A short history of Tuscany.

Like most parcels of European territory, what we now know as Tuscany has gone through endless slicings and dicings, expansions and contractions, changes of name and possession.

Much of it was, of course, home to the Etruscans. Their realm, Etruria, after being annexed by Rome, came to be called Tuscia, which in the sixth century was made a duchy by the conquering Lombards, with Lucca as its capital.

This entity metamorphosed, under the Franks, into the Margravate of Tuscany, which in the eleventh century produced the first Tuscan of real historical stature: Matilda of Tuscany, one of the shrewder military leaders of the Middle Ages and among the period’s most formidable women.

After Matilda’s death in 1115, there ensued a long struggle between popes and Holy Roman emperors for control of the margravate, and the lack of firm external rule allowed for the rise of the great city-states, above all Florence. For more than three hundred years there was no Tuscany per se.

Florence, though, had been gradually extending its dominion over one comune after another, and in 1569 the House of Medici capped this consolidation by inducing Pius V to create the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, with Cosimo I as its first ruler. Except for a brief Napoleonic hiatus, the grand duchy was to survive right up to 1859, when it was absorbed into the United Provinces of Central Italy, which in turn was folded into the new Kingdom of Italy.

Downing, Ben (2013-06-18). Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross (pp. 79-80). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

A new red!

I’m barely literate when it comes to wine, so take this with a grain of…grapes.  But last Sunday I had the great pleasure of taking an al fresco yoga class at an aguritismo in Chianti.

This being Italy, after yoga we shared a beautiful aperitivo (wine and snacks).  I was drawn like a magnet to this beautiful young red wine, which is best served chilled!!  Who knew!!

Which is nice, because I don’t know if you know this, but Italy is very warm. As in hot.  Non mi piace! And a bracing, chilled red is mighty nice after a yoga session, after which one is molto relassato!

I managed to come home with a couple of bottles!  Woo hoo!



I’m planning to return to this farm in the fall to help harvest grapes and olives to make wine and oil.  I’m told they stomp grapes as in I Love Lucy!!






You knew I would soon veer to art, didn’t you?

Oranges and Italian art:

Because of a combination of new artistic techniques and some apparently reasonable, but mistaken, assumptions about the history of citrus, oranges appeared frequently in paintings by any number of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.

In making the break from Byzantine scholasticism to the new humanism of the Renaissance, artists began setting their religious figures against naturalistic backgrounds. Not having seen the Holy Land, they glibly set their Annunciations and Resurrections in Italian villas and on Italian hills.

Crusaders, among others, had long since reported that orange trees flourished in Palestine, so, as a kind of hallmark of authenticity, the painters slipped orange trees into masterpiece after masterpiece, remaining ignorant to their deaths that in the time of Christ there were no orange trees in or near the Holy Land.

In his “Maestà,” the Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna showed Jesus entering Jerusalem through the streets of Siena, past orange trees in full fruit.

Fra Angelico painted Jesus resting under an orange tree.

It was almost unthinkable for a great master to do a “Flight into Egypt” without lining the route with orange trees.

A “Last Supper” was incomplete without oranges on the table, although there is no mention of oranges in the Bible.

Titian’s “Last Supper,” which hangs in the Escorial, shows oranges with fish.

A Domenico Ghirlandaio “Last Supper” goes further: a mature orange grove is depicted in murals behind the Disciples.

The deterioration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” has been too extensive for any oranges in it to be identified, but in all likelihood, according to Tolkowsky, they were there.

Most painters thought of the Annunciation as occurring indoors, and Paolo Veronese, for one, moved orange trees indoors to authenticate the scene, setting the plants in trapezoidal pots, of the type in which orange trees were grown in his time in northern Italy.

Fra Angelico also used orange trees to give a sense of the Holy Land to his “Descent from the Cross,” which was otherwise set against the walls of Florence, and, like many of his contemporaries, when he painted the Garden of Eden he gave it the appearance of a citrus grove.

Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in a family chapel of the Medici show Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar looking less like three wise kings from the East than three well-fed Medici, descending a hill that is identifiable as one near Fiesole, dressed as an Italian hunting party, and passing through stands of orange trees bright with fruit.

Actually, Gozzoli’s models for the magi were Lorenzo de’ Medici; Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople; and John Palaeologus, Emperor of the East.



The orange tree was more than a misplaced landmark. It was also a symbol of the Virgin, erroneously derived from an earlier association that medieval theologians had established between Mary and the tall cedars of Lebanon.

Thus, countless paintings of the Madonna or of the Madonna and Child were garlanded with orange blossoms, decorated with oranges, or placed in a setting of orange trees.

Mantegna, Verrochio, Ghirlandaio, Correggio, and Fra Angelico all complemented their Madonnas with oranges.

Sandro Botticelli, in his “Madonna with Child and Angels,” set his scene under a tentlike canopy thickly overhung with the branches of orange trees full of oranges.

In the Neo-Latin of the Renaissance, oranges were sometimes called medici— an etymological development that had begun with the Greek word for citron, or Median apple.

It is no wonder, therefore, that in art and interior decoration the Medici themselves went in heavily for oranges. In Florence, oranges are painted all over the ceilings of the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

The Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici was one of the world’s earliest collectors of citrus trees, and in Tolkowsky’s view the five red spheres on the Medici coat of arms were almost certainly meant to represent oranges.

When Botticelli painted his “Primavera,” under a commission from the family, he shamelessly included Giuliano de’ Medici as the god Mercury, picking oranges.

Botticelli also painted his “Birth of Venus” for the Medici.

It was Venus, and not the Hesperides, according to a legend current at the time, who had brought oranges to Italy.

Botticelli’s model was Simonetta dei Cattanei, wife of Marco Vespucci and Giuliano de’ Medici’s Platonic love. Simonetta came from Porto Venere, where Venus was alleged to have landed with the original oranges, so Botticelli painted her in the celebrated scallop shell bobbing on the gentle swells off Porto Venere, and lined the coast behind her with orange trees.

Giuliano’s son, Giulio de’ Medici, who became Pope Clement VII, commissioned Raphael to design a villa for him with a great double stairway leading to a sunken garden full of orange trees.

All this was bound to engage the envy of royalty in the north, and at the end of the fifteenth century, in an expedition often said to mark the dividing point between medieval and modern history, Charles VIII of France went to Italy intending to subdue the peninsula by force of arms. Instead, he fell in love with Italian art, architecture, and oranges. When he returned to France, every other man in his retinue was an Italian gardener, an Italian artist, or an Italian architect. Charles was going to transform the castles and gardens of France.

McPhee, John (2011-04-01). Oranges. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.



Il Giardino dell’ Iris, Firenze

Today was a magnificent spring day!  Oggi era magnifico!  A great day to check out the iris garden located just steps from Piazzale Michelangelo.

The iris are just starting to bloom; in a week they should be at prime.


The Iris Garden is open from now through 20 May,  daily from 10:00 to 13:00 and from 15:00 to 19:30.  It is open Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 to 19:30.  Entrance is free.  You can catch the bus (Numbers 12 and 13) at SMN Station.


The garden is located in a prime Florentine location, just off the Piazzale Michelangelo.  It is nicely laid out on the side of a hill, with the iris beds nestled in among healthy olive trees.



Today the garden was open to the public and paintings of flowers were interspersed into the garden.




The tags remind us that this is a competition garden as well as a pleasure garden.  In particular, 2 Iris rhysomes planted in 2014 are planted side by side: “Broad Minded Sutton” from the USA, in completion with “Marruchi” from Italia.


Some rose bushes are in full bloom in the iris gardens.


Pretty stone paths wind through the gardens, amongst the olive trees.


Villa Gamberaia, Settignano

There’s a beautiful spot just outside Florence.


Last week I paid my first visit to the Villa Gamberaia, the 17th-C villa near Settignano, in the hills just outside of  Florence.  It is a lovely trip out into the country and up into the colline beyond Firenze.




The villa has a lovely, formal 18th-century terraced garden, beautifully restored and open to anyone who presents themselves to the front gate.  There is an entrance fee.

The villa, originally a farmhouse; was owned by Matteo Gamberelli, a stonemason, at the beginning of the 15th century. His sons Giovanni and Bernardo became famous architects under the name of Rossellino. After Bernardo’s son sold it to Jacopo Riccialbani in 1597, the house was greatly enlarged, then almost completely rebuilt by the following owner, Zenobi Lapi; documents of his time mention a limonaia and the turfed bowling green that is part of the garden layout today.



In 1717 La Gamberaia passed to the Capponi family. Andrea Capponi laid out the long bowling green, planted cypresses, especially in a long allée leading to the monumental fountain enclosed within the bosco (wooded area), and populated the garden with statues, as can be seen in an etching by Giuseppe Zocchi.

By that time, the villa already stood on its raised platform, extended to one side, where the water parterre is today. The parterre was laid out with clipped broderies in the French manner in the eighteenth century, as a detailed estate map described by Georgina Masson demonstrates. Olive groves have always occupied the slopes below the garden, which has a distant view of the roofs and towers of Florence.










The setting was praised by Edith Wharton, who saw it after years of tenant occupation with its parterre planted with roses and cabbages.  Wharton attributed the preservation of the garden at the Villa Gamberaia to its “obscure fate” during the 19th century, when more prominent gardens with richer owners, in more continuous attendance, had their historic features improved right out of existence.





Shortly after Wharton saw the villa, it was purchased in 1895 by Princess Jeanne Ghyka, sister of Queen Natalia of Serbia, who lived here with her American companion, Miss Blood, and thoroughly restored it.  It was she who substituted pools of water for the parterre beds.

During World War II, the villa was almost completely destroyed. Marcello Marchi restored it after the war, using old prints, maps and photographs for guidance.

Georgina Masson also wrote about seeing Villa Gamberaia;  she saw it after it was restored by Marchi.



The monumental fountain set in a grotto in the steep hillside at one lateral flank of this terraced garden has a seated god next lions in stucco relief in a niche decorated with pebble mosaics and rusticated stonework.