After living in Florence for a certain amount of time it is easy to become a little blasé, thinking you’ve seen and done it all. What a mistake! Just when you least expect it, you stumble on a gem that has been right under your nose for ages. For years, I have lived two streets away from a hidden treasure, never giving its exterior more than a perfunctory glance. In the short block that runs from via delle Conce to via dell’Agnolo in the central Santa Croce neighbourhood is the entrance to a peaceful and exotic—almost mystical—world: the Palazzo Vivarelli Colonna garden.
Palazzo Vivarelli Colonna fronts onto via Ghibellina and is a handsome three-storey building, owned since 1979 by the Municipality of Florence. In 1986, the city commissioned an extensive restoration project, which involved long, painstaking restoration of the internal frescoes and pictorial decorations (begun in 1995) and the garden (begun in 1998). It now houses several local government departments, including those responsible for culture, tourism and museums.
The palace takes its name from the Vivarelli Colonna, the last noble family who lived there from 1857 until they sold it to the city. The family’s intricate coat of arms is still displayed high up on the external corner of the building. But the building’s history stretches back centuries before that.
In 1808, banker Michele Giuntini purchased the building from the aristocratic Lotteringhi della Stufa family, who had inherited it in 1786 from the Gaburri family. In 1561, Francesco di Giovan Battista Gaburri acquired the property, together with several neighbouring edifices, from the man who is thought to have constructed it, Francesco Granacci, a painter and disciple of Ghirlandaio.
In 1701, one of Francesco di Giovan Battista’s descendants, Francesco Maria Niccolò Gaburri (1676–1742), began the impressive transformation of the separate buildings into the single edifice with the garden we see today.
As a youth, Francesco Maria Niccolò Gaburri entered the Medici court as a page to Grand Duke Cosimo III. With time, he became a right-hand man of the grand duke, who entrusted him with many diplomatic missions. He was appointed a knight of the Ordine di Santo Stefano and, in 1717, a member of the Accademia della Crusca. Between 1730 and 1740, under Grand Duke Gian Gastone, he was named president of the Accademia Fiorentina del Disegno. This suited Gaburri perfectly as he had a passion for the arts. He loved music, had a fine singing voice, enjoyed painting and became an appreciated art collector, especially of drawings and prints. In fact, Gaburri’s interest in art lead him, from 1719 until shortly before his death, to embark on the mammoth task of writing a four-volume dictionary, ‘Vite di Pittori,’ cataloguing the biographies and principal works of both foreign and Italian painters of his time and earlier. He never published it, but the manuscript remains an invaluable source for art historians, much like Giorgio Vasari’s famous book.
In the first decade of the 1700s, Gaburri began work on his Italian garden. The two exterior walls of the garden are decorated with terracotta vases and statues. Leading from the gate, two intersecting axes divide it into geometric beds filled with azaleas, sweet olive and wayfaring trees, shrubs and, during the summer, potted citrus trees (these are placed in the hothouse in winter). All the taller trees were added in the nineteenth century. One of the garden’s several fountains, a sculpture of a swan holding a snake in its mouth, stands in the centre of the axis.
The highlight of the garden is the grand mural fountain on the north wall, the Singing Orpheus Fountain. Commissioned by Gaburri in commemoration of the death in 1702 of Camilla di Rinieri Buonaccorsi, his young wife, and mother of their three sons, Giuseppe, Andrea and Odoardo, the fountain was built by Giovanni Baratta between 1704 and 1708—it has touch of melancholy about it.
In the middle of a Baroque-style grotto composed of sculptures, a fresco, small mosaics and textured rocks is the statue of a singing Orpheus, the musician of ancient Greek mythology famous for his ability to charm all living things (and even stones) with his music. Like Gaburri, he is mourning the death of his beloved wife, Eurydice. The pictorial background of a rustic scene set within the framework of faux crumbling ruins, then very fashionable, has been restored but reproduces the original by Rinaldo Botti and Lorenzo del Moro, a theme carried through into the intentionally wide cracks in the structure above the musician’s head. Two telamons (colossal male figures used as columns) in the form of satyrs support the cornice. At its centre, a coat of arms (now of the Vivarelli Colonna but previously that of the Gaburri family) is held aloft by three fauns portraying Gaburri’s sons, who seem to be straightening it up.
The Palazzo Vivarelli Colonna garden at via delle Conce 28 (between via Ghibellina and via dell’Agnolo in the Santa Croce neighbourhood) is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 10 am to 6 pm.
Update to article: The press agency ANSA announced on October 24, 2014, and the councillor for urban planning, Elisabetta Meucci and the Mayor of Florence Dario Nardella announced at a press conference that the historic Florentine buildings, the Villa of Rusciano in Gavinana and Palazzo Vivarelli Colonna were in the process of being sold by the Municipality to the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (Savings and Loans Bank) ‘for not less than 20 million euro’. A year earlier, the same bank also purchased the former municipal theatre, now replaced by the city’s new opera house.