bit of one-upmanship going on here.
And then I came to this…
When I first visited Boboli many, many years ago, my reaction to this statue was – well, not much different from my reaction now.
This is another of those situations where knowing something about what people were up to when a garden was made comes in useful. As I’ve said before, you may not like it, but at least you know why they did what they did.
I think it’s fair to say that most of us, when we think of Renaissance gardens, think of formal, serious places. We usually forget that these gardens were based on the gardens of the ancient Romans, who, as we do know, could be a pretty raunchy bunch. So it makes sense that their gardens were designed, not just for serious intellectual and artistic pursuits, but also for pleasure.
That little detail did not go unnoticed amongst the rich and powerful of the 16th century, who made sure there were ample opportunities for pleasure in their new gardens, which, like their new villas, were closely modelled on those of the ancient Romans. Giochi d’acqua, hidden spigots that would drench unsuspecting guests, were one of their favourites and an essential element of a well-done Renaissance garden. Luckily for us, they no longer function. As far as I know.
Pleasure in the garden could also be created by the presence of statues. Lots of statues. And here we’re not just talking about the statues of Greek and Roman gods we’re used to seeing, but statues like the one above. “Amusing” statues. After you’ve seen a few of these statues, the idea of our sense of humour being a function of the times and place we live in begins to make a lot of sense. Disconcerting.
The statue is of Morgante. A dwarf. Dwarves were common in the royal courts of Europe at the time. Morgante was one of Cosimo dei Medici’s favourites. The statue is often mistaken for Bacchus. This was intentional. If you look closely – or take my word if you’d rather not – you will see that instead of sitting on a barrel, the standard symbol for the dissolute wine god, this creature straddles a giant tortoise. Cosimo’s guests, an erudite bunch if there ever was, would have seen this as a clever play on the Medici motto, Festine lente (Make haste slowly), which was represented by a tortoise with a sail mounted on its back.
As we’ve seen before, any decent Renaissance garden had to have a grotto. The Grotta Grande di Buontalenti was one of the more extravagant. It’s also a good example of one of the most important ideas underlying the design of these gardens. It had to do with the interaction of man and nature. In a nutshell, here’s how it went.
The universe was viewed as a rigid hierarchy: God at the top, mankind in the middle and nature on the bottom. Except when it came to gardens. Here man and nature were seen as equals, in a grand competition that would result not in the victory of one over the other, but in the creation of a new, higher “Third” nature.
In order to create this “Third Nature” effect, the Renaissance garden designer would try to blur the lines between art and nature so that it would be difficult to tell what was man-made and what was natural. The more I think about this concept, the less I feel I understand it. Especially in something like a grotto where the whole thing is so controlled by man – the light, growing medium, water – that it’s hard to think of nature as an equal partner. Maybe what is needed here is some kind of ‘suspension of belief’.
In the first chamber a fresco of a mountain landscape on the left wall provides the backdrop for the quintessential pastoral scene. A shepherd with his sheep and goats, a river god, sleeping nymphs, a woman balancing a pitcher of water on her head. The faces, arms and legs were made from marble chips. The magic lay in the material used for the rest – spugna, a volcanic porous rock. Water from narrow pipes set into the wall trickled over the various characters, which over time, became covered in moss and ferns swaying gently in a constant state of motion. A compelling allusion to the ever-changing nature of the human condition.
When all the dull, brown bits we see today were shimmering emerald, and water droplets sparkled in the sunlight it must have been truly enchanting.
Replicas of Michelangelo’s Prisoners hold up the domed ceiling. If you want to see the originals, they were transferred long ago to the safety of the Accademia delle Belle Arti.
While the devices used by the Renaissance garden designer may not be to our tastes, and while we may not have the space or financial wherewithal (or partner’s approval) for a grotto, when you think of it, what do we do in our gardens today? What do we hope to achieve? We work with nature, with whatever soil, sunlight, water we have and try to turn it into a wonderful, entirely new creation – not really so different from the “Third Nature” of those 16th century gardeners.
Outside the clouds have gotten even darker. Time to look for that path.