The Italian Gardens, Kensington Gardens

You might know that almost the first place I would go once I got to London would be the “Italian Gardens!”  Ma, certo! Like a bee to honey.

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This lovely, smallish ornamental water garden was created in the 1860s and is to be found on the north side of park, near Lancaster Gate. It is believed the garden was a gift from Prince Albert  (he died 1861) to his beloved wife, Queen Victoria. Regardless of the why, they are now recognized as a site of particular importance and are listed Grade II by Historic England.

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Portraits of Victoria and Albert flank the 2 sides of the balustrades overlooking the lake.

 

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BTW, about once every six months while I am living in Italy I will see something in some work of art that causes me to say: “that’s a new one–I’ve never seen that before.”  I love it when that happens.

But, today, at the Italian Gardens, I had one of those moments, caused by the bas-relief below:

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I’ve seen a lot of weird images captured in marble sculpture, especially in the form of putti of various stripes, but I have never seen a rifle in a Neo-classical sculpture before today!  A detail of it is below:

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The Italian Gardens are found within the grounds of Kensington Gardens; you can locate them at the top of the Serpentine River in the map below:

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The Italian Gardens are an elaborate mix of four main basins. They feature central rosettes carved in Carrara marble, the Portland stone and white marble Tazza Fountain, and a collection of stone statues and urns. It’s fun to see if you can spot the five main urn designs – a swan’s breast, woman’s head, ram’s head, dolphin and oval.

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Strengthening the supposition that this decorative complex was commissioned by Prince Albert is the fact that the layout of the Italian Gardens is very similar to that of Osborne House on The Isle of Wight, where the royal family spent holidays.  Prince Albert was a keen gardener and took charge of the gardens at Osborne House, where he introduced an Italian garden with large raised terraces, fountains, urns and geometric flower beds.

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It’s thought that in 1860 he brought the idea to Kensington Gardens. The design by James Pennethorne includes many features of the Osborne garden.

The initials of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert can be found on one of the walls of the Pump House, at the north of the gardens.

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fullsizeoutput_13fe You can see the V & A monogram in this photo.

 

This building once contained a steam engine which operated the fountains – the pillar on the roof is a cleverly-disguised chimney. A stoker kept the engine running on Saturday nights to pump water into the Round Pond, so on Sundays there was enough water pressure to run the fountains.

In 2011, the gardens were restored to their original splendour. The project involved:

  • Restoring the original stonework. This included carving eight life-sized swan heads and necks as replacement handles on some of the urns.
  • Restoring the Tazza Fountain. Fine stone carving was carried out on-site. The central rosettes also needed careful cleaning and some sections were replaced with newly-carved marble.
  • A new planting scheme to recapture the Victorian vision and help maintain water quality. Native water lilies, yellow flag iris, flowering rush and purple loosestrife are rooted in cages just below the water. New walkways help ducks get in and out of the water.
  • A new cleaner water system and water quality improvements. 13 tons of silt were removed from the fountain basins during the restoration. The fountains are now fed with fresh water from a borehole. The water is aerated and its temperature raised as it leaps in the air, before flowing out into the Long Water.  Happily, this improves the ecology of the lake.

The restoration was funded by The Tiffany and Co. Foundation as part of a project to restore ornamental and drinking fountains across the eight Royal Parks, and known as Tiffany – Across the Water.

Also, just for fun, the Italian Gardens have provided a star location in several films.

Medici Fountain, Luxembourg Garden, Paris and Marie de’ Medici

The artistic interchanges between Italy and France form a fascinating story.  No where are they better expressed, at least to my mind, than in the Medici Fountain, commissioned by Marie de’ Medici at in the Luxembourg Garden in 1630. The fountain has a 3-part history: 1. its original construction; 2. its restoration by Napoleon; and 3. the relocation and additions of sculpture in 1866.

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Marie de’ Medici was the widow of France’s King Henry IV and the regent of King Louis XIII of France.

 

The fountain in the Luxembourg garden was designed by Tommaso Francini, a Florentine fountain maker and hydraulic engineer who was brought from Florence to France by King Henry IV. The fabulous fountain was constructed in the form of a grotto, a popular feature of the Italian Renaissance garden.

 

 

The French queen was born as Maria at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy. She was the sixth daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Archduchess Joanna of Austria. Marie was not a male-line descendant of Lorenzo the Magnificent but from Lorenzo the Elder, a branch of the Medici family sometimes referred to as the ‘cadet’ branch. She did descend from Lorenzo in the female-line however, through his daughter Lucrezia de’ Medici. She was also a Habsburg through her mother, who was a direct descendant of Joanna of Castile and Philip I of Castile.

Although Marie was one of seven children, only she and her sister Eleonora survived to adulthood.

She married Henry IV of France in October 1600 following the annulment of his marriage to Margaret of Valois. The wedding ceremony was held in Florence, and was celebrated by four thousand guests with lavish entertainment, including examples of the newly invented musical genre of opera, such as Jacopo Peri’s Euridice. Henry did not attend the ceremony, and the two were therefore married by proxy. Marie brought as part of her dowry 600,000 crowns. Her eldest son, the future King Louis XIII, was born at Fontainebleau the following year.

Her husband was almost 47 at the time of the marriage and had a long succession of mistresses. Dynastic considerations required him to take a second wife, his first spouse Margaret of Valois never having produced children by Henry or by her lovers. Henry chose Marie de’ Medici because Henry owed the bride’s father, Francesco de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who had helped support his war effort, a whopping 1,174,000 écus and this was the only means Henry could find to pay back the debt.

The marriage was successful in producing children, but it was not a happy one. The queen feuded with Henry’s mistresses in language that shocked French courtiers. She quarreled mostly with her husband’s leading mistress, Catherine Henriette de Balzac d’Entragues, whom he had promised he would marry following the death of his former “official mistress”, Gabrielle d’Estrées. When he failed to do so, and instead married Marie, the result was constant bickering and political intrigues behind the scenes.

Catherine referred to Maria as “the fat banker’s daughter”; Henry used Maria for breeding purposes exactly as Henry II had treated Catherine de’ Medici. Although the king could have easily banished his mistress, supporting his queen, he never did so. She, in turn, showed great sympathy and support to her husband’s banished ex-wife Marguerite de Valois, prompting Henry to allow her back into the realm.

Marie was crowned Queen of France on 13 May 1610, a day before her husband’s death. Hours after Henry’s assassination, she was confirmed as regent by the Parliament of Paris. She immediately banished his mistress, Catherine Henriette de Balzac, from the court.

The construction and furnishing of the Palais du Luxembourg, which she referred to as her “Palais Médicis”, formed her major artistic project during her regency. The site was purchased in 1612 and construction began in 1615, to designs of Salomon de Brosse.

It was well known that Henry of Navarre (her husband) was not wealthy. She brought her own fortune from Florence to finance various construction projects in France. But more importantly, she contributed to the financing of several expeditions including Samuel de Champlain’s to North America, which saw France lay claim to Canada.

 

 

In 1612 Marie de’ Medici had 2,000 elm trees planted, and directed a series of gardeners, most notably Tommaso Francini, to build a park in the style she had known as a child in Florence.

Francini planned two terraces with balustrades and parterres laid out along the axis of the chateau, aligned around a circular basin. He also built the Medici Fountain to the east of the palace as a nympheum, an artificial grotto and fountain, without its present pond and statuary.

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The Medici Fountain fell into ruins during the 18th century, but in 1811, at the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, the fountain was restored by Jean Chalgrin, the architect of the Arc de Triomphe.

In 1864-66, the fountain was moved to its present location, centered on the east front of the Palais du Luxembourg. The long basin of water was built and flanked by plane trees, and the sculptures of the giant Polyphemus surprising the lovers Acis and Galatea, by French classical sculptor Auguste Ottin, were added to the grotto’s rockwork.

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The green lungs of Milan

First, in traditional architecture:

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Then, a modern adaptation:

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I was told that the tall narrow apparatus that looks like a crane, on the top of both sections of the high rise, is actually a part of the irrigation system that keeps all this plant material alive.

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Apparently the first high rise has been quite successful, for as you can see, a second high rise is going up nearby.

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Palazzo dei Mozzi, Firenze

The Palazzo dei Mozzi is a grand old palace beautifully situated on the piazza of the same name, in the Oltrarno section of Florence. It was built around the middle of 13th century as a part of the fortifications guarding the old Ponte di Rubaconte (today’s Ponte alle Grazie): hence its fortress-like structure.

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The palazzo is an early Renaissance building, located at the south end of the Piazza dei Mozzi that emerges from Ponte alle Grazie and leads straight to the palace where via San Niccolò becomes via de’ Bardi in the Quartiere of Santo Spirito (San Niccolò).

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The Mozzi family was among the most important and powerful families in the city in the Medieval period, and many important persons were received in the palace during their official visits in Florence; Pope Gregory X, for example, visited the palazzo in 1273.

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On the facade facing the Via de’ Bardi, we see the tower and the large coat-of-arms of the Mozzi family. Also note the tower’s crenellation, covered nowadays by a roof.

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The large garden on the rear of the palace was built in 16th century, when the Mozzi bought a wide plot of ground in order to transform it into an olive-grove.

Around the middle of 19th century, the palace was purchased by the antiquarian Stefano Bardini, who owned another palazzo across the street (see pictures below). Today that amazing garden is open to the public as a part of the Museo Bardini complex. It is one of the most spectacular gardens in all of Florence, especially in spring when the trees and wisteria are in full bloom!

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Bardini transferred his extensive art collections and laboratories to the Palazzo dei Mozzi and changed the olive-grove into a garden; he decorated the garden with statues and elements he saved from the demolition of ancient buildings in the center of Florence. In a subsequent time the garden was futher decorated with a loggia and big stairs.

After the death of Ugo Bardini, the son of Stefano, the palace remained closed for a long time, until it was bought by the Italian State; it is currently under restoration and will become a centre for exhibitions and cultural events.

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Palazzo Bardini on left, Palazzo dei Mozzi at far end.

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Below, another view of facade of Palazzo dei Mozzi, looking eastward along via San Niccolò.

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