Poggio Torselli twinkles from its hilltop location just outside Florence. The first time I came to work at this prestigious place, listed among the Great Italian Gardens, I was surprised that even the chatty Florentine bus drivers were unaware of it, yet it only takes 20 minutes to get here, once disentangled from the city traffic.
Several influential Florentine families have owned Poggio Torselli, including that of one of the greatest names in political history, Niccolò Machiavelli. His family was native to San Casciano and his relatives were the first owners of this estate. Machiavelli himself was confined at a nearby property after his fall into disgrace in 1513.
A poggio, a promontory-shaped hill, overlooks a valley like a natural balcony. From Poggio Torselli your eye sweeps over the famous Chianti hills, with enchanting vistas reaching as far as the city where you can distinguish Brunelleschi’s dome and Giotto's bell-tower in the distance.
Upon entering the estate, a monumental viale, flanked by majestic cypress trees, leads to the villa from the main gate. Visitors can reach the estate offices by a quiet country lane, gaining a first glimpse of potted lemon trees and ancient oil jars.
On the outside this villa unveils its imposing austere lines, in typical Florentine style. The only indulgence to affectedness are the four seasons statues on the top of the façade. But as soon as you climb the entrance steps, you will be overwhelmed by a rapture of harmonies, lights, colours and smells, magnificently restored stuccos and frescoed ceilings, antique furniture, carpets and tapestries, with an abundance of artwork adorning the halls and rooms. You can feel and breathe the beauty and history of this great mansion. The villa and garden were extensively restored around ten years ago, and are now in pristine and sparkling condition.
The front garden has boxwood borders, large rose-beds, densely planted with snow-white iceberg roses and thick laurel hedges trimmed with geometrical hollows to frame the views. The green lawns are inspired by the English style, a redesign for all Italian gardens during the Romantic period, supposedly due to fashion, but essentially for cost cutting reasons. The prati inglesi are maintained by automatic irrigation, moulding the Mediterranean climate into an artificially fresher one. So, as everywhere in Italy, what you see is a mixed style.
Two monumental cypress trees in circular beds emphasise the front façade, marking the end of the avenue. Cypress trees are masculine in Italian, but locals call these giants le cipresse, as if to suggest with the female gender that they are regarded like ‘mothers’ of the other trees.
This estate is a farm and wine business as well, and in a pleasant show-room you can purchase Chianti and other excellent wines, grappas, oil and millefiori honey, all produced on the surrounding slopes. Bookings for luxurious wine-tastings or buffets at the villa are available, which can include a visit to the modern hi-tech winery and cellars, allowing a chat with a professional oenologist.
But the highlight of this place is the fascinating historic garden, including the walled inner garden, protected by two rows of buildings that stretch out like arms towards the valley. Here you can discover a genuine secret garden, giardino segreto, which extends on two terraced levels, linked by stairways, where the powerful scent of hundreds of lemon and citrus trees, planted in strikingly huge terracotta pots, will entice you to explore further.
Beneath the inner garden, right at the foot of the tall wall, you will notice an interesting orto-giardino, with varieties of seasonal vegetables and herbs cultivated in a sunny strip of land, together with fruit and cut flowers. In its traditional essentiality, this area is almost even more authentic than the historic garden. Specific curiosities are the saffron crocus flowers, and the caper bushes perched on the wall.
A successful attempt to rediscover the real Italian garden is something almost impossible to find nowadays, in Italy or elsewhere. Poggio Torselli, although some English lawns and automatic sprinklers are replacing flowers in the largest beds, is as close as you will find to a Renaissance garden. The restorers found most parts of the original design untouched and many things still in their original location including an old gazebo-shaped belvedere and a unique and complete centuries-old watering system, conveying water throughout the complex area in small stone-carved grooves and basins. In restoring these and many other original features, the restorers were awarded a second prize for accuracy among the Great Italian Gardens.
A visit to Poggio Torselli is the perfect way to spend a spring or summer day, wandering through the historic garden, soaking up the peace of centuries of beautiful Italian horticulture, and admiring the fabulous plants, borders and architecture.
Via Scopeti 10
50026 San Casciano Val di Pesa (FI)
Bookings: 055/8290241, [email protected]
Garden fee: 15 euro (25 including the villa)