Perseverance Rewarded

My favourite quote on perseverance comes from H.W.Beecher:  “The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will and the other from a strong won’t.”  I’m not sure which of the two was at play in my decision to keep going and have a look at Villa Torrigiani.  After my experience at Villa Reale, the idea of just heading straight to Lucca was very tempting.

The slanting curves at the top of the sign mean "Narrow road ahead". No kidding!

You know you’re in for trouble when you see that sign with the slanting curves. “Narrow road ahead”. No kidding!

I’m glad I persevered.  It was relatively easy to find.  The roads weren’t any narrower than the ones I’d gone back and forth along trying to find Villa Reale.  The sun was shining and…

Villa Torrigiani

Villa Torrigiani

… the garden had the two qualities that make a garden visit worthwhile.  It was beautiful.   And it was intriguing.


In 1636 Lucca’s ambassador to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles bought a rather plain villa and proceeded to transform it into a flamboyant baroque showpiece.

Roses along the side wall of the villa.  I sometimes wonder if they paint the walls to match the roses or the other way around.  Or is it just serendipity?

Roses along the side wall of the villa. Do they paint the walls to match the roses
or the other way around.  Or is it just serendipity?

The villa was once surrounded by a garden à la française, based on a sketch by one of France’s most famous garden designers, Le Nôtre.   Unfortunately, like many of Italy’s older gardens, much of that French garden was later destroyed in what Edith Wharton denounced as the “fury of modern horticulture”.  (I’ll write more about that when we visit the gardens of Lake Como in Italy’s northern Lake District.)


Red and white salvia fill the box-edged garden beds.
Perhaps an allusion to the Italian flag?

Fortunately, a few elements escaped the “renovations”.  Like the the sunken Garden of Flora.  Red and white salvia have replaced the aromatic herbs that once filled the areas edged with boxwood.  Peccato (a pity).  Salvia – not the herb, but the flower – may be my least favourite annual.  Especially red salvia.

At one end of the sunken garden is the Grotto of the Winds.


A goddess of the winds?

At the other end is a balustraded double staircase.  The entire area – the sunken garden, grotto and staircase – was a kind of 17th century water park.  Hidden water spigots were everywhere.   Once the giochi d’acqua (water jokes) got going there was no escape.  If you tried to get away by climbing the staircase, jets from the balustrades and the stairs would soak you.  If you ran down the path, more jets were activated.  Taking refuge in the grotto was useless.  A curtain of water would come splashing down, blocking your exit.  More water would pour out of jets in the floor and the mouths of the statues.  And from the ceiling a positive torrent.  As we’ve seen before (The First Renaissance Garden, Part III – Villa Castello), people loved them.


I walked through an archway on the right side.


Very weird stuff going on in here.  Is that a serpent on the right having a conversation with a turtle in the bottom left?  I wonder if people a century or two from now (assuming the planet is still more or less intact and there are people still around to ponder such things) will find the objects we put in our gardens just as weird.

It was rough going in the grotto.  The lighting was almost non-existent (that’s why these photos are so grainy.  I had to use my flash even with the ISO set as high as it would go.) and the uneven floor was covered in a thin slippery layer of slime.


Fake stalactites.  I may know nothing about geology, but I do know these hanging hunks of spugna are supposed to be stalactites – not stalagmites – because of an interview I heard a few years ago.  A science teacher had come up with what I thought was the perfect mnemonic  – stalacTites on Top.  Brilliant.  They reminded me of a statue I’d seen in the gardens of Villa d’Este in Tivoli.

Diana of Ephesus, the multi-breasted Goddess of Abundance.

Diana of Ephesus, the multi-breasted Goddess of Abundance.

When I reached the archway on the other end of the long grotto I saw a sign leaning against the wall.  I hadn’t noticed it before.

VIETATO L'ACCESSO. SCALE PERICOLOSE. (Access prohibited. Dangerous stairs.)

(Access prohibited. Dangerous stairs.)

No mention of una grotta pericolosa!   That’s another thing that never ceases to amaze me about Italy – the notion of danger.  I couldn’t believe it the first time I climbed up  Pisa’s famous tower.  It was many years ago, before they straightened it up a bit.  The way up was along a marble path, worn smooth, and terrifyingly slippery over the centuries – on the outside of the tower.  There wasn’t even a rope to stop you from falling off when you were on the “down” side.

And then you come across a couple of stairs and they are pericolose!?

I went up the stairs.


As at Villa Reale, river gods keep watch over a large pool once stocked with fish.


Instead of Leda, here we have another Baroque favourite, the siren.

Like Leda at Villa Reale she has a nice view.

Like Leda at Villa Reale she has a nice view.


I know a lot was lost when the old Italian gardens were remade in the English “Landscape” style, but there is such a serenity and beauty to this part of the garden that maybe even Edith Wharton would have approved.


Boboli Gardens – Part II

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.

Another modern sculpture.

Another modern sculpture.

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.

I’ve done my research.  I know this is a big deal, but the winged horse and bath-tub combo does nothing for me.

I’ve done my research. I know this is a big deal, but the winged horse and bath-tub combo does nothing for me.

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.

he Medici’s motto - Festine lente (Make haste slowly.) - symbolized by a sail on a tortoise

The Medicis’ sailing tortoise on the façade of the Grotta Grande.

Grande Grotto di Buontalenti

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.

Above the entrance, those Medici balls again.

Above the entrance, those Medici balls again.

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.


To the left of the’Prisoner’ more blurring of the lines.
Paris and Helen. An abduction or a lovers’ embrace?

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.