Floors and a Staircase with Flare and a UNESCO Warranty – Part II

There are some places you expect to encounter crowds.  The Eiffel Tower.  The Vatican. Piazza San Marco in Venice (although there, it’s more the pigeons than the tourists that are the problem).  All ‘must-see’ sites that are easy to get to.   But after driving for over two hours with barely another car on the road to get to the Villa Romana del Casale, I really didn’t expect to find many other tourists.   Sicily has lots of other UNESCO sites that in addition to being much easier to get to, are also close to at least one other great site.

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From domestic bliss to gory hunting scenes and the exploits of the Greek gods, there is at least one floor that will appeal to every visitor.

I was wrong.  The parking lot, which was who knows how many football fields large, was almost full.  And it wasn’t just cars.  There were dozens and dozens of huge touring buses.

Wildflowers along the long, steep climb up from the parking lot.

According to the official website there are no guided tours, but at the top of the hill on the left, just before the washrooms (good idea to visit now…) there were several would-be guides milling around.  By the number of groups I came across in the villa, they did a pretty brisk business.


To protect the mosaics, the villa has been covered.  Only a small area by the entrance has been left open to the elements.


One of the guides had splashed a bit of water to show how vivid the colours once were.

You make your way through the villa along elevated walkways, which protect the floors and – did the archeologists think of this at the time? – afford us visitors a much better view of the overall designs.  Although of a reasonable width, these walkways are much narrower than the stairs leading up to them.  ‘Bottleneck’ is a pretty good word to describe the inevitable result, but I think strozzatura – strots-sah-tour-uh (literally ‘the strangling’) is even better.  Many people complain about Italians not knowing how to form a line – an observation sadly not totally without merit – but in my experience, there are a lot of tourists who would do well to look in the mirror before they start trashing Italians’ relative deficiencies in queue-making.  On a rainy day in Portofino, when neither the trains nor the boats were running, I saw a guide from a country which shall remain anonymous – not Italian – try to commandeer an entire public bus for her group.  (I made sure she did not succeed.)  At a bus stop in Positano a few years ago I watched a tourist, who was at least 20 people behind me in the long line-up, run around the back of the bus and push his way into the front of the line.

At the entrance bits and pieces waiting

To the left of the entrance, bits and pieces.

When I got to the top of the stairs, members of one of the groups were trying to block anyone else from entering while they stood there listening to their guide.  I watched as a few solo visitors pushed their way through.  I didn’t want to have my memories of the villa marred by any disagreeable encounters, but I also didn’t want to trudge around the villa behind that group.  After a few minutes I went up to the guide, who had been speaking English and who I had of course been listening to while I tried to figure out what to do – our eyes had caught a few times – it was one of those weird situations where I feel like some kind of  unwitting impostor – the guide for sure was wondering, does she or doesn’t she speak English?  I asked her,  ‘Mi dispiace disturbarLa…‘   ‘Sorry to bother you, but I can see that the people in your group are getting annoyed when others pass by them, but how does the ‘line-up’ work here?’  The slightest hint of surprise crossed her face, she sighed, and then she replied – in italiano –  ‘Yes, the people in her group were molto irritati but – she shrugged her shoulders – they can’t expect all the visitatori soli  like me to wait behind them while she explains what is going on in each room.’

With her blessing I slipped by the group.  I was glad I did.  There was plenty for a guide to say, even about the ‘simpler’ geometric designs.

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4th century optical illusion.

The designs became increasingly complex.


Cupid and Psyche. The expressions on the women in the surrounding medallions seem oddly out of sync with the amorous pair.

The only wall mosaic I saw portrayed what I took to be some kind of procession, which in fact it is, but I would never have guessed where the figures were going.


The padrona and her daughters, accompanied by servants.

They were setting out to have their daily bath, a leisurely, time-consuming ritual that had more in common with a day luxuriating at the spa than our quick showers.  They would have started their ‘bath’ by spending a while in the Caldarium, from caldo which unfortunately for English-speaking tourists trying to cope with the various taps they encounter in their travels, does not mean ‘cold’ but the exact opposite, then moved on to the slightly cooler water of the Tepidarium and finished with a bracing dip in the Frigidarium (I might have skipped that part).  Then their servants would have rubbed their (now clean, but frigid) bodies with soothing ointments – carried by the servant on the right – and helped them dress in fresh clothes, carried by the servant on the left.


Watery motif in the Frigidarium. Apparently there was no shortage of fish in the sea in those days.

Palestra means gymnasium and in the Sala delle Palestrite young female athletes compete in sports we 21st century visitors have no trouble recognizing.  As for their outfits, they are not bikinis.  Those ancient Romans could be surprisingly practical and their sense of modesty was obviously different from ours.  I doubt that even the performers who appear on our stages in the most outrageous outfits would do so in their underwear, which is what these female athletes are wearing.   It is a rather odd, fine line though isn’t it?  I mean the difference between underwear and a bikini.

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The original bikini girls.

Glimpse of the Circo (Circus).

Glimpse of charioteers in the Circo (Circus).

Along one side of the villa are smaller, private rooms.  Bedrooms probably.


In one of the smaller rooms, charioteers-in-training try out their skills on a motley assortment of plumed steeds.


Perhaps this branch would help get them going a bit faster?  Did the Romans take these mosaics seriously or were they meant to be funny?


Detail of a daughter’s bedroom floor.  Despite the bucolic subject matter, it is awfully busy.

The scenes portrayed in the bedrooms are the most peaceful in the villa.  But hardly the calm, stimulus-free environment we’re told we need to create in order to get a good night’s sleep.


And where did they put the beds?

Dancing girl.

One of my favourites – Dancer twirling her scarf in the Sala della Danza.

There is so much going on in some of the rooms it’s a wonder those ancient Romans didn’t all end up with some kind of ADHD.  I wouldn’t have had a clue in this room if it hadn’t been for the plaque.  The main theme here has to do with Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his lyre.  Obviously there are a few subplots.


Love the foot rest.

Below Orpheus, in the lower right corner two female figures manage to float along, trailing their long scarves, which for some reason do not get water-logged and drag them into the deep.

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Such a strange contrast between the faces which struck me as remarkably modern and the bodies which seem to get more and more elongated the further they are from the faces.

There are over 40 rooms spread out over 4,000 square metres.  After visiting just a few of those rooms I’m afraid I was more relieved than disappointed to learn that entire areas of the villa complex – workshops, stables, housing for the slaves – had yet to be excavated.  How much can we really take in at one go?

There was something else that was adding to the sensory overload.  Surveillance at some of the sites I’d visited so far in Sicily had struck me as rather lax.  Still, I thought it was highly unlikely that the guides would be allowed to throw water willy nilly onto the mosaics inside the villa.   So how to explain the wet areas I’d seen in some of the rooms?

The mystery was solved in the Vestibule of Eros and Pan, where the horny old half-goat (Pan) and the winged cherub-like youth (Eros) are about to engage in a wrestling match.  Why either should want to do this was – and remains – beyond me.   As for the damp areas in the mosaics?  A simple pass with a damp mop to bring the colours alive for us visitors.


A worker pauses to chat with a fellow mopper in the next room.  His right foot is on the arbiter’s raised hand signalling the start of the wrestling match.

I didn’t count, and it may be due to my aversion to the activity – have you ever noticed how how much of our attention can get taken up by things we find unpleasant? – but it seemed to me that the predominant theme was hunting.  The entire floor of one of the larger rooms was taken up with the various stages of a hunt, starting from the releasing of the hounds in the upper left corner and proceeding to an offering to Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, in gratitude for a successful outing, to preparations for an al fresco banquet (the red awning hung between two trees protected the diners), all the way down to the spearing of a boar in the lower right corner.   This is the Sala della Piccola Caccia.  Caccia (catch-chuh) is ‘hunt’ and you probably already know piccola is small.  The Room of the Small Hunt.


Some of the hunters – and the hunted – seem to be skiing, which would be rather odd in this semi-tropical region. They aren’t of course.  The artist was just attempting, centuries before the Renaissance and ideas of perspective, to portray the shadows thrown by the hunters.


In the lower right corner a boar gets speared, but not before it got its jaws into the leg of one of the hunters.  Notice the shadows of the horse’s legs.

As you may have guessed, the reason the room above is called the Room of the Small Hunt  is because there is another, larger – much larger – mosaic, all 60 meters of which are dedicated to the gory depiction of the Grande Caccia.  The Big Hunt.


The two figures in the middle right, unperturbed by the presence of the soldier above them who seems to be losing the battle with the tiger, are believed to be the owner and his son.

This area, the Ambulacro, was undoubtedly the owner’s pride and joy.  It sprawls across the width of the villa and was designed so that guests could perambulate up and down its entire length until they were suitably impressed with the images they had seen.  Images of the ‘great’ (I use the word advisedly) hunt for big animals to be brought back from distant lands to be killed in the amphitheatres of ancient Rome for the entertainment of its citizens.


The darker hue on the leftmost protrusion from the ship represents the effect of splashing water.

As throughout the villa, explanatory plaques along the ambulacro help us understand what we are looking at.  This section is one of the saddest.  And one of the most controversial.

Throughout the villa, plaques like this one explain what we are looking at.

A powerful message, even through a dusty layer of plexiglass.


I felt just as badly for the poor wretch who got chosen as bait as I did for the winged creature about to be captured.

I find two hours in any one site is all I can honestly take in.  Apart from gardens.  That’s a whole other thing.  So after I’d seen all there was to see, instead of going through the villa again for one more look, I headed back to my car.

The second ‘must-see’ site I had planned for the day was Caltagirone, a baroque hilltop town about 30 k south-east of Piazza Armerina.  I looked at the map again to check the directions – apparently having learned nothing from my earlier drive – and was a little unsettled to  discover I would going back to the Val di Noto.  Making matters worse, when I got to Caltagirone I would be only 70 k from the airport in Catania where I had landed a few days earlier.  I was going around in circles.

On the drive to Caltagirone, to distract myself from thinking about what I had been thinking when I came up with this itinerary, I ruminated on the villa instead.  This turned out to be a much better way to distract myself from what one friend calls ANT’s (Automatic Negative Thoughts) than I’d hoped, because after only a few kilometres I got one of those ideas that come seemingly out of the blue.

The essence of this idea was that the UNESCO site I’d just visited had a lot in common with another UNESCO site I’d visited 1,000 kilometres to the north – Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli.   (An Emperor’s Country Retreat, Feb. 22, 2015) The Villa Romana del Casale was admittedly on a more modest scale, but we’re talking in relative terms here – it would be like comparing the mansions of a couple of One Percenters.  Both were over-the-top, luxurious country retreats built by and for the personal enjoyment of extremely powerful and wealthy members of the Roman elite.  In both cases the return on their investment, as today’s elites would probably put it, was poor.   After only a few decades, the relative peace they had no doubt looked forward to – but given what they had done to others in the past, hardly deserved – was  shattered by the first of many attacks by various ‘Barbarians’ – Vandals and Visigoths in the south, Ostrogoths and Byzantines in the north.   During the ensuing centuries of warring, both villas were severely damaged.   Centuries of pillaging and plundering followed for both.   And eventually, protection from even further damage had arrived from the same unlikely source – oblivion.


Like Ragusa and Noto, most of Caltagirone was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693 and then rebuilt in the baroque style that characterizes all the towns in the Val di Noto.

As lovely as its Baroque churches and palaces are, I think it’s fair to say that most visitors don’t come to Caltagirone for its architecture.  They come for its ceramica. The town’s name is derived from the Arabic ‘Qual at-al-jarar’ meaning ‘Castle of the Vases’ and pottery has been one of the most important activities here since time immemorial.

In the middle of a row of tiles on Ponte San Francesco, the city's coat of arms.

A row of tiles stretches from one end of Ponte San Francesco to the other.  In the middle, the city’s coat of arms.

The other thing that draws visitors is the Scalinata.


The last two weeks of May the Scalinata is decorated with potted flowers and shrubs. A kind of mini Infiorata.

But by now I was starving and in my experience, no site, no matter how extraordinary, looks half as good on an empty stomach.  I walked by a lot of stores selling Caltagirone’s famous ceramica, but not a single place to eat.  Finally, I went into one of those stores and pulling out a rather worn phrase, immediately apologized  – Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma… ‘Sorry to bother you, but…is there somewhere nearby where I can get a simple lunch?’  The person who had been sitting behind the cassa (cash register) got up right away and without seeming the least bit disturbato, accompanied me to a little piazza-like area off to the side of the Scalinata and said that here I would have a very nice pranzo.

While I was waiting for what turned out to be an enormous platter of local delicacies, a young man walked by ringing a campanella.  He didn’t have any of the gear carried by the knife sharpeners that until recently used to go up and down the streets of Toronto.  He had no pamphlets to give out.  He didn’t look ‘off’.  What was he doing?  I asked the couple sitting at the table next to me, who I knew were Italian because the tables were so close I couldn’t help overhearing them.  They had no idea.  In Caltagirone, they, like me, were turisti.  At that moment the signore who I’d watched accompany a guest to his room down a side street nearby (I knew this because there was a B&B sign over a door close by and when the would-be guest had knocked on the door, a voice had called out ‘Arrivo,‘ and this signore had come out.)…as I was saying, at that moment the B&B fellow passed by our tables on his way back and  overheard us.  He stopped to explain.  Every day the young man goes around the neighbourhood ringing the bell and taking orders.  Later on, the people who have placed orders will go to the gelateria at the top of the Scalinata where their gelato will be waiting for them.

A 'simple' lunch.

Not what I expected when I asked for something semplice – sem-plee-chay (simple).

I felt badly and apologized for not being able to eat everything, which was delicious.  The owner wasn’t upset at all and offered to pack the leftovers sottovuoto (vacuum pack) for a picnic the next day.  Now I was ready to explore the town.


Pots of boxwood formed the foliage of the ‘flower’ and…


…potted geraniums – Pelargoniums for the purists – formed the petals.


Peacocks, a popular symbol of immortality in Italy.


I didn’t check, but I read later that there is a different pattern on each riser. There was certainly no shortage of mythological creatures.


Some of the risers reflected the town’s ancient Arab heritage.


The pots aren’t attached in any way.  Were there no delinquenti in this town?  Or did watchful eyes behind those balconies ensure the pattern remained intact?

Time to check out those stores.

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I defy anyone to leave Caltagirone empty-handed.  I spent a lovely hour or so browsing and saw no end of tempting objets, but in the end reason prevailed and I limited myself to a couple of plates with an arabesque motif and a pigna, the pine-cone I’d seen in so many places I began to wonder if it was the symbol of Sicily.


I loved the arabesque motif of these plates. They were a bit more than I wanted to pay, but when the shop owner told me they were dipinto a mano (painted by hand) by his wife, he had a  customer.


Pigna, popular Sicilian symbol of auguri and fecondità. I’m long past the fecund stage of life, but am always happy to see this symbol of goodwill when I come home.



An Emperor’s Country Retreat

From Ninfa, it’s an easy hour drive to Rome, even for an unabashedly cautious Canadian driver.  I had been to Rome a few times before, but having spent my formative years, as far as all things Italian go, in Tuscany, among Tuscans whose attitudes towards Rome are best left undescribed, Rome was a hard sell for me.  The traffic.  The noise.  The Romans.

Poppies and cypresses along the country lane to the villa entrance.

If you come by bus, as I did after driving there once, it’s a short walk to the villa entrance along a lovely country road.

This time, in the hopes of seeing the Città Eterna in a new light, instead of the onslaught to the senses of sudden immersion, I was going to take the inching-into-the-water, one-toe at-a-time approach.  I would acclimatize myself in the countryside north of the city, with a visit to the ruins of one of the most extravagant, grandiose Imperial Residences of the Roman Empire.

This may not seem like the obvious first choice for someone looking to ease her way into the Eternal City, but keep in mind that these ruins were the inspiration for one of the most important movements in the history of western civilization, and one that is very dear to all lovers of Tuscany (which is not the same thing, I would like to point out, as ‘Tuscan lovers’) – the Renaissance.


The long, cypress-lined avenue at the entrance would become a standard element of the Classic Renaissance Garden.

In the 2nd century AD, around the same time he was building a wall across what is now northern England, Emperor Hadrian decided he needed a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of Rome.  He commissioned a retreat in the countryside about 20 kilometres  north-east of the capital city.


I visited Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este nearby in one day.  From the comfort of home, it had seemed like a good idea.  It is not.  Hadrian’s Villa is enormous – 120 hectares. That’s about 250 acres.  And despite having been subjected to centuries of sacking, plundering and neglect, there is still an astounding amount of stuff to see.


After the fall of the Roman Empire the villa was abandoned and essentially forgotten for a thousand years – throughout the ‘Dark Ages’ as the period was called during my High School days.  Erroneously, as we now know, but that’s another matter.  What was, however, truly dark was that it was not just the villa that was forgotten, but so were all the formulas, practical engineering skills and expertise that had enabled the ancients to build their spectacular monuments and buildings.


When the ruins were discovered at the beginning of the 1500’s, the leading scholars, artists and architects of the time – the likes of Michelangelo, Raffaello, da Vinci, Andrea Palladio – flocked to the site, hoping to uncover the long-lost secrets of the ancient Romans.

Piazza d'Oro

Piazza d’Oro.  The Golden Piazza.

Armed with this knowledge, their goal was not just to copy the architectural wonders of the ancient world, but with the enormous self-confidence that characterized the Renaissance spirit, surpass them.


And what, you may well be wondering, does any of this have to do with gardens?  Well, as those scholars and artists explored the ruins, looking for engineering formulas and practical skills, they stumbled across a great deal of information about daily life in Hadrian’s time.  And when the rich and powerful of the 16th century learned that their rich and powerful predecessors had considered luxurious villas and magnificent gardens essential to the pursuit of the ideal life, they immediately set about commissioning villas and gardens modelled on what they found at Hadrian’s Villa.

Water, a symbol of power and wealth – it may have been a country retreat, but it was still the country retreat of an Emperor – was used on a grand scale at Villa Adriana.   Although not the largest water feature, for me the Teatro Marittimo (Maritime Theatre) was the most striking.  High circular walls enclose a pool, a perfect circle, and in the middle of the pool is an island, another circle.  On the island was a luxurious, miniature Roman villa, complete with atrium, library, dining room and small bath.  This was Hadrian’s ultimate retreat.



Access to the island was across a wooden bridge that could be pulled up, so that no-one could intrude on the emperor’s privacy.

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A hypothetical reconstruction of Hadrian’s island villa.

Centuries later, from the Isolotto in the Boboli Gardens to the little islet at Villa Gamberaia, the island theme would be replicated in gardens throughout Italy and beyond.

I knew there was no way I would have the time, or energy, to explore the whole site, so I decided to focus on water.  On my way to another water feature,  I came across a  museum. Very small, but fascinating.  And very frustrating.  Because of the sign posted at the entrance.

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But it did make me laugh.  In the Italian version, the use of cameras and videos is severely prohibited, both professional and amateur (amatoriale).  But in English, it’s OK as long as your photos stink?  I had a little chat with the custode.  She was very friendly and I eventually decided to mention the glitch in the translation.  She still wouldn’t let me take any ‘unprofessional’ photos.

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As military commander of the Roman Empire, Hadrian travelled extensively.  And when he was back home, he wanted to have momentos in the gardens surrounding his country retreat that reminded him of the places he had visited.  Just like us.


The Canopus recreates Hadrians’s favourite part of the Nile.


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Hadrian had seen Caryatids, columns sculpted into female figures, at the Acropolis.


Quite a few have been spirited away since Hadrian’s time.

To make sure visitors got the point.

Along one side of the Canopus.  Just to make sure visitors got the point.

At one end of the enormous pool, in an elevated alcove, Hadrian would dine, in splendid isolation, bathed in the golden candle light reflected off the marble-covered walls, like a god on Mt. Olympus, overlooking his guests.


Dining al fresco became a must-have feature of the 16th century garden.  Except that unlike Hadrian, the 16th hosts sat together with their guests.

Obviously, although there is still an over-abundance of things to see, a lot has gone missing over the centuries.  The period following the discovery of the ruins was particularly grim.  Those 16th century Romans didn’t just take ideas from the ruins.   Unencumbered by any of our notions of archeology or site preservation, they – along, it must be said, with other visitors from further afield – also helped themselves to things, things which were spirited away to museums, art galleries and private estates across Europe.  It’s a wonder there is anything left.


However, looking on the bright side, a lot of those things ended up conveniently close by, in the next garden I was going to visit – Villa d’Este.

The First Renaissance Garden – Part I

Today I’m heading to the hills west of Florence to visit two gardens.  My plan was to start with Villa Medicea di Castello and then walk over to Villa Petraia.  Hopefully the rain will hold off.


It seemed fitting to start with Villa Medicea di Castello – Villa Castello for short – because it was the first ever Renaissance Garden and then Villa Petraia, a close second, geographically and historically.

Even if you don’t speak Italian, you probably figure Villa Castello means “Castle Villa”.  A reasonable guess.  In modern Italian castello means … castle.   Momento!  (Hold on a moment!)  That would be too easy.  Unlike English, Italian is loaded with words that are positively chameleon-like.  Just when you think you’ve figured out what a word means, you come across a situation where it acquires a totally new identity. (more on that in a later blog)  This particular castello has nothing to do with castles and everything to do with water.  Close to the property are traces of an ancient Roman aqueduct.  At regular intervals along the aqueduct were castelli (from the Latin castellum, meaning cistern or reservoir).   So it’s not “Castle Villa”.  It’s “Cistern Villa”.

Let’s just stick with Villa Castello.

If you’re like me, knowing a bit about the history of a garden – a bit, not too much – adds an extra layer of interest.  Wo created the garden?  Why?  Why this particular location?  Why this design?  But for those who aren’t into all that – or maybe just not in the mood for that kind of thing today –  I’ve divided the outing into three parts: in Part I (the one you’re in right now) I look at the history behind the creation of the two gardens; Part II is my visit to Villa Petraia and Part III to Villa Castello.  I know, from an historical point of view, it should be the other way round, but you’ll soon see the reason for the reversed order.

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As you may already know, Italy didn’t become a unified country until rather recently (1871).  Even then some would argue “unified” is a misnomer.  In any event, for most of recorded history this boot-shaped piece of land was a collection of independent city states, ruled by a variety of leaders – kings, Popes – essentially whoever had the most power and most money.

In mid 13th century Tuscany the greatest concentration of power and wealth was in the hands of the Medici family.  In those days, to advertise your authority, the most effective strategy was to build things – BIG things (somehow sounds familiar even though we no longer, technically speaking, have “rulers”).  So the Medici’s spent the rest of the 13th and most of the 14th century on a building spree, not just in Florence, but throughout all of Tuscany.  And they made sure the family emblem – balls on a gold shield – was prominently displayed on every building they had a hand in.

Door panel, Santa Trinità, Florence

Door panel, Santa Trinità, Florence

One  of several theories as to the meaning of the balls is that they represent pills – a reasonable idea, given that medici means doctors, the family’s first profession.

One of the more elaborate versions is near the Duomo.

One of the more elaborate versions is near the Duomo.

For me, the most convincing theory, given that the Medici’s would one day be known as “the Bankers of the World”, is that the balls represent Byzantine coins, like those on the coat of arms of the Moneychangers Guild, the bankers’ organization to which the Medici belonged.

City Hall, Colle Val d'Elsa

City Hall, Colle Val d’Elsa

Not everyone was happy with the proliferation of the Medici logo.  One disgruntled citizen came up with the following brilliant, if somewhat earthy complaint:  “He has emblazoned even the monks’ privies with his balls.”  And yes, in case you’re wondering, the Italian word palle (pal-lay), is used a lot like “balls” in English .

Some have not stood the test of time well.  Amongst all the other heraldic symbols, it’s easy to miss what’s left of the one on the façade of the city hall in Certaldo.

Some have not stood the test of time well.
Amongst all the other heraldic symbols, it’s easy to miss what’s left of the one on the façade of the city hall in Certaldo.

Since the hills surrounding Florence offered the greatest visual impact, this area was soon littered with severe, fortress-like structures – ostensibly residences or farmhouses – but there was no mistaking  the real message.

All that was to change at the beginning of the 15th century, when a startling discovery was made in the hills just north of Rome – the long-forgotten ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, the most extravagant imperial residence of the Roman Empire.

Hadrian's Villa

Hadrian’s Villa

The most famous scholars, artists, architects, painters of the time – Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Andrea Palladio – scoured the site, looking for clues to the engineering skills, formulas etc. that had formed the basis of Roman architecture.  As they explored the site, they also uncovered detailed descriptions of magnificent villas and gardens.  It became clear that these had been considered essential to the “ideal” life pursued by the rich and famous of Ancient Rome.   Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before the Medici’s, the richest and most powerful family of 16th century Tuscany, set about transforming their fortresses into replicas of the villas of those ancient Romans.

They started with Villa Medicea di Castello.

Cosimo dei Medici was barely 17 years old, when life threw him a big curve ball.  In 1537, after several failed attempts, a rival faction finally succeeded in killing his older brother, Alessandro.  The personal crisis this created for him had little to do with overcoming the loss of a sibling who had been a corrupt and tyrannical ruler.  It was having the Duchy of Tuscany thrust on him so suddenly – a challenge made all the more overwhelming by the fact that Florence was teeming with powerful, wealthy families who had had enough of Medici rule.

Even after the transformation it’s not difficult to imagine Villa Castello as the imposing fortress that it originally was.

Even after the transformation it’s not difficult to imagine Villa Castello as the imposing fortress that it originally was.

Like others of his era, Cosimo was enthralled by the revelations pouring out of Hadrian’s Villa.  With an astounding combination of audacity and vision – remember what you were up to when you were 17? – he hit upon the idea of transforming the fortress at Castello into a magnificent Roman-type villa which would serve as “a grandiose, living, political allegory of the Medici reign over Florence and Tuscany” .  Like the most successful advertising campaigns of today, this would create a link between his product – Medici rule – and the desires of his target audience, who also wished to relive the glories of ancient Rome.   Medici domination would be photoshopped, 16th century style.  Cosimo and his successors would be presented as “benevolent guardians of a peaceful and prosperous territory”,  just like the gardeners who tirelessly and unselfishly care for and keep watch over their plants.

In the parterre of Villa Castello, possibly the first garden deliberately conceived as a propaganda tool.

In the parterre of Villa Castello, possibly the first garden deliberately conceived as a propaganda tool.