In Boccaccio’s literary masterpiece, The Decameron, three young Florentine nobles and 10 of their friends (the Decamerone) take refuge from the Black Plague in a villa outside Florence. It is believed that the actual location for the story was the Villa Palmieri, which still stands today in the village of San Domenico, near Florence.
An aerial view of the Villa today.
The history of the villa is fascinating. We know that it was in existence at the end of the 14th century, when it was owned by the Fini family. They sold it in 1454 to the noted humanist scholar Matteo di Marco Palmieri, whose name it still bears. Palmieri was a Medici family friend.
One of the descendants, Palmiero Palmieri, restructured the gardens in 1697, sweeping away all vestiges of the earlier arrangements to create a south-facing terrace, an arcaded loggia of five bays, and the symmetrically paired curved stairs (tenaglia) that lead to the lemon garden in the lower level. The lemon garden survives, though postwar renovation stripped the baroque décor from the villa’s stuccoed façade.
In the later 18th century, the house was acquired by a newly ennobled 3rd Earl Cowper.
By 1840, the villa was the home of French novelist, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas describes the villa in his book of Florentine travel essays, La Villa Palmieri (Paris, 1843): “It was in this house that Boccaccio wrote his Decameron. I thought its name would bring me happiness, and set up my office in the same room in which, four hundred and ninety-three years earlier, Boccaccio had established his.”
In 1873 the villa was purchased by James Ludovic Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford who recreated part of the grounds in the fashionable English naturalistic landscape manner of parkland dotted with specimen trees. Lindsay also had plantings of exotic, tender plants that could not be grown in the open in England. His commissions included also the scenic basin of the Fountain of Three Faces and a little chapel in neo-Baroque manner to one side of the villa.
Queen Victoria chose Villa Palmieri as her vacation locale several times in the late 19th century, and the Villa and the Queen will be the subject of another post coming soon.
From 1907-1925, the villa was owned by Chicago industrialist James Ellsworth.
The Villetta, an outbuilding formerly part of the extensive Villa Palmieri grounds, was purchased in 1927 by Myron Taylor, the American ambassador to the Holy see, who recreated a Beaux-Arts version of an Italian terraced garden and named it Villa Schifanoia.
Below, a detail of the villa, photographed c. 1930
Veduta del cortile di Villa Palmieri, a Firenze.
Credito fotografico obbligatorio:
Archivi Alinari, Firenze
Autorizzazione obbligatoria per utilizzi non editoriali: rivolgersi ad Archivi Alinari
Data dell’opera: 1697 ca.
Periodo e stile: Tardo Barocco
Fotografo: Brogi, Giacomo
Data dello scatto: 1920 – 1930 ca.
Luogo dello scatto: Firenze, Villa Palmieri
Collezione: Archivi Alinari-archivio Brogi, Firenze
During the WWII the villa became a military garrison and some parts, including the baroque decorations on the façade, were destroyed.
The current owners, the Benellis, restored it.
“Unlike the Gamberaia, ” Georgina Masson observed in her book Italian Gardens, “Villa Palmieri has suffered from having been a ‘show-place’ and the alterations of many owners to suit the fashions of their day, so that little of its original character remains.”
Today the oldest remaining parts of Villa Palmieri are the oval geometric garden of lemons which are set out in warm weather ranged round the central circular basin, itself framed in quadrant spandrels, all framed in clipped low boxwood hedging, following an 18th-century engraving of this garden space by Giuseppe Zocchi.
The upper terrace is supported on the vaults of the limonaia, glazed in the 19th century, where the lemon trees were protected from the very occasional hard frost. Some labels on trees record three visits of Queen Victoria to Villa Palmieri, in 1888, 1893 and 1894. I’m writing a post about the Queen and the villa soon.
So, was this villa really the setting for Boccaccio’s Decameron?
In fact, we don’t know.
Describing the Third Day in the Decameron, Boccacio mentioned a paradisiacal garden on the outskirts of Florence where the young people met. From the description, it seems that the garden faces south towards Florence, therefore it would be on the slopes of Fiesole.
There are not many villas of 14-century origin in that area and so scholars believe Boccacio’s setting is almost certainly Villa Palmieri. At that time, the villa was already endowed with large farms, meadows and water sources described by Boccaccio.
The complication is that in the neighborhood of the Palmieri, there were several annexed buildings, which in turn later became villas, and any of them were as likely to have been the setting described by Boccaccio as Palmieri itself.
Among these are the Villa Benelli from the name of the family that lives there, or Villa Schifanoia, which was once included among the properties of Villa Palmieri.
Boccacio’s description of the fictional villa in Fiesole, where his young people retreated from the Black Death raging in Florence to tell stories, is too general to identify any one villa securely. You can judge for yourself:
To see this garden, its handsome ordering, the plants, and the fountain
with rivulets issuing from it, was so pleasing to each lady and the
three young men that all began to affirm that,
if Paradise could be made on earth,
they couldn’t conceive a form other
than that of this garden that might be given it.
Regardless, it is an historic and highly interesting site and I recommend visiting it whenever you have the chance. It is on the outskirts of Florence and an easy bus or cab ride from the center.
Information Sources: Jones, Ted. Florence and Tuscany: A Literary Guide for Travellers (The I.B.Tauris Literary Guides for Travellers) (p. 44). I.B.Tauris. Kindle Edition and English and Italian versions on Wikipedia.