By Frank Mitzel.
Of all the larger cities of Italy (Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples, Rome, and Venice), Florence is my favorite. I had studied European architecture while working on my Bachelor of Landscape Architecture degree, and one of the cities that we studied in depth was Florence, specifically the L-shaped square of Piazza della Signoria with the prominent Palazzo Vecchio.
After three months of class, I knew everything about the history of the Medici family and the Bonfire of the Vanities, with the eventual burning at the stake of heretic Savonarola. I also knew about Piazza della Signoria's building facades and sculptures, like Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus; Benvenuto Cellini's bronze sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa; the replica of David (the original is in the Galleria dell'Accademia); the Fontana del Nettuno, designed by Bandinelli and sculpted by Ammannati; and Giambologna's equestrian monument dedicated to Cosimo I and his Rape of the Sabines.
Once I had graduated from university, I finally visited Florence with my beloved late husband, Bob. When I entered the Piazza from the southwest corner, seeing it in person for the first time, I wept. All the photographs and maps I had studied suddenly came to life and I was overwhelmed with a sense of belonging. Since then, even after visiting Italy eighteen times, Florence has held a special place in my heart.
Planning Your Visit to Florence's Gardens
The area surrounding Florence offers many gardens to visit and I recommend you stay in the area at least five to seven days if you wish to visit them all. Unfortunately, most of the gardens are by appointment only to help facilitate crowd control. But, with a little due diligence before and during your visit to Italy, you can gain access to most of them.
I highly recommend that you attempt to plot out your route around the city before you venture out to tour any of the gardens. Thanks to the wonderful world of the Internet, you can make those pesky appointments before you go, and avoid the disappointment of being turned away or otherwise wasting valuable time. Bob and I had our share of shouting matches driving in and out of Florence—the traffic is just maddening. I was usually our driver and he was the Italian-speaking navigator on the lookout for road signage; alas, we would still get lost going round and round. It took us a third visit to Florence before we were able to find Villa Gamberaia, perhaps that's why it's still one of my all-time favorite gardens of Italy. We were traveling into Florence one morning with our good friends from Mission Hills, and I vowed that we would not enter the city and go to our hotel until we found the yet-allusive Gamberaia gardens.
Florence Garden Tour Top Picks
Finding Villa Gamberaia is definitely worth the search. Near Settignano, it's probably my favorite quintessential Renaissance garden—small and compact, but brimming with all the garden elements that make it a masterpiece of design. I was astonished to find out recently that you can now rent different buildings on the property, including the Villa itself, for vacations. When Bob and I found the Villa for the first time (without the benefit of GPS or directional signage), we discovered an overly dressed man in black slacks, black shirt, and designer Gucci shoes pushing a lawnmower, cutting the main lawn! I recognized the man as the owner of the property from a recent PBS special on the garden that I had seen in the US. During a break from mowing, he informed us that one of the garden workers that routinely works once a week was ill, therefore he had to take up the missing man's chores and pitch in working with the regular crew in order to keep the grounds in tip top shape. I plan on going back to soon.
You can tailor your garden visits based on where your home base is located in the city. Right in the city center, behind the Pitti Palace, is the large pleasure park, Boboli Gardens. You'll find statues galore, grottos, fountains, and large, mature trees. The primary axis, centered on the rear facade of the palace, rises up from an amphitheatre to the hillside. The six-meter high ancient Egyptian Boboli obelisk was transferred here from the Villa Medici in Rome with its original gilded orb at the apex and four cute turtles at its base. I confess that I've been infatuated with obelisks since my early twenties; I have eighteen pairs of marble obelisks in my collection of objets d'art. I have a few sets of obelisks in my collection with the same accoutrements as the Boboli monument, but none nearly as big!
Also located in the city center, Giardino dei Semplici is maintained by the University of Florence and has some great mature specimen trees, including a 200-year-old Quercus suber (cork oak), a huge Aesculus hippocastanum (horse chestnut), and a large Zelkova serrata (Japanese zelkova) with its beautiful exfoliating patches of gray bark and it's smooth orange inner bark.
About a mile north of Florence, you'll want to visit Villa La Pietra (maintained by New York University since 1994). Though changed radically since its inception in 1462, it still maintains a distinct Renaissance revival garden charm. Surrounded by high hedges of boxwood and bay, the garden's paths, terraces, and elegant marble statues framed by arches and pergolas create a series of theatrical rooms to stroll and daydream in.
Other gardens of note to visit around Florence are: Villa Le Balze (donated to Georgetown University in 1979); the charming Villa Capponi; Palazzo Corsini, Villa Medici at Fiesole, and Villa I Tatti (aka The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies). Just remember to check the dates the gardens are open and make reservations to visit if they are by appointment only.
Next, we will head directly due east towards Lucca and Pisa to more of the Tuscan region as we continue the Gardens of Italy series. The previous two articles in this series are Gardens of Northern Italy Near Lake Como and Gardens of Northern Italy Near Venice.
*All images courtesy of the author.