Painting the spring in a Florentine garden

Rea Stavropoulos
June 18, 2009

On a slope a few hundred metres outside the medieval city gate of San Niccolò, I sit secluded among olive and cypress trees, contemplating the panorama of Florence spread out before me, in the company of the Queen of Denmark, William Shakespeare and the Princess of Monaco-just some of the numerous species here in the city's rose garden.The harsh sounds of motorini and car horns mingle with birdsong and bells, and at 8:30 in the morning, when the scent of roses is most intense, Florentines and tourists are otherwise occupied, so I have it all to myself.Weaving through the city's crowded, narrow streets, dodging dogs, people and various forms of transport on my way here only intensifies the pleasure of being in the garden. Now, as I paint, my awareness of the bustle close by makes this moment of quiet privacy all the more precious.This is just one of the gardens in and around the city that I have visited and painted during the month of May. Florence's name comes from ‘Fiorenza', the ‘flowering city', and this truly is the month of flowers. But Florence's gardens also provide peace and a cool shade in the summer months. Boboli Gardens, laid out by Grand  Duke Cosimo's wife, Eleonora of Toledo, are the grandest and most extensive of the city's gardens, with their avenues of cypress trees, fountains, mazes, statues, urns and garden ‘rooms' enclosed by high hedges. I have my favourite places to paint there according to the different seasons and times of day. Right now, the light is best in the late afternoon and the hour before sunset high up in the Knight's Garden, where low box-hedged parterres enclose roses and peonies and the garden fits like a terrace into the ramparts built by Michelangelo along the city walls, providing amphitheatrical views of the hills of Arcetri to the south of the city. When the sun is too strong, there is always a bench in the shade on one side of the Isolotto, with its water and lemon garden surrounding Giambologna's Ocean fountain and the figures of Perseus and Andromeda reflected in the water. The Prato delle Colonne, with its tall sycamore trees growing in a semi-circle like the columns of some ancient temple, is beautiful in the autumn, when the leaves turn gold, but it is lovely every time of year, and generations of Florentine children have been brought here to play after school by their grandparents. In the summer, it becomes an open-air theatre for opera and ballet.Leave Boboli from the Fort Belvedere exit and just a short walk to Costa San Giorgio find the Bardini gardens (use the same ticket). These have been recently restored and are beautifully maintained, planted to provide flowering interest in every season. In May, the wisteria tunnel was in its full glory, lanterns of lilac flowers overhead, with the light filtering through and spilling down on either side to frame glimpses of the city. Magnificent azaleas were in bloom in enormous terracotta pots. In the summer the hydrangeas, hostas and lilies will be in flower. There is a romantic ‘English style' park with a small lake and winding stream. On the loggia at the top of the hill one can pause for refreshments and a grand view over the terraced slopes of the garden to the city and the hills beyond it. It is just a short bus ride from the city centre to the village of Settignano and the Villa Gamberaia, whose gardens American author Edith Wharton described as ‘probably the most perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale'. Set in the hills just outside the village, the gardens look down upon Florence and the Val d'Arno from the north. They have all the usual features of a Renaissance garden: a grotto, a tapis vert, a nymphaeum, a bosco, a limonaia, but these are on a smaller, more human scale than those usually found in the grander Medici gardens. Iris Origo, who grew up in nearby Fiesole, described it as ‘the most romantic garden of all', perhaps because of the mystery surrounding its owner at the time. Princess Ghyka, sister of the Queen of Serbia, acquired the villa in 1895 and lived there as a recluse with her English companion, Miss Blood. She restored the gardens but disliked visitors, because, it was said, she had lost her former beauty. She bathed in the water gardens at dawn to avoid curious eyes. No one was bathing among the water lilies when I visited, and except for one gardener and the odd visitor, my fellow painter and I had the place to ourselves for the whole day.Botticcelli's Primavera and Birth of Venus have become Florentine icons, the essential goal of most visitors to the Uffizi. They were commissioned by the artist's patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a cousin of Lorenzo il Magnifico, to be hung in his villa at Castello, on the outskirts of Florence, and this was their first home. It is a short bus ride from the city centre to Castello, where you can visit the gardens serenaded by swallows and cicadas, with the scent of lemon blossom in the air and imagine Venus or Flora gazing out onto the beautiful gardens through the half opened shutters.It was Grand Duke Cosimo I in the following century who laid out the gardens on the design that can be seen today.He was passionate about plants, founding the Botanical Garden in Florence, the third oldest in the world, in 1545. Cosimo sent experts on plant hunting expeditions around the world to find, catalogue and paint plants that he added to his collection at Castello. Here was to be found the renowned Medici collection of citrus fruit, with rare specimens and strange hybrids, and the gardens still have what are claimed to be 500 of these pots brought out regularly for the spring and summer and put back in the enormous limonaia for the winter months. English humanist Francis Bacon, described gardening as ‘the purest of human pleasures', and no doubt Cosimo would have agreed for, in 1570, he decided to retire to his villa at Castello and spent his last years there cultivating jasmine.GETTING THEREBOBOLI GARDENS Piazza Pitti 
June - August open 8:15am - 7:30pm (closed first and last Monday of the month) 
Entrance: 7 euro

 

GIARDINO BARDINI Costa San Giorgio 4 
June - August open 8:15am - 7:30pm (closed first and last Monday of the month) 
Entrance: 7 euro

 

VILLA GAMBERAIA Via del Rossellino 72, Settignano 
Ataf bus #10
Groups with reservations only.
Call 055/697205
Entrance: 10 euro

 

VILLA MEDICEA DI CASTELLO Via di Castello 47 
June - August open 8:15am - 7:30pm* (closed second and third Monday of the month)
Ataf bus #28
Free entrance 
*Open upon staff availability. Call 055/454791 before visiting.

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