When we visited Florence a couple of years ago, we spent an afternoon wandering the paths of the Boboli Gardens, the beautiful ornamental gardens behind the Pitti Palace. The Boboli Gardens were one of the first and most formal 16th century Italian gardens. Elegant and lavishly designed, they were originally used only by the Medici family for private strolls.
The gardens are filled with statuary dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, along with Roman sculpture. This made for a photo-filled afternoon. I liked the way the lush foliage seemed to almost overwhelm the sculptures, which were scattered everywhere.
The gardens house all sorts of marvels, from a bizarre grotto to an amphitheater, with an emphasis on elaborate fountains, all linked together by alleyways and paths, dotted with sculptures and whimsical stonework. This lovely path is called the Ragnaie, or “Spiders Lane.”
When the Medici family bought the Pitti Palace in 1549, Cosimo and his wife Eleonora hired the famous mannerist architect and sculptor, Tribolo, to transform the hillside behind the palace into a formal garden. Once he accepted the undertaking, Tribolo promptly died, leaving the development of the gardens to Bartolommeo Ammanati and a slew of architects and designers.
The original design centered on an amphitheater behind the palace; the first play was performed there in 1576. This 1599 painting by Giusto Utens shows the amphitheater (the sunken area directly behind the palace) and the surrounding gardens.
The compact design seen above didn’t last long; the gardens were expanded upon for the next 300 years. Because this involved generations of designers, the gardens are considered a living outdoor museum of landscape architecture history.
Below is an etching from the 18th century. You can see the palace down in the lower left and the amphitheater above it. The gardens have exploded out to the right, with all sorts of beautiful interlocked circular patterns to take you on a leisurely stroll, usually ending in a fountain surrounded by ornate sculpture. The gardens cover almost 11 acres.
Despite its proximity to the Arno River, the gardens lacked a natural water supply. Special conduits were put in place in surrounding natural springs and rivers to keep the gardens hydrated and the fountains bubbling. These two monkeys live in a fountain next to the Porcelain Museum, one of the small buildings within the garden.
The Medici family, the ruling family of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, lived in the Pitti Palace from 1549 until 1737, when the last Medici family member died and the dynasty became extinct. The palace and its gardens then passed through a variety of hands, depending on the ruler of the day, until the property was presented to the nation in 1919 and opened to the public.
This is an 18th century rendering of the amphitheater, which seems to suggest that by this time, you might not have to be a family member to play in the garden.
As you depart the gardens, the lovely lady below waves goodbye from behind the palace. Perhaps to the consternation of the ghosts of the Medicis, today anyone can pay to enter the gardens and wander its well-worn paths.