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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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


More of those dogs.


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.


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


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


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?


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


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.


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.


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


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.



Una Passeggiata a Firenze – Part III – A Couple of Old Things

It’s amazing how much time it can take to get from the Osteria delle Belle Donne (previous post) to Piazza della Signoria.  It’s only a few short blocks, but with all the upscale clothing stores, leather goods stores, jewellery stores, etc. along the way, you’ll be lucky to keep up with a snail.  And then there are the gelaterie.


I didn’t have dessert at lunch and with all this walking I think it’s time for una coppa a tre gusti (a cup with three flavours).  Cioccolato, pistacchio e nocciola (hazelnut).

Surprisingly, the Guelphs apparently never got around to removing the white iris of their arch rival from the façade of one of the most important buildings at the time - Palazzo Vecchio.

When Palazzo Pitti, the extravagant new residence for the city rulers, was finished,
locals started calling the older building “Palazzo Vecchio”.

You may recognize the first of the two “old things” on this afternoon’s itinerary.  Although it’s usually referred to as Palazzo Vecchio, it was originally called Palazzo della Signoria, after the piazza in which it is located – Piazza della Signoria – the Signoria (seen-your-ee-uh) being the seat of government and residence of the city rulers.  Not to be confused with signorina (seen-your-ee-nuh), which is how shopkeepers greeted me when I first arrived in Florence.  A few years ago I realized that, without my noticing it, I had graduated to signora (seen-your-uh).  I know it’s a sign of respect – you can be unmarried and still be addressed as signora, but still…

At the north end (left side of the photo) is a fountain.  It was made by Bartolomeo Ammannato, a contemporary of Michelangelo.  Its official name is the “Fountain of Neptune”.  But Florentines in those days, perhaps jaded by all the magnificent art that was pouring out of workshops across the city, were fierce and highly vocal art critics.  When the fountain was unveiled, they were merciless.  They renamed it Il Biancone (The Big White Thing).  Michelangelo said he had ruined a nice piece of marble (it was marmo di Carrara, Michelangelo’s favourite).  At one point locals took to washing their laundry in it.  Artistic merit aside, makes you feel a bit sorry for Ammannati.  It must have been tough trying to earn a living as an artist – or artigiano (artisan) as they were called then – in a city teeming with artists of Michelangelo’s calibre.

La Fontana di Nettuno aka Il Biancone

La Fontana di Nettuno aka Il Biancone

Controversy around the Old Palace doesn’t stop with the fountain. In the pavement close by the fountain is a bronze disk.  It marks the spot where a Dominican friar was burned at the stake.

From the age of 20, when he wrote De Ruina Mundi, a poem about the destruction of the world, Girolamo Savonarola had raged against the moral corruption of the Roman church.  It may come as a surprise, but at the time, there were quite a few clerics who regularly terrified the locals with fiery sermons and dire predictions of impending apocalypse, so not all that much attention was paid to Savonarola.  Not until the 1490’s, when, for a brief period, he was the most powerful figure in Florence.

The Medicis had become increasingly weakened by prolonged wars against the French, who had also afflicted the Italians with another misery – the “French pox”, aka syphilis. The Renaissance masterpieces we now admire had been financed by a few wealthy patrons.   At the time they were a constant and bitter affront to the impoverished populace.  On top of all this, as the end of the century approached, the fear of impending doom terrified the illiterate masses.  When Charles VIII of France invaded Florence in 1494, and the Medicis were finally overthrown, Savonarola stepped into the power vacuum and took over leadership of the city.

The first thing he did was to proclaim Florence a “Christian and Religious Republic”.  Then he caused a massive exodus of artists, Michelangelo among them, and members of the elite by making sodomy, previously tolerated, a capital offence.  Piazza della Signoria became the site of the “Bonfires of the Vanities”.  Books, mirrors, musical instruments, fine dresses, countless Renaissance masterpieces – anything related to “moral laxity” – were thrown onto the fires.  Before it all ended, artists like Botticelli, terrified by the Savonarola’s sermons, had thrown many of their “immoral” paintings into the fires.

Art lovers around the world (as well as the Italian tourism industry) will be forever grateful to the Florentines who eventually grew tired of Savonarola and the gloomy lifestyle he offered.  When he refused to accept a challenge from the Franciscans in 1498 to a trial by fire, his reign of terror was over.  Pope Alexander VI, not content with excommunicating him, demanded his execution.   Savonarola was captured and, after three weeks of torture, was burned to death on the very spot where his “Bonfires of the Vanities” had blazed only a short time before.


Here, where with his fellow brothers Brother Domenico Buonvicini and Brother Maruffi, on May 23, 1498, having been unjustly sentenced, Brother Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned to death. This plaque was placed here after four centuries.

The next bit of controversy around the old palace has to do with the defacement of public property.  If you look closely, to the right of the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio, you will see the profile of a man’s head etched into the rough stone.


Like everywhere else in Italy, stories to explain events or things shrouded in the mists of time are plentiful in Florence.  Often there are several versions.   What is different about the stories surrounding this sketch is that they all have one point in common –  that the culprit was Michelangelo.

According to one version, someone bet Michelangelo that he couldn’t make a carving with his back to the wall.  While that version does take into account the artist’s competitive nature,  it strikes me as somewhat lacklustre.

Much more compelling, to my mind, is the version in which the profile is of a rival (there were lots of those) who had cheated and/or was also heavily in debt, not only to Michelangelo, but also to others around town.   In this version, Michelangelo was passing through Piazza della Signoria one day when he saw the wretch in the pillory by the Loggia dei Lanzi.  He asked one of the soldiers standing guard how long the punishment was for.  Whatever it was, it was nowhere near long enough for the insult as far as Michelangelo was concerned.  “Far too short,” he said,   “the Florentine people need something that will remind them for as long as possible what this villain has done.”  He looked around and started carving the profile on the nearest surface – which happened to be the façade of one of the most important buildings in the city. Call it high-end defacing of public property.


That the statue of David in front of Palazzo Vecchio is a copy probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  Pollution, acid rain and graffiti artists are just a few of any number of good reasons why the original wouldn’t be left out in the open.  But none of these is why the original is in the Accademia delle Belle Arti.

Apart from the hazards posed by Florentine drivers and tour groups, the centro storico  is a pretty safe place to be nowadays.  Not like in the past.  When they weren’t knocking off members of rival families, the locals were often busy running riot through the city.  Literally.  During one of those riots part of David’s left hand was broken off  – it got hit by a bench thrown out of one of the windows of the old palace.  Florentines were actually rather fond of the statue – on top of its obvious beauty, they knew Michelangelo intended it to symbolize the liberation of Florence (David) from Medici domination – so they decided to transfer the original to a place where it would at least be safe from flying benches, and they had a copy made for Palazzo Vecchio.

If you visit the Accademia you’ll see that the left hand is intact.  We have Vasari to thank for that.  Resourceful and opportunistic fellow that he was, Vasari rushed down into the melee in the square – at great personal risk to life and limb, as he was fond of pointing out later – to pick up the broken bits, which he kept in safe keeping until the Medicis, who had been driven out of the city during the riot, returned to power, as he knew they would, twenty years later.  Vasari scored a lot of points when he presented the missing pieces to the Medicis, who were also very fond of the statue.

Who knows how they could even bear looking at, let alone be fond of a work of art that everyone knew was meant to portray them as the loathsome Goliath?   In any event it was not a mutual admiration society and Michelangelo, who refused to live in a Medici-controlled Florence, left for Rome, where he spent the rest of his life making masterpieces and battling with a new patron, the Pope.   In a way, it’s probably a good thing he left.  Florence has enough problems trying to cope with all the art in the city as things are.

Connected to the Palazzo Vecchio is one of the most famous art galleries in the world – the Galleria degli Uffizi.  After all these years the name still strikes me as an odd one. It means “Gallery of the Offices.  The “offices” being the rooms where government business is carried out.  The idea of a city hall connected to a gallery stuffed with magnificent art is, well, difficult to imagine.

The Galleria degli Uffizi is connected on the other side to the Loggia dei Lanzi, which just may be the most art-filled loggia in Italy.  It’s named for the Swiss mercenaries stationed here as Cosimo I’s guards.  Lanzichenecchi, the Italian for the German “Landsknechte”, was shortened to the more pronounceable Lanzi.

It is crammed with gory, but elegant statues  – “The Rape of the Sabines”, “Hercules Fighting the Centaur”.  One of the goriest in my opinion depicts the moment right after Perseus has slit the Gorgon’s neck and the moment before Pegasus (the winged horse, for those of you whose Greek mythology, like mine, is a bit rusty) rides/flies forth from her blood.


From a technical point of view it was pure genius.  It was the first major bronze sculpture cast in Florence in half a century.  It took Cellini nine years of back-breaking labour and nothing but scorn and discouragement from everyone around him.  No-one, not even Cosimo I dei Medici, who had commissioned it, believed it could actually be cast.  A particularly low point occurred during the casting when he almost burned down the entire city centre.

Like many artists of his day, Cellini was an avid self-promoter.  (Who knows what these 16th century artists could have done if Facebook and Twitter had been around?)  In any event, autobiography was one of the best ways of getting your name out there at the time and Cellini filled his with the usual embellishments and self-aggrandizing comments.   In his account of the creation of the statue of Perseus, Cellini portrayed himself as a glorious, even heroic creator, likening the blood pouring from the Gorgon’s head – blood was seen as a symbol of creativity – to the molten bronze he had poured into the cast.  He was less subtle when it came to the finishing touches on the statue.  If you check the back of Perseus’ helmet, you will find a self-portrait.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of the Old Palace and all its intrigues for now.  It’s time to head to the next old thing.


Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge.

The above photo is from an earlier trip.  It was late fall and the sun had just risen high enough to light up the bridge, bathing it for a few brief moments in a warm golden hue – a foretaste of the gioielli d’oro (joy-ell-ee door-oh) for sale in the tiny shops lining the bridge.  It made it even harder to imagine the noise and stench of the stalls of tanners and butchers that once jostled for space along the bridge.

The tranquil scene that early fall morning belied the bridge’s long, turbulent history.  Ponte Vecchio is not just vecchio.  It is il più vecchio (the oldest) in the city.  How old exactly no-one knows.  It probably started with the Romans, who around the 2nd century a.C. wanted to extend Via Cassia, the consular road from Rome, beyond Florence to the more important settlements in Lucca and Pisa.  Great engineers that they were, they had no problem finding the narrowest stretch of the Arno, which is where they built their bridge.  Over the centuries five more bridges would follow.  Quite a few when you consider that only four bridges cross the Grand Canal in Venice.

The Arno River viewed from Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Trinità viewed from Ponte Vecchio

After the first of these, Ponte alla Carraia (beyond Ponte Santa Trinità), was built in 1220, the bridge on the old Roman site acquired the name it has had ever since – Ponte Vecchio – to distinguish it from the new bridge.  The name may have stayed the same but the bridge itself, victim of natural and man-made disasters, has been replaced several times.  The structure we know dates from 1354, a replacement for the twelfth-century version that was swept away by floods twenty years earlier.

The shopkeepers were just starting to open up - a task that looks as if it may not have changed much over the centuries.

The shopkeepers were just starting to open up – a task that looks as if it may not have changed much over the centuries.

Perhaps the gods and goddesses that the Romans regularly consulted also had a hand in the bridge’s fate.  When the Germans troops fled Florence towards the end of World War II, to slow down the approaching Allies, they destroyed all the bridges across the Arno – all except Ponte Vecchio, which they decided to spare.  One of those enlightened decisions that occasionally occur during war time, but seem irrational, almost inhumane, occurring as they do amidst the sordid inhumanity of war.   To slow the Allies’ progress, they blew up the buildings nearby so that the resulting rubble would block access to the bridge.


Later in the day, jostling crowds and glittering displays in the shop windows dispel all sense of its troubled past.

Ponte Vecchio also survived the most recent threat – the flood of 1966.  On the surface a disaster of natural origin, but there are many who claim it was not in fondo natural at all, but the inevitable result of the deforestation of the mountains east of Florence where the tributaries that flow into the Arno originate.  Yet others maintain that the damage resulting from the flood was made even more catastrophic by the incompetence and corruption of local officials.  In light of all this, it seemed well worth getting up early to catch the bridge and its river in a moment of serenity.

A series of small square windows runs across the top of the bridge and along an arcade on the north shore of the Arno River.  They mark a passageway that was added in the 16th century.


As much as he looked forward to moving from Palazzo Vecchio to the luxurious quarters of the newly built Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno, Cosimo I dei Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, knew that the new residence created a problem.  The life of a Medici was perilous at the best of times.  Rival families were always concocting plots to get rid of them.   Cosimo knew he would be an easy target as he made his way back and forth between the government offices and his new home.

So he commissioned a popular local artist, renowned at the time for his prowess in sculpture, painting and architecture, to design an enclosed passageway through which he could travel unseen between the two buildings.   It was called the Corridoio Vasariano – in honour of its designer, Vasari.  The passageway still carries his name, but amidst all the wonders of Florence, is relatively unknown.  Instead, Vasari’s enduring fame is as the first art historian and author of “The Lives of  the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects”.

One kilometre long, the Corridoio Vasariano twists and turns its way from Palazzo Vecchio through the Uffizi Galleries, along the north shore of the Arno, across Ponte Vecchio and over the rooftops of the residences on the other side of the river to Palazzo Pitti.  The square windows above the arcades on of the Arno and above the shops along Ponte Vecchio mark its path.   The corridoio still exists, but access is strictly controlled, so if you’re a mere mortal like myself, you have to proceed at street level.  This means of course, that there is no avoiding the temptations on offer along the old bridge.

As for the tanners and the butchers?  The stench and noise of the “vile arts” were a daily thorn in the life of a later Medici, Ferdinando, who had them evicted and replaced by the goldsmiths and jewellers who have tempted visitors ever since.  Even if you’re not into the jewellery, you’ll probably still be glad Ferdinando got rid of the tanners and butchers, who in addition to being smelly, had used the Arno as a garbage dump for their waste products.

At night the Old Bridge is simply incantevole (enchanting).

At night the Old Bridge is even more incantevole (enchanting).