The Landscape Guide

Boboli Garden in Florence, Italy

Giovanni da Bologna's garden sculpture

Pratolino is the offspring of a prince’s whim: it grew quickly, and was very little altered. Of very much slower development was the Boboli Garden, laid out by the Medici family behind the Palazzo Pitti, their Florentine home in northern Italy. The history of the Pitti Palace is a tangled tale, but the accounts we have of the Boboli Gardens are so meagre that it is very difficult to arrange them even chronologically. In 1549 the proud Spanish Princess Eleonora de Toledo, wife of Cosimo I., bought the palace from a great-grandson of Luca Pitti, its original founder. The middle section stood already with seven windows in the width of it, but the present court and the garden façade did not exist. Eleonora seems to have begun the laying-out of the Boboli Gardens without delay, for she sent Tribolo (who was busy with the work at Castello) to Elba to fetch away a huge block of granite, twelve braccia (six metres) in diameter, to make the basin of the fountain of the Prato at the Pitti Palace; and according to Vasari, Tribolo also made the whole plan of the hill site, as it still is, arranging everything with excellent judgment in its own particular place, though a few things have been altered since. [Evelyn's description of the Boboli is on the CD]

After his return from Elba in 1550 Tribolo died, so the work was carried out by others. In consequence of his death not only was the completion of Castello held up, but all the work at the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens was delayed. It was not till 1558 that Ammanati began energetically on the court and the garden façade (Fig, 216). 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


We may suppose that it was at this time that the Boboli Garden plan was first laid out (Fig. 217). It is divided into two parts, quite separated. The chief one takes its start in a trough of the valley, and proceeds along the main axis of the Ammanati court as far as the town wall, The court, round the garden façade, is sunk, and its size gives a good idea of the might of the Medici family, for the Strozzi Palace could actually stand in this one court. In the terrace that divides it from the garden there is a grotto with statues and water-works, formerly very lively with mechanical tricks and surprises. Above, on a wide flat balcony, there is a lovely fountain with a little cascade (Fig. 218),

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see  


 and behind, a little higher than the court, is the amphitheatre (Fig. 219). It is a prato like the one at Pratolino, and embraces the whole width of the court. The seats that ascend all round are balustraded above and below, and beside the upper ones there are niches between the pillars at even distances, filled with statues which first stood in gaps cut out of the green hedge. In the supporting wall there were corresponding pillars and alcoves, but one cannot know for certain whether there were grottoes behind. This prato was a place for games of the nobler sort, and there are several drawings by Della Bella that show games going on at the wedding festivities in 1628.

Buontalenti has been called the artist of this part, and the likeness to the far simpler prato at Pratolino is undeniable; but it must have been made in intimate association and sympathy with Ammanati, for in i 568 he was busy with plans for its plantation. The ground rises rather steeply from the sunk floor of the amphitheatre in several terraces, but these are not utilised in the Roman fashion. The modern form of the place seems, moreover, to demand a cascade passing down from the large fountain on the second terrace and ending in an oval basin below, whereas what we find is a mere strip of lawn, and the lower basin-shaped hollow is also turfed. There is no information to be had as to whether there was a cascade here or a water stairway. It appears that the fountain up on the hill was carved by Lorenzo Stoldo as a triumphal car of Neptune, to be used in the great festival of 1565, and that it was set up in its place soon after, before the year

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


1568 (Fig. 220). In the center of a large basin that now occupies the whole width of the terrace, Neptune stands on a rock, aiming with his trident at a fish, while sea deities hide in the hollows. At the present time there are several grass terraces above the basin in a sort of amphitheatre, But the fountain terrace must have been larger originally, so that it might have round it sweet-scented flowers in beds, and clipped shrubs to make a pleasant setting. On the hill behind, and visible from the palace, was a niche showing the Medici arms. Water flowed from pipes in the dividing wall, between projections, into a canal where twelve stone dogs stood on guard. In the year 1638 the rising ground was topped at the town wall by a statue of Plenty standing in a green alcove.

According to Vasari, at the time of Francesco’s marriage festivities in 1566, "the very large gardens were adorned with innumerable statues both old and new, as well as many streams.” But from this observation we do not learn when it was that the enlargement of the garden, below the west side of the hill towards the Porta Romana, took place. The fortified town wall limited the extension in the main axis, and so it had to be shaped to a right angle alongside the western wall, and the ground showed a wedge shape towards the Porta Romana. In this part of the garden terraces have been left out entirely, and the main axis is marked, in Florentine fashion, by an imposing cypress avenue (Fig. 221), which at first was full of statues.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


 The cypresses were of course not there at the beginning, for we know from a drawing that they were not planted before 1640. In their place were the still existing roofed avenues (Fig. 222). A water-way ran parallel along the wall.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


It is clear from examination of the place that on both sides water was poured out from the heads of winged dragons into canals that ascended by steps and flowed to balustrades below. Cambiagi describes a fine labyrinth in one of the thickets to the left of the great avenue, cut off by pretty little walls of tufa that held drinking-troughs for birds. There were different kinds of animals to adorn the inside, and the chief object of interest was the so-called Isolotto, set up at the foot of the incline, where the garden is really level, in the line of the chief axis. This is a large oval basin with a round island in it, whose chief ornament is Giovanni da Bologna’s wonderful Oceanus fountain, described by Burckhardt as “ more simple and majestic than any other fountain in Italy or the whole western world.”

We cannot say what was the original appearance of this remarkable basin. Vasari says the design was his own, and a German handbook for travellers describes it in the seventeenth century as follows: “ Cut like an oval with an iron railing round it. In the middle there is a small island, and a cupola covered with greenery, all sorts of trees, and a medley of flowers: it is reached by a little bridge.” In the year 1627 the Oceanus fountain had been long put up, for Bologna died in 1608, and in 1599 the Duke of Würtemberg had seen it; but the handbooks are apt to copy one another, and it is very probable that we have in this one a picture of Isolotto previous to the erection of the group at the fountain, There is nothing here but the centre-piece, so often repeated, of the pavilion over- grown with green. But long after the Oceanus fountain was set up great changes were effected, as we are told by Bologna’s contemporary and biographer Raffaello Borghini in the year 1618. Unfortunately he does not say what these varie mutazione were, but probably they were done at the time when a new phase of building began at the palace, when its middle portion was (in the year 1620) enlarged to its present width.

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Cambiagi describes the surroundings of Isolotto as much finer than they are now: at the foot of a great avenue (Fig. 223) was a decoy for birds such that when the net was spread the path to Isolotto was completely blocked. From this spot started little walls decorated with tufa, and narrow paths in mosaic, where one was threatened with spurts of fine rain. The entrance and exit of every wall were marked by a pair of dogs or lions carved in stone, and in the middle of the path a very tall fountain came leaping out of a star made of stone. Paths paved with mosaic led to the crossways (Fig. 224).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


The large grotto in front of the present entrance belongs to the sixteenth century. The tufa shows a strong tendency to the Baroque in its idyllic scenes with human and animal forms, and in its pastoral scenes, where a short time before, in this unlikely spot, there stood the unfinished Slave figures of Michael Angelo. The grotto consists of several parts, and gets its light from above. It must have been built between 1579 and 1587, and among the artists who worked at it there is mention of Giovanni da Bologna; to this day the fountain basin in the middle of its first hollow room is adorned with the graceful form of his Venus. Towards the end of the seventeenth century the place had fallen into decay, and it was only re-established in the nineteenth, so far as we can tell (Fig. 225).
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


That portion of the garden is quite destroyed which formed the connection on the north-west between the two parts of the house. It is only by careful search that one finds signs in the garden, now run wild and thickly overgrown, that in the seventeenth century there existed a somewhat important terrace site with balustrades, statues, and good dividing walls, which must have contributed another change of feature to the garden. On the top there would have been either a flower-garden or an oblong-shaped prato.

The garden was changed and added to under nearly all its owners, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, because of the building of the two casinos at the top of the eastern division of the main garden. Both of these were pleasant little places, but had really nothing to do with the main plan, since they represent an entirely different feeling about art. The garden passed through its most dangerous crisis at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when under French influence it began to change its ideal into that of a picturesque park—indeed it had already partly made this change. Fortunately Duke Ferdinand had the good taste on his return to restore the old garden as far as possible, in spite of his fancy for the picturesque style. A great deal may have come to grief by then, and the statues, so wonderfully extolled for their number and beauty, have almost entirely vanished.

An important matter now is the plantation. It has been already said that the great avenue of cypresses must have been planted not earlier than 1640; anyhow the poor drawings we have depict the divisions by this path as indefinable low hedges, possibly belonging to a labyrinth. When Evelyn saw the garden a little later, he spoke well of the topiary work and the pillars by the hedges and also near the fountains, the fish-ponds and the aviaries of the little wood; also every later visitor likes to say that this garden is green the whole winter through, because of its laurels and cypresses. It is probable, therefore, that the thickets at the side are densely planted so as to add a border of dark colouring to the parts that are architecturally laid out. All flowers are expelled from the chief garden, or else confined to the pretty beds round the Neptune fountain, or to the land on the Isolotto. But all the same the Dukes of Florence were wonderful flower-lovers, and it is said of Cosimo I. that he was not ashamed to plant fruit-trees and flowers with his own hand. A narrow strip that runs on the north beside the thicket was treated as a special flower- and fruit-garden, and there to-day we find forcing-houses and kitchen—gardens of every sort and kind. The aviaries, animals’ cages and fish-ponds that travellers speak of will sometimes have found cover here, sometimes in the thickets, as we may judge from the much better accounts we get of Pratolino.