Over four days in October 2019, we visited 15 inspirational gardens in and around Florence. The earliest one we visited, Villa Medici in Fiesole, was built by banker and patron of the arts, Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Cosimo de’ Medici, between 1451 and 1457. It was considered the first example of a Renaissance villa – “a villa suburbana” located on the outskirts of cities. Its terraces with their wonderful Tuscan views, parterres enclosed by box and lemon trees in terracotta pots and fountains were to be recurring themes in our tour of Florentine villas. A long pergola led to the giardino segreto with its pond and magnolia trees.
This villa contrasted with Villa di Poggio a Caiano, commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1480, and his favourite home. The avenues and vistas have been replaced by serpentine walks through woodland, following the 18 -century craze for the English natural garden.
When Cosimo I de’ Medici, great-grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1537 he employed Niccolò Tribolo to redesign the gardens of his childhood home of Villa Di Castello. He created a sequence of terraces with sculptural fountains. The first terrace has 16 parterres, the second a large citrus garden full of enormous terracotta pots. During our visit, the gardeners were moving them with forklift trucks to the limonaia (a room used for overwintering lemon plants). The grotto containing The Cave of Animals depicts in tufa (a limestone) many animals symbolic of hunting.
These gardens’ symmetry reminded me strongly of the Great Plat, a formal garden at Hestercombe House in Somerset, originally built in the 16th century. The terraces around it were designed by Edwin Lutyens with planting devised by Gertrude Jekyll from 1904 to 1907. The parterres are edged with bergenias – a favourite of Jekyll’s – rather than the box found at Villa Di Castello.
Cosimo went on to create grander schemes, such as the Boboli Gardens behind the Renaissance Pitti Palace in Florence. The gardens boast a huge amphitheatre excavated in the hillside, currently adorned with a bright red modernist sculpture!