Villa Medici a Fiesole, the garden edition

A few days ago I posted on the marvel that is the Villa Medici a Fiesole.  There I covered the construction and importance of the Villa as a precursor for Renaissance villa design. That post kept growing and growing, so I decided to make a 2nd post on just the gardens.

So, let’s talk (garden) turkey:

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In the imagine (picture, in Italian) above you see how Michelozzo and later architects sited the palazzo and its wonderful gardens.  The palazzo itself sits on the center left side of the plan.

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Looking outward from the palazzo within the gardens at the villa.

Below, with stonework that recalls grotto architecture, is the entrance to the gardens.  I can’t remember who the sculptured bust represents, but it is no doubt one Medici or another.  The coat-of-arms beneath the bust is, of course, most definitely that of the Medici.

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So, let’s look at a plan of the site. The palazzo is not numbered but you can see where the 4 main gardens exist.

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We’ll start our tour in garden #1.  You walk through or beside #1 when you enter the grounds and approach the palazzo from the west. You can see the white-washed palazzo on the far right side.

 

As you walk along the pea gravel path from the entry gate to the palazzo, you have this immediate view of the garden with its terracotta pots filled with apple-red geraniums.

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If you can peel your eyes away from the palazzo, which is now fully presented ahead of you, you can already gaze over the geraniums and be rewarded with a spectacular view of Florence. The unmistakable center of the city is marked with the dome of the Duomo.

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Below, the city of Florence as seen from garden #1 at Villa Medici. Wow.

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I’m going to try to avoid the view for a minute, because it always steals the show.  Let’s look at just the plantings and layout of garden #1, shall we?

The north side of garden #1 is constructed with a high wall covered with vines, a small outbuilding, used I think, like a pavillion.  A border of pink roses line the length of the north side of garden #1.

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Within garden #1, as you look back from the Palazzo end, is laid out with large specimen trees, grass (very unusual in an Italian garden), and potted citrus, lemon and oranges mostly.  The building in the lower section of the photo is the entry gate to the Villa.

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Along this northern border of the garden, a fountain, with a grotto-like finishing of stones, is set into the short wall.  It provides a relief from the steady gaze of border wall with its oval form, and on both sides of the fountain one can walk up a few steps to walk to the pavillion at the west end.

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Below: looking back at the palazzo and garden #1 from west to east:

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To enter garden #2, you must pass along the walkway to the south of the palazzo.  You  climb this tall hill, which is guarded by 2 terracotta lions.

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Angels in the architecture of the gate proclaim the (almost?) divine majesty of the Medici family.

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Through the gate, you see garden #2, with its own set of panoramic views, awaiting you.

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I don’t know if everyone else is like me, but when I passed under the gate leading to garden #2, I was drawn like a magnet to the end walls of the property, where this view, framed by cypress trees, awaits the spectator.  I mean, come on (and people ask me why I choose to live in Italy…don’t I miss the USA???)!!

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Garden #2 is a more private, secluded space than #1.  The palazzo on this, the west side, has magnificent magnolia trees, and, as you can see, the palazzo itself has many windows and arched openings to give those inside the palazzo a gorgeous smallish garden to observe, with extraordinary views available to anyone standing near the short walls that separate the site from the ravines below.

 

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A low and wide fountain occupies the geometrically divided garden #2.

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After strolling through this garden, lost in thought about the people who had walked through this garden throughout the last 500+ years, I tore myself away, for new gardens #3 & 4 awaited.

 

This is what the view leading back to garden #1 looks like. You pass through the gateway again, and walk along the gravel path to a structure on the east end of garden #1.

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On the west end of garden #1, sits the backside of the first gateway.  However, this is no regular backside! It is a semi-enclosed room with its own frescoes. The main fresco provides an imaginary walkway to follow into the depths of an imaginary garden.

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To the right side of this small structure, you find a set of stairs leading to gardens 3 and 4.  Unfortunately, caught up in the wonder of this Medici sponsored experience of passing between gardens, I forgot to take pictures. Dang it.  The stairs lead you to a long, plant covered passage.  This passage is quite long, with another pea stone path.  It was the end of July when I visited this Medici villa, and the plants splayed over this path were not in bloom.  I am not sure what the plant is, but it didn’t look like wisteria.  Maybe it is honeysuckle? Not sure.  Whatever it is, this covered passageway is garden #3 and I don’t have any pictures of it.

Garden #3 takes you from the east end of the site to the center of garden #4, pictured below.  As you walk through garden #3, you have tantalizing views of garden #4, and, once again, the city of Florence in the background.  Is it any wonder that I failed to take pictures of garden #3 itself?!

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Oh wait, I do have one photo of garden #3

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Beautiful, isn’t it, garden #3?

 

To enter the final garden, #4,  you take these picturesque stairs below to the lower level. Now you are in the final garden, and it more than earns its position as the climax of this site’s garden experience:

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Each side of this marvelous little stairway is planted with wisteria, and although the wisteria season is essentially over in the Arno valley, I could see the purple racemes in my imagination.  I loved walking down these stairs, the wisteria branches tried to wrap you up from both sides.  It was a very cool experience.

 

Here’s the big reward awaiting any visitor to garden #4, an unparalleled vista of the city of Florence, spread out before your eyes.

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When you can tear yourself away from the views that open from garden #4, you can get lost for a while in the flowers that take center stage in this lowest level of the Villa Medici a Fiesole.

For example, below is the closest thing to an English-style border that I’ve ever seen in Italy. You are looking up from garden #4 through the passage (garden #3), and don’t fail to notice the cypress trees that also grace these plantings.

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Let’s look for a second at the geometric beds laid out in garden #4.  It is mostly marigolds which fill these beds.

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Look back up at the palazzo from garden #4, and this is what you see.

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The picture below show how landscape architects (could it have been Michelozzo who designed the palazzo?) treated the change in levels.  This picture serves like a painting, with fore, middle, and backgrounds treated with hard and soft scapes.

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Much use of wisteria is made on the west end of garden #4, which also has some modern architecture in it.  Can you imagine living here, at the west end of the Medici villa?

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Water makes a lovely cameo in garden #4, in the shape of a low circle at the exact center of the site.

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Before departing, let’s take one last look at Florence from way up here:

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And, finally, we must depart, or else the custodian might get nervous and come looking for us.

 

And now we depart, climbing the beautiful framed stairway from garden #4 to #3.

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Pass through garden #3, constantly looking back and down and notice your senses have been used to the max.  Seeing, hearing, touching, and the scent of the carefully used roses, have worked together to create an unforgettable experience.

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Walking along the Via Beato Angelico that leads from the center of Fiesole down into the outskirts of Florence.  One last backward glance, to see the Villa Medici in all its glory.  Note the swimming pool that I doubt very much was added originally by Michelozzo.  Or, who knows?!

 

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A perfect Italian summer Sunday

We chose Livorno as our Sunday getaway.  Livorno is a bustling port town and the 2nd largest city in Tuscany. We were lured by its history and its unparalleled seafood.

Livorno, not so well known outside of Italy,  boasts a picturesque system of canals, an authentic urban character, an attractive waterfront along with a fine collection of historical and cultural sites.

But the main advantage for us was that we had Francesca with us, a lovely woman who lived in Livorno when she was growing up.  We had our own personal tour guide!  She guided us here and there and took us to an outstanding restaurant, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We started here:  a monument to the Medici family (they were everywhere in Tuscany) with 4 Moors depicted on the lower level.  I show it here with 2 sweet sisters and good friends (of each other and of me).  We were ready for an adventure!

 

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Sketching this monument was a local painter:

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I thought he was very able, here’s his start above and below:

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The painter is a colorful local with a lot of painterly skill.  Pay attention to his sketch because we will come back later and see how far he got.

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We boarded a boat for a watery tour of Livorno. The barca took us through and around the city, including the most picturesque quarter of Livorno, the Venezia Nuova, aka “Little Venice,” with its canals, arching bridges, and ornate merchant palaces.

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This city is simply unique, rich in history, and built upon the water by Venetian engineers who were hired to carry out a Medicean dream. Cosmopolitan Livorno was full with rich merchant palazzi during the 17th & 18th centuries. Merchants from all over the world arrived in Livorno, all of whom wanted to get in on what was a very lucrative trade.

These merchants petitioned the Grand Duke to grant them space to construct palaces and warehouses in order to furnish the port with an almost endless supply of provisions and luxuries. By the 17th century, Livorno was becoming one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean.

Livorno_map_of_the_town_02818_1 A 19th-century map of the city.

 

The canals of Livorno were constructed over waters reclaimed from the sea north of Livorno between 1629 and 1700.

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See the Historic Venezia District of Livorno_1

 

Protected from the west and east by its two Medicean fortresses, we glided in our boat through the many sectors of the city, a once rich city which had become the coffer of the riches of all the world.

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The Medici fortified the city and its water lanes with these massive walls.

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“New Venice” was very much admired by intelligentsia and aristocrats on the 18th century “Grand Tour.” That atmosphere lingers today, with canals, shops and cellars on the water, and an architectural system tailor-made for commerce.

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Gliding through the man-made canals, we saw evidence of the old artisanal traditions of the boatmen, sailors, barrel-makers, and porters who lived, worked, and traded secrets in “Little Venice.” We heard many stories, and became acquainted with Livorno’s lively and charismatic inhabitants, among whom were smugglers and pirates in the pay of the Grand Tuscan Dukes. Inside these palazzi, the city’s rich merchants and noblemen rubbed shoulders with the Grand Dukes, and, often, other random members of European aristocracy.

On the water we passed under the shadow of the octagonal dome of the church of Saint Catherine of Siena, which for 3 centuries has graced the Livornese skyline. We also saw the entrance of the so-called “New Fortress” of Livorno, an island completely surrounded by the city’s principal moat and canal, the Fosso Reale, and last remnant of the 5 original bulwarks of this fortified city, the famous pentagon of Bernardo Buontalenti.

source: https://www.livornotour.com/senza-categoria-en/la-piccola-venezia-toscana.php?lang=en

Livorno is also the home of Casa Modigliani, the birthplace and childhood home of Amedeo Modigliani. The Museo Fattori, Livorno’s art museum, contains artwork from Modigliani and 19th century Italian Impressionists. I am sad to report that we didn’t look at any of the many interesting museums.  It was a Sunday and we were on holiday!  We wanted to stay out doors and enjoy the city and the coast, not go inside a darkened space.

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Santa Caterina church ahead on left.

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Above is the 19th century mercato centrale.  It reminded me of the same type of structure in Florence.

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Our boat ride lasted about an hour, and took us under the Piazza Repubblica, along the canals, to the harbour of the fishing boats, the harbour of the yachts, as well as past the fortress.

It was a beautiful way to enjoy a fascinating city. I am looking forward to returning to this intriguing place, which so often lives in the shadow of other Tuscan known cities.  I’d like to return in the fall or spring, or even the winter, because the height of summer is a brutal time to visit.

 

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Here we are, roasting in the heat!

 

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N. tried to keep Free (that’s his name, in English!) cool, but it was a losing battle.

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Walking back to the car after the marina, we passed the artist and here is the sketch:

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He had made a lot of progress and I tried to buy the sketch, but he said it wasn’t for sale because it wasn’t good enough.  No matter how I protested, he wouldn’t give.  He was in the process of loading up his supplies because it was just too hot and I thought he might like to lighten his load.  No go.

After the boat ride and a drive along the lengthy waterfront, we settled in at a ristorante chosen by Francesca for a long, leisurely lunch.  It’s Sunday and we’re in Italy, so of course it will be a long, leisurely lunch!  That’s what they do best here!

This was the view.

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This was the food:   A small plate (ha ha) of mussels for antipasto.

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A pasta of spaghetti vongole veraci for pasta.  Grilled fish for main.

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When you put 2 or more Italians into the same space, you’ve created a party.  This charming gentleman joined our lively lunch.  He lives near Livorno and worked for 40 years for Coca Cola company.  He loves America and Americans.  He was sweet, can’t you just tell from his beautiful face?

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Much later on, it was time for le dolce.  We tried a few. I started this course with a limone sorbet served with vodka:

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We ordered a torta della nonna, which despite being called a cake is more like a cream pie.  The pastry was delicious, like a shortbread, and there was a vanilla creme patisserie in the center, plus pine nuts and powdered sugar on top.  We had to have a 2nd piece brought to the table. Here’s a recipe if you are inspired (you can translate with Google Translate):

https://www.tavolartegusto.it/ricetta/torta-della-nonna-la-ricetta-perfetta/

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Some members of our party skipped the torta and went straight in for the gelato.

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All the while I looked towards America.  Can you see it? Way over there to the west? Hi America!  I’m worried about you.

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After a couple of hours, out party had expanded like so:

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And so:

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As I was leaving the restaurant, I took a couple of shots of dolce I want to try in the future at this locale:

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Below: profiteroles smothered in chocolate.

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And no, the day wasn’t finished.

Next we drove to Montecatini, which has both lower and an upper versions.  You start in the lower level and ride the funicular up the the side of a mountian.  Charming beyond words is the station, built in 1898, and the cable cars with their wooden seats.

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And yes, here we go, up this mountain side.  The picture lacks the drama of the real ride.

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Once we arrived in Alto Montecatini, I was bowled over by yet another amazing little hilltop Italian village. Each one has its own flavor, but they all go into the category of “wonderful.”

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This castle looking structure is the movie theater!!

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Table set for dinner:

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Random beauties:

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Free had cooled off and now was enjoying his stroller.  He is as sweet as he is cute!

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What a perfect day!

Villa Medici at Fiesole

I was in Fiesole this morning, to catch a breath of fresher, cooler air than at home in Florence and also to see a Medici Villa.  I had an appointment to see the grounds of the Villa Medici at Fiesole; the villa itself can’t be visited as it is a private residence.

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Can you see the tiny Duomo of Florence over the red geraniums, right in the middle?

This is a view you would have of Florence if you were a Medici.

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It’s a pretty well-known fact that Florence tends to get a little hot in the summer.  That is actually an understatement.  Today it was 33 Celsius, with is pretty darn hot.

It is cooler in Fiesole, high above on the hills north of Florence. That is why the Medici had this villa constructed.

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Located on the via Beato Angelico 2 stands one of the oldest villas belonging to the Medici family, the 4th, after the 2 villas in Mugello (Cafaggiolo and Il Trebbio) and the Villa at Careggi. Sometimes called Belcanto or the Palagio di Fiesole, this villa is among the best preserved of the many Medici villas, but at the same time it is also among the less well-known.

Here is a Google earth view of the Villa.

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The villa was built between 1451-57. The site was obviously chosen for its panoramic views, despite the fact that the site is on a very steep slope.  It was necessary to make a large terrace, to support the palazzo, the out buildings and the vast gardens.

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Villa Medici at Fiesole by Michelozzi in 1460

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Michelozzo was not bound by pre-existing buildings and built a sober quadrangular palazzo which was whitewashed and had windows framed by stone cornices. Large open galleries, with incredible views of the landscape, were a main feature of the design.

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Here are some views of the main loggia at the front of the palazzo.

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You know you are in Medici country when you see the coat-of-arms with the Medici palle in a prominent position within the loggia.

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This villa was very different from previous Medici villas: it is much more open to the outer world than any previous villa, and it has no central courtyard.

There are no defensive-military components, meaning there are no turrets, no elevated walkways supported by corbels, or any moats.

The formal and functional innovations of the villa in Fiesole revealed new aesthetic values; including, above all, a new attention to the landscape and the visual domain.

Likewise, the agricultural and productive components of villa design were essentially elminated, in favor of a total dedication to leisure and physical activity that favored contemplation and intellectual activity.

It was, in fact, the first time that a rural residence had only a garden, instead of being surrounded by an agricultural estate.

These factors, combined with the lack of military structures, are the significant characteristics that make this villa one of the clearest prototypes for later Renaissance villa design.

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Amazingly, we have a contemporary Renaissance-era view of the villa, as depicted in this fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Cappella Tornabuoni  at the church of Santa Maria Novella, painted between 1485 and 1490. Art historians live for moments like this. It is very rewarding to have a painted picture to give us an idea about how the villa originally looked and it is just plain fun to have such a record of an extant Renaissance building.

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The Villa Medici is linked to one of the most dramatic events of the Medici family history: the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478), when some members of the Pazzi family, along with Francesco Salivate and Cardinal Girolamo Riario, and supported by Pope Sixtus IV, designed a plot to get rid of what they considered to be the increasingly oppressive growth of the power of the Medici within the Florentine Republic. 

Originally, the plan was to kill the two scions of the Medici family, Lorenzo and Giuliano, during a banquet organized at this Medici Villa at Fiesole on April 25, 1478, through the use of poison that Jacopo de’ Pazzi and Cardinal Riario would surreptitiously place in the drinks meant for the two brothers.

The plot was foiled when Giuliano became suddenly ill.  The dinner was canceled and made the enterprise useless.  Undiverted from their aim, the murderers were postponed until the following day, during the Mass at the Florence Cathedral. Of course, we know that while Giuliano was killed, Lorenzo was able to save himself by bolting himself into the sacristy.

It is so interesting to walk around the palazzo and out buildings, thinking about the history that happened here, and who was walking these paths 500 years and more ago.  That is not to even mention the connected gardens, about which I’ll be writing a separate post soon.

 

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Magnolia trees in Florence

After living in Seattle for a few years, I’ve yet to see any other micro-climate produce the  the amazing magnolia trees that grow there.  But, Florence is no slouch when it comes to these monumental trees.

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Last weekend I was in the lovely garden behind the Palazzo Guicciardini, and this beautiful speciman was putting on a pretty show.  My pictures, unfortunately, do not capture the majesty or the beauty of the big white blossoms, but I hope you get the picture.  Look at the top section in this picture below and you will see some of the white blooms.

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Another closer view:

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Here’s a view I found on the internet to better show the white blooms.

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And yes, the blooms are gorgeous, but even the foliage of this tree is lovely.

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Where ironwork meets horticulture

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I make a weekly walk through a lovely residential neighborhood in an outer area of Florence.  You see all Florentines and Italians here.  I’ve never ever seen a tourist in this area, which is kind of amazing if you understand the waves of tourists that swarm this amazing city.

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My weekly walk takes me by a very interesting front garden of one of the many villinos in the neighborhood.  The first time I saw this large cactus (I don’t actually know what the plant is, if I’m wrong, please leave a comment!) it looked like a caged animal to me, one that was trying to work its way out of the surrounding metal enclosure.

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Yesterday I walked through the area again and wanted to take more inclusive pictures to show how this front garden is organized.  Here they are:

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As you can see, the cactus has a fantastic magnolia tree behind it.

 

Here is how the entrance to the home is organized and decorated.  Very lovely to my eyes,

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And then, here’s that massive plant!  Love it!

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Lorenzo de’ Medici’s sculpture garden

Lorenzo de' Medici and His Artists in the Sculpture Garden

 

Ottavio Vannini – Michelangelo Showing Lorenzo il Magnifico the Head of a Faun, surrounded by the other sculpture students

 

 

Young Michelangelo Carving a Faun's Head

 

Young Michelangelo Carving a Faun’s head by Emilio Zocchi

 

The Piazza San Marco on the former Via Larga, which is now Via Camillo Cavour, was where Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Sculpture Garden was situated in Florence. In the map below, you can get a sense of where the garden was in relationship to Piazza San Marco. The sculpture garden would have been where the words “Army Facility” show below.

 

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The Google map showing a satellite view, gives an even better sense of this former garden area.  Think away the Army building to the south end of the space, where Via Cavour and Via degli Arazzieri intersect, and you can see that there is still garden area in the site of the former Medici garden.

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Created with the hopes of becoming a great educational institution for studying art, Lorenzo de’ Medici curated a garden full of antique sculptures for artists to come and sketch as part of their artistic practice. Lorenzo also added sleeping and dining quarters so that students could easily live among the work they were studying. Francesco Granacci and Bertoldo di Giovanni are two of the many people to enter through its doors.

The most famous story of Michelangelo’s time in the Garden surrounds Michelangelo’s Faun statue. When Lorenzo saw this statue, he jokingly told Michelangelo that he looked too perfect to be an old faun. Michelangelo than took his drill and knocked out one of the teeth in the mouth of the Faun.

He showed his subtraction to Lorenzo who gained much amusement and pleasure from Michelangelo’s ability to listen and act on his critique.  Although the Faun statue has not been found, the two works of Michelangelo’s attributed to this time period are the Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the Stairs.