According to my itinerary, for which, unhappily, I alone could take credit, after Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa, I was to visit the gardens of Villa Medici, created by the Tuscan Cardinal, Ferdinando I. By the time I got back to Rome, sfinita – a much better word to describe how I was feeling than ‘exhausted’ – and dragged myself up the Spanish Steps, the sun was already setting and, for the first time in all my travels around Italy, I was glad to see the word CHIUSO. (kew-zoh) CLOSED. Fortunately it was downhill all the way to my favourite piazza, where I figured I would have energy left to plop myself down and order a glass of wine.
The next morning, after having done a major revision of the rest of my itinerary, I set out for the villa again.
In the soft twilight of the previous evening, the façade had seemed much less austere. Where was the ostentatious self-glorification of a typical cardinal’s villa?
My heart sank when I saw the inscription over the massive door. Had I just climbed the wrong hill – for the second time!?
In my experience, one of the unexpected challenges of finding one’s way around Italy is the apparent reluctance Italians have in settling on just one name for many of their major tourist sites. The most confusing time I ever had was in northern Italy, trying to figure out which Palladian Villa was which. Many of them have two, some even three names. Since they’re scattered all over the Veneto, if you do manage to get to what you hoped was Villa A, you’re likely to be greeted with large signs at the entrance for a Villa B, which, as you will discover if you don’t just head to the nearest bar, turns out to be Villa A after all. (More on this when I get to the gardens of Northern Italy.)
But no, there in tiny lettering next to the small section of the door that opens to let visitors in, were the words I was hoping to see – Villa Medici.
Of course it’s not just to annoy tourists. In a country with such a long, convoluted history, where preservation and restoration fortunately almost always trump the wrecking ball, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that over the centuries, its buildings have occasionally undergone changes in ownership and/or function. What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is the custom of hanging on to the old names. Or, as in this case, of referring to a building by its new name, while leaving the old name emblazoned on the façade.
To make any sense of the ‘aka’ in this instance we have to go back to the French King Louis XIV. In the mid 1660’s he had founded an academy in Rome so that promising French artists could immerse themselves in the great works of art of the Renaissance and Classical Rome, after which they would return to France, loaded with replicas and ideas. A couple of centuries later Napoleon took a fancy to Villa Medici and relocated the Sun King’s academy to these premises.
I had not been happy to find out that visits are by guided tour only. But I got lucky. I had arrived just a few minutes before a huge group (all groups look huge to me) and had been chatting – in italiano – with the two young guides who were on duty that day. I don’t know why, but when they saw the group arrive, they excused themselves and went over to the reception desk and had a little chat. I waited and watched a seemingly endless train of English-speaking tourists step through the little door. Then, to my surprise, one of the guides came back to me and said, if I was OK with doing the tour in italiano, we could go. The other guide was going to take the English group.
The entrance to the Villa Medici garden, like the garden at Villa d’Este, was through the villa. And the walls and ceiling, like those of Villa d’Este, were covered with frescoes.
Finally we stepped out into the garden.
The obelisk on the right is a copy. Given the various Popes’ love of obelisks, Ferdinando took the original with him when he returned to his native Tuscany and had it installed, safe from the Pope’s reach, in the Boboli Gardens. (A New Garden for a New Home – Boboli Gardens – Part I, Nov. 17, 2013)
The statue of Mercury is also a copy. Like the obelisk, the original is in Florence (in the Bargello), where it had initially come from.
When Ferdinando decided he needed a statue for the fountain, he called upon Giambologna. Born in Flanders – his birth name was Jean Boulogne – he had set off, at age twenty-five, to study the wonders of Rome. Several years later, on his way back home, depending on how you think of it, he made the fatal mistake, or the best move of his life, when he decided to have a look at what was happening in the arts in Florence. When the Medici’s became aware of his talents, they took him under their heavy wing. Apart from a couple of occasions – not even the Medici’s could say no to a pope – the powerful family refused all entreaties, including those of the queen of France, to ‘lend’ their protégé, who lived out the rest of his life in the City of Flowers.
Over the door behind Mercury is a tribute to Napoleon. Given the Emperor’s penchant for self-aggrandizement, there had to be one somewhere.
If the austere front entrance was a surprise, the ornately decorated ‘rear’ was an even bigger one. What kind of Cardinal would put all his best stuff at the back of his villa?
Some people say you should never go back to a place. It won’t be as good as you remember. (I hope I’m not repeating myself here…)
I’m not one of those. If I like a place the first time, I tend to like it even more on a return visit. The first time round, I’m often so overwhelmed, I can’t take it all in. This is not false modesty. I have been amazed at how many things I discover when I’m back home going over my photos – things I didn’t even remember noticing at the time.
‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see.’ (I wanted to make sure I had this gem from Thoreau right, so I googled ‘look at but not see’. As I scrolled through the sites, just above the one with the Thoreau quote was a site with the heading – ‘You look hotter after 1 drink but not 2.’ Oh dear.)
In ogni caso, the clue to the puzzle of the façades lay in one of the frescoes we had passed by – the one with the garden in the foreground and the villa at the back. But I didn’t ‘see’ it at the time.
Maybe, if my neural pathways hadn’t already become so congested, what with listening to my guide – one of the rarely mentioned disadvantages to having a private guide is that there is no letting your mind wander, no hiding or not paying attention – I might have made the connection between what was going on here and what I had seen at Villa d’Este.
Ferdinando was just as interested in self-glorification and ostentation as his peers. It’s just that we had come through the back door. In Ferdinando’s day, just as they did at Villa d’Este, visitors entered the property from the bottom of the hill and walked up through the garden to the villa.
My guide was very informative, very charming and allowed me as much time as I wanted at each of what were obviously the ‘talking points’ of the guided tour. But I began to feel a bit restless. I had come to see a garden. Where was it?
Apart from a noble, but very small attempt to recreate a medieval orto (vegetable garden), there was nothing of a horticultural nature that warranted trudging all the way up the Spanish Steps.
It turns out that the Cardinal was a keen collector of antiquities. The so-called garden was merely the backdrop for his extensive collection of statues. I didn’t remember coming across that little tidbit when I was planning my trip.
When this group of statues was discovered, Ferdinando snatched up the whole thing. It portrays the story of Niobe and how her arrogant pride led to her downfall. It is a terribly tragic and rather strange story to have in one’s garden, but I suspect the Cardinal prized the statues for their value as a collector’s item, not the cautionary tale they told.
Since we’ve already here, we might as well have a quick look at the story. The action takes place in Thebes, during a ceremony honouring Leto, who was the mother of the twin gods, Apollo and Artemis. (She had become pregnant after being raped on her wedding night by Zeus disguised as a swan, but that’s another story.) At one point, showing a jaw-dropping disregard for the social niceties, one of the guests, Niobe, started boasting about her superior procreative skills. The proof? She had succeeded in producing not just two, but a magnificent total of fourteen children. The grapevine was evidently alive and well in those days and Niobe’s words soon reached the ears of Leto’s twins. Enraged they flew down to earth. Apollo, who most of the time was the enlightened god of light and music, shot his arrows at Niobe’s sons, killing all seven of them. Artemis, the virgin goddess of nature and hunting, aimed her arrows at the hapless daughters. At this point the plot line gets a bit murky. Poor Amphion, whose misfortune it was to be the husband of Niobe, and the father of the slaughtered children, either committed suicide or was done in by Apollo when he attempted to seek revenge. But not to worry. This is Niobe’s story, not Amphion’s.
Overcome with grief, Niobe then neither commits suicide, nor does she die attempting to avenge the slaughter of her children. Instead she runs off to the mountain where the gods live and begs them to end her pain. Zeus, in an uncharacteristic gesture of sympathy, accepts her request and turns her into a rock. But Niobe the Rock continues to cry, a symbol of the endless mourning that comes from being a mother.
If you want to see the originals, you’ll have to go to – you know where. A few decades later, the new Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold I, took such a fancy to them he had the whole lot transferred to a room created specifically for them in the Uffizi Gallery.
It wasn’t at all what I had expected and I doubted I would come back, but I’d had a lovely time chatting with my guide and who knows, if I hadn’t been drawn by the thought of visiting a garden, I might not have climbed all the way up the Spanish Steps again. And I would have missed one of the best views of the city.