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).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

IMG_1105

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.

IMG_0856 - Version 2

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.

DSCF2712

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.

IMG_0858

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.

IMG_0863

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?

IMG_0870

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.

IMG_0872

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

IMG_0893

More of those dogs.

IMG_0873

Viale dei Cipressi

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.

IMG_0874

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

IMG_0875

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

IMG_0876

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?

IMG_0890

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

IMG_0889

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.

IMG_0884

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.

IMG_0888

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

IMG_0899

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…

Advertisements

On the Other Side

One more passeggiata in Florence and then it’s back to the gardens.

Paris has the Left Bank and the Right Bank.  London has the East End and the West End.  New York has the West Side and the East Side.  So many of our cities have some kind of line, a demarcation, that divides them into distinct, sometimes almost self-contained neighbourhoods.  Residents are often fiercely loyal to their side, venturing over to the other side only when necessary.  Many years ago, I lived in the Beaches, at the east end of Toronto.  One day I was astounded when my neighbour confessed that, apart from his annual foray to TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), he never ventured west of Yonge Street.

Whether it is a road or a river – the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, Fifth Avenue in New York, Yonge Street in Toronto (OK, maybe for the purposes of this post we’ll leave out Yonge Street.) – the dividing “line” is often a source of civic pride to residents, no matter which side they live on.

In Florence the dividing line is the Arno River.   The Arno is not an easy river to be proud of.  It has a nasty habit of flooding its banks now and then, and the rest of the time it isn’t even really much of a river.

IMG_1113

Mark Twain noticed this when he visited, and wrote about it later in his classic travel memoir, “The Innocents Abroad”.

“It is popular to admire the Arno.  It is a great historical creek, with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around.  It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it.  They call it a river and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines.  They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it.”

Despite the Arno’s shortcomings as a river, its role as the city’s great divide is undeniable. There are some who might even say, quietly among friends, of course, that everything that matters in Florence is on the north side.

The ancient Romans located their military base on the north side.  The Duomo, the most important religious building of the city, was built on the north side, as was Palazzo Vecchio.  The most powerful and wealthy Florentine families – the Strozzi, the Albizzi, the Bardi, the Pazzi – all built their palaces on the north side.  The Uffizi Galleries and the Accademia delle Belle Arti, home to Michelangelo’s David, are on the north side.

Piazza della Repubblica was built on the site of the ancient Roman forum.

Piazza della Repubblica was built on the site of the ancient Roman forum. On the north side.

The Mercato di San Lorenzo, the most important food and outdoor market in the city, is on the north side.

The Mercato di San Lorenzo, the most important food and outdoor market in the city, is on the north side.

Salvatore Ferragamo, one of many high end designers and retailers whose flagship stores are on the north side.

Salvatore Ferragamo, one of many high end designers and retailers whose flagship stores are on the north side.

So, we begin to wonder, what’s left for the south side?  Apart from the Medicis in Pitti Palace and the Brownings in Casa Guidi across the piazza?  As if to add insult to injury, the area doesn’t even have much of a name.  It’s called the Oltrarno – literally “On the Other Side of the Arno”.

Who lived and worked here?  Artigiani (are-tea-john-knee). Artisans.  And although gentrification has been creeping into the neighbourhood, this is where you can still find artisans in tiny medieval workshops, creating a wide variety of hand-made, one-of-a-kind products.  Bookbinders, gilders, woodworkers, sculptors, cobblers, furniture restorers, and of course, makers of beautiful Florentine marbled paper.

IMG_1134

On my way back from Palazzo Pitti one day, I couldn’t resist the paper on display in a storefront nearby.  One thing about paper – it’s light.  A big consideration if you have to get on a plane at the end of your trip.  After so many trips, when carefully wrapped pieces of pottery and wine bottles brought me perilously close to the weight limit, I have become ruthless in my purchases.  Scarves are good too.  They’re light and they don’t break.  Like the last bottle of wine I brought back. It was red of course.  My suitcase smelled like a wine cellar for days.  Luckily none of my clothes were ruined and after just a few washings, the black socks I had wrapped the bottle in were as good as new.

I was wandering around the tiny shop when a young commessa (comb-may-suh) approached me.  “Sto solo guardando,”  (“Just looking”) I said, but she offered to give me a demonstration anyway.  A good sales technique, I couldn’t help thinking, but she was very friendly and who doesn’t like seeing how things are made?

IMG_1138

It looked like a lot of fun.  You got to splatter a bunch of different colours of paint into a tray.  I asked what her favourite colour was.  Porpora (Purple).  It seemed an odd choice so I asked why.  “Perchè riesce sempre bene”, she laughed.  (Because it always works out.)

She slowly passed a long steel comb through the mixture, twisting her wrist slightly to create a wavy effect.

She slowly passed a long steel comb through the mixture, twisting her wrist slightly to create a wavy effect.

IMG_1143

Next she passed a thin paint brush up and down the tray.  I had done something similar many years ago.  For Hallowe’en.  I had decorated tiny muffins with spider webs by piping circles around the tops of the muffins and then pulling a toothpick through the icing towards the centre.  Everyone thought I was a genius.  That was before every barista knew how to create a work of art on your morning cappuccino.

IMG_1146

Carta marmorizzata fiorentina. (Marbleized Florentine paper)  Did I end up buying any?  Would you?

Santo Spirito.  Does it face the wrong way?

Santo Spirito. Does it face the wrong way?

Sometimes it looks like the residents of the Oltrarno, fed up with the lack of respect shown to them by their fellow citizens to the north, simply decided to turn their back on them.

Even if this is your first visit to Florence and even if you don’t know all that much about architecture, I would bet that if you took a stroll along the north side of the Lungarno you’d start to think there was something amiss about the Basilica della Santa Maria dello Santo Spirito – Santo Spirito for short.  As if it’s facing the wrong way.

Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect who designed it, thought so.  He wanted the church set back from the river.  A large piazza, starting at the river bank, would lead to the church entrance which would, in Brunelleschi’s plan, look out over the Arno.   Apart from being more convenient for everyone who lived and worked there, this would have ensured that visitors who arrived by boat, especially Florence’s rivals from Genoa, would have been suitably impressed with its façade.  So what happened?

Before Santo Spirito,  there was a 13th century Augustinian priory on the site. When it was destroyed by fire the local honchos approached Brunelleschi – and keep in mind that this is the same Brunelleschi who had already, among various other significant buildings in Florence, designed the Duomo.  They asked him if he would be willing to design a new church for the neighbourhood.  But there was a catch.  They could offer him “advantage and honour”, but probably no financial compensation for his efforts.   It’s almost impossible to imagine today, given Brunelleschi‘s reputation as one of the leading architects of the day, that they would even think of approaching him.  Let alone that Brunelleschi would accept the commission.

In any event, Brunelleschi went back to his studio and came up with a beautiful design, with the church facing the river for all to see.  But no matter how much he pleaded and argued – and here’s the part that is easier for us to understand – the powers-that-be didn’t get it. They insisted he turn the whole thing around.  It was rumoured that, in time, some of them came to regret their decision.

DSCF2639

The front entrance of Santo Spirito, against Brunelleschi’s wishes, faces away from the Arno.

Entering Piazza Santo Spirito is like entering a different city.

Entering Piazza Santo Spirito is like entering a different city.

DSCF2714

The weekly market is much more down-to-earth than the markets on the north side.

DSCF2716

One of the cheese vendors was trying to get customers to buy shares in his farm.

ADOPT AND RE-ADOPT

A GOAT FROM THE

“PODERE LE FORNACI”

Why should I adopt a goat?  Because if you know us and you like our products and you like how we work you can help support our enterprise.

What does this mean in practical terms?  We ask you for €100 before the end of 2010.  By doing so you will support the farm financially in the first 3 months of the year when we have no income and will face as usual, dark financial storms.

Where does this money go?  We will pay the rent, buy certified organic feed for the goats and get  ready for the new season.

Nice idea, but what do I get out of it?  Your money will be paid back to you throughout the year 2011 (and not beyond) as produce (milk, cheese, meat) at a 10% discount; in effect, you give 100 and we give you back 110 in produce.

 Think about it and…do something!!

By now it was lunch time so I walked around the piazza, checking out all the trattorie (tra-tor-ree-ay). It was difficult to choose.  There were so many of them, all crowded – always a good sign – and probably all good. Finally I settled on one near the church.  There were some tourists, but there were also lots of locals.

IMG_1118

What a relief to sit down!  And so much to take in while waiting for the waiter to take my order.  Like the couple at the table next to me with their canine companions.  I hadn’t seen that many tattoos on one person since leaving Toronto.

IMG_1123

I have a very simple camera.  No fancy paparazzi telephoto lenses, but Miss Black Hat and Oversized Sunglasses was still very keen on shining her pearlies whenever I aimed my camera in her direction.  There were also a few “characters” hanging about that made me wonder if this was some kind of low-key hangout where artists went to escape the limelight.

IMG_1121

A few minutes later along came this character.  He struck me as something out of “Brideshead Revisited”.  He leaned his bike against the railing and sat down with the signorina of the many tattoos.

IMG_1124

For a different take on Florence, take a walk on the “other” side.

Next post – a new garden for a new palace.