The Landscape Guide

Florentine early-renaissance

As compared with such detailed accounts, what we get from literature about the famous villa garden of the early Renaissance at Careggi (Fig. 153) is very scanty. 

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The talk about trees and shrubs in a Latin poem from a humanistic source is quite worthless. After the conventional comparisons with the gardens of Semiramis and Alcinous there is nothing but the familiar rhetoric and repetitions. Instead, we have the villa preserved, and certain features of the garden also. The house itself is just as of old, to the roof that was put up on the battlements after a fire in 1517. It was built by Michelozzo for Cosimo de’ Medici, a little earlier than Quaracchi.

There is very little to be found at Careggi of those Renaissance forms so fully adopted by Michelozzo in the Medicean palace—which was already built—in Florence itself, such as the delicate “ rusticated” joints, graduated according to the relative heights of the stories, and the outspreading corona, and again the tastefully treated window-frames (Fig. 153, Fig. 155). So far as its outside is concerned, Careggi is still under the spell of the castle of the Middle Ages. The façade on the road widens at its lower story, as though it made a safeguard against an enemy’s attack. The windows are small and unattractive, whereas the upper part shows those very picturesque battlements which are peculiar to Florentine palaces, and familiar to us in the Palazzo Vecchio at Florence.

Careggi was no exception to a general rule; indeed we must think of all the villas in Florence, perhaps in Italy everywhere, as built in this way in the middle of the fifteenth century. Caffagiolo, another Medicean villa, was built by Michelozzo even more like a castle, with moats and drawbridges. Most unfortunately, this house has entirely lost its character, owing to alterations made by the Princess Borghese in the later nineteenth century.

About the same time or a little later was built the Villa Salviati (Fig. 154), which in the year 1450 came into the possession of Allemanno Salviati, brother-in-law of Cosimo. 

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In style it is so like the Medicean villas that Michelozzo was probably the architect. Quaracchi, like Caffagiolo, was something of a fortress with trenches round it. Other Tuscan villas and gardens, such as the Villa Medici one on the slopes of Fiesole, and Villa Rusciana, which Brunelleschi built for Luca Pitti, are too much changed for us to make sure of what they used to be like. 

The Belvedere, the first villa at Rome, then shyly rearing her head, built by Pope Nicholas V. on the Vatican Hill, was a castle with battlements; and the same character appears in the old part of the Villa Imperiale at Pesaro, built by Alexander Sforza, the Emperor Frederick III. laying the foundation stone in 1452. This villa, like the Palazzo Vecchio, had a tower on the façade. The garden, which according to descriptions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries adjoined the old villa at Pesaro, and was partly a field and partly an orange-garden, must without doubt have been part of the original plan.

At Careggi the garden has preserved its main features, though it has seen great alterations in plantation in the course of centuries. The principal garden stopped at the side façade, and was also shut in by a high battlemented wall. It is possible that the mosaic pavement which, near the house, has the same pattern as the flower-beds, was like this even in the fifteenth century. From the start the front parterre will have been separated from the large garden beyond by a little wall and a gate, and being a flower-garden will have been ornamented with terra-cotta vases as at Quaracchi. The planting of this main garden, to resemble Quaracchi, must be supposed to include pergolas. In the spare places it is filled up with fruit-trees, but it was certainly not lacking in clipped box, or indeed in arbours with benches and other places to sit on. Fortunately the prettiest centre-piece and ornament, the fountain of Verrocchio and its laughing boy, holding a dolphin under his arm (Fig. 155), has been preserved, not, it is true, in its old place, but in the Palazzo Vecchio at Florence.

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In the garden at Careggi there is a pretty loggia, such as Boccaccio had already written about. In this particular one we get the most perfect architectural feature of Renaissance style, the handsome arches supported on pillars. Here Lorenzo was wont to collect his friends at a Plato-like academy, and from here they enjoyed the then charming view. The house, which, like Quaracchi, stood in the plain—for people in that day were nervous of the keen air of the hills—was so well placed that here, only a short drive from Florence, one got a lovely panorama of the whole of flowery Tuscany. Duke Eberhard, who, in company with Reuchiin, visited Lorenzo de Medici, saw a roof-garden in flower which was afterwards burned, roof and all. We cannot tell to which of the courts we ought to ascribe the labyrinth with a fountain that Duke Alexander had restored in 1530 after the fire.

Under the rule of Lorenzo, who as a connoisseur had important things to say about architecture, the Renaissance influence was completely accepted for the villa. In 1485 he commissioned Giuliano da San Gallo to build him a handsome pleasure-house at his favourite seat, Poggio a Cajano. This place had been between the years 1448 and 1479 in the ownership of Giovanni Rucellai, but he does not appear to have built there, and only received the rents of the estate, the inn, and a little house, to use for the expenses of putting up the façade of Santa Maria Novella. His interest was concentrated on the newly laid out Quaracchi. And so when the church was finished in 1470, he sold the place to Lorenzo, who with his friends took the utmost delight from the first in the pleasant spot and the fertility of the property (Fig. 156).

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The stride taken from Cosimo's battlemented towers at Careggi to the cheerful building at Poggio a Cajano is an enormous one. There is nothing shut in here. The four pavilions at the corners, perhaps reminiscent of towers, are of intimate use and connection with the front part; the main entrance is emphasised with a loggia, which owes its style to the antique temple. Round the top of the piano nobile runs a wide balustraded terrace resting on pillared arches, and giving a fine view over the open flowering valley, in the middle of which stands the villa enthroned on a gently rising hill. The great cloistered hall runs the whole breadth of the house, which in gigantic yet just proportions expresses the lofty and ambitious thought of this generation of wealthy Florentines. Steps of an elegant round shape lead down to the garden from this terrace—an idea often recurring in Florentine villas, and lending them grace and dignity (Fig. 157).
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But the first design of Michelozzo had straight wide steps, and nothing can be reconstructed with perfect certainty. The end next to the street, however, a kind of portico, and two pavilions at the corners, are no doubt part of the first design. The garden ground rises gently from here to the house. The round form of the stairs is repeated in a lower wall that has a wider arch, wherein the lawn of the parterre intrudes for some distance. Round the house on the other side runs a pleasure-garden, in front of it is the orangery, and there is a park in the style of the sentimentally inclined eighteenth century. Such is the present condition of this garden.

The villa was not completed before the death of Lorenzo, and in the following years, so fateful for the Medici family, it can hardly have been proceeded with, therefore the final condition of the garden may be ascribed to a somewhat later date. This is suggested by two things: an apparent reluctance to make a real terrace construction, to which the site of the house on a hill pointed; and the very sparing use of water for ornament, in spite of the fact that a water conduit in a long arch had been introduced, coming down from the hills near by, for the irrigation of the meadows attached to the villa. Of this conduit Lorenzo and his friends, constantly singing the praises of the place, were never tired of boasting.

About the same time that Poggio a Cajano came into existence, the Crown Prince Alfonso, a friend of Lorenzo’s later life, built his famous summer residence at Naples, Poggio Reale. It seems that Lorenzo, an acknowledged authority in matters of taste, sketched the plan for the architect Benedetto da Majano, The relations brought about by Lorenzo’s spirited visit, in the cause of peace between Florence and Naples, to Affonso’s father, Ferrante, were the first step towards the change of property. And there is a great similarity between the ground-plans of Poggio a Cajano and Poggio Reale. Both villas have the towers projecting at the corners; at Alfonso’s villa all four sides are united by loggias, but at Lorenzo’s the loggia is only in front. Instead of the one great central hall at Poggio a Cajano, there is here a court in the middle, which, according to the meagre plan of Serlio—admitted even by himself to be inaccurate—is the very heart of the building. The plan with a section of the court is the only record preserved of Alfonso’s country house, which has entirely vanished from the face of the earth.

Serlio’s description, as well as his plan, is only concerned with the court. He makes it a rectangular floor, with a hall of two stories adjoining; one goes down by steps to a rather lower room, where the king liked dining with a select company of ladies and gentle- men, When the fun was at its highest, hidden springs were opened at a sign from the king, and in one moment the whole court was under water, and the guests got an involuntary bath. They took pains, however, to have dry walls and beds in the bedrooms close by. Alfonso was a Spaniard, and one may suppose that he brought these water tricks from home, and perhaps he took the Generalife as his model. It is probable that this court, where he liked so much to dine in merry company, was decorated with trees and lawns, or at least with plants in pots, Of this Serlio says nothing, but once, in remembering past joys, he breaks out: “ O happy Italy, thy light is lost through our discord.”

This cry of pain is apropos of the French rule established at Naples after Charles VIII, made his romantic conquest. Nothing was so charming to the young French noble, when he looked on the splendour of the south, as the fine gardens and airy halls of Poggio Reale. And though Serlio, owing to want of space, gives no account of “ lovely gardens with their various parts for fruit-trees, their many fishponds, aviaries, and the rest,” we do hear from the French chronicler exclamations of delight. The most intimate picture of the gardens is in a French poem, Le Vergiez d’Honeur, though it only enumerates the wonders and gives no sort of arrangement; it mentions summer-houses, loggias, flower-gardens, little lawns, fountains, streams, and antique statues; there is a park for medicinal herbs and a fruit-garden, both of which are larger than the Bois de Vincennes; there are vineyards, a deer park with a well large enough to supply the whole town, and grottoes— the finest the poet ever saw. We have to take great pains to be able to reconstruct this garden. The actual flower-gardens here, as elsewhere, must have been very small; but there is no doubt that Alfonso was a real friend to plants and flowers, for we are told that when he fled on the approach of Charles in he found time to take with him to his place of exile in Sicily “ toutes sortes de grain pour faire jardins.”

Jacob Burckhardt shows more botanical than architectural interest in descriptions of gardens of the early Renaissance. No doubt the ground-plan was simple, but we must partly blame a certain want of skill in the writer; for when later on a real artist like Cardinal Bembo gives us a charming garden picture, we are able to trace a scheme that is regular despite its simplicity. In the last years of the fifteenth century a young Venetian, at that time living at the court at Ferrara, published his lovers’ dialogue in the garden of Asolo (Gli Asolani) at the friendly court of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus. Bembo’s description is poetry, of course; but it shows character and individuality, and is undoubtedly a faithful account of the garden at Asolo. He says that on the occasion of a wedding feast for one of the court ladies, a little group of the party left the others at their midday sleep, and went out in the garden which was in front of the dining-hall.

This charming garden was of wondrous beauty. On both sides of a pergola of vines, traversing the garden in the form of a cross, wide and shady, there ran to right and left two similar paths. They were long and wide and strewn with bright gravel. On the garden side, they were shut in, beyond where the pergola began, by hedges of thick yew. This yew reached breast-high, so that one could lean against it and get a wide view of all parts of the place. On the other side tall laurels stood along the wall, pointing up- ward, but with their tops forming the arch of a half-hoop above the path, and closely clipped so that not a single leaf ventured to push out of its proper place; and outside the walls nobody at all could be seen. On one side of the garden at the end there were two windows framed in white marble: the walls here were very thick, and from either side one could sit and look from above over the plain. On this path strolled fair ladies, accompanied by youths, and protected from the sun. Admiring this and that, and chatting as they walked, they came to a little meadow at the end of the garden, full of freshly-cut grass, and scattered over with flowers; at the far end were two clumps of laurels placed irregularly and in great numbers, looking very quiet and venerable, and full of shade. Between them there was room for a very lovely stream, cleverly hollowed out from the living rock, which was the termination of the garden on this side. From it poured currents of fresh cold water, starting from the hill, not springing out high above the ground, and falling into a marble canal that cut through the middle of the meadow and then ran rippling through the garden.

The middle of the garden was marked by a pergola forming a cross, a constant constituent of a garden for hundreds of years, in the seventeenth century exactly the same as when Boccaccio knew it. But here water suffers completely new treatment: the fountain is no longer the chief feature as in mediaeval times, its place being taken by the grotto. This receives the stream from the rock at the end of the garden, which is cut in two at the back by a canal. Unfortunately Bembo does not describe any further irrigation, nor are we told anything about the planting of the four corners framed by the hedge. Perhaps there would be little fountains and clipped box, perhaps fruit-trees planted round. But there is a careful gradation to be seen in the whole picture, from the painstaking arrangement of the front near the house to the careless disposition of the trees at the back, where the rock ends it all; and even the "selvatici “ that are not enclosed are symmetrically and conventionally placed—grottoes and canal, and masses of trees grouped in clumps. In front of the little wood, so “venerable and quiet,” we have in strong contrast the flowery meadow with its canal, and we pass on to the front part with its severe straight lines where “ not a single leaf ventured to push out of its proper place.” We see here, far better than in Rucellai’s description of Quaracchi, which Alberti designed, how the most important recommendations of the great humanist of the early Renaissance were actually carried out.


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The Medici villa, Il Trebbio, near Cafaggiolo, has a renaissance garden not
in any kind of axial relationship with the fortified dwelling.