ITALY: Palaces, gardens & art made new
Palaces, gardens and art made new in Tuscany
am often asked what are the new must-see spots in Florence, but I am a firm believer that once-in-a-lifetime experiences should be enjoyed again and again. Living in Florence part-time for nearly three decades has taught me that each day brings its own unique discoveries. Sometimes I like to go back to ‘old favourites’ and rediscover again and again their countless gifts. The city’s treasures seem to grow more valuable as time goes by - the enrichment is never-ending! So here is my to-do list for Timeless Travel aficionados who are looking forward to a timeless trip through Tuscany.
A hidden oasis
Behind an unassuming facade, in the heart of Florence, lies a privately-owned, twenty-five acre ‘secret garden’, il Giardino Torrigiani, which was renowned as a botanical garden in the 16th century. Marquis Piero Torrigiani inherited it in the 1800s, transforming this haven into an Englishstyle 'park', which combines natural elements with artificially-made landscaping dotted with architectural and artistic symbols of an esoteric nature. At the entrance of the garden, is the statue of Osiris, holding a tablet describing visitors’ rules of behaviour. Well known for its wealth of trees and plant species from all over the world, it also has old and new greenhouses and a covered lemon house, filled with abundant lemon trees (where private lunches are served).
Walking through the garden’s hills and open meadows, there includes a gymnasium, an aviary and a lovely old bridge. Classes in the art of gardening and painting are also held here - on the very spot where Pier Antonio Micheli, who worked on the garden, and other dedicated naturalists founded the Italian Botanical Society in 1716.
Songs for the spirit
The tenth-century Benedictine Abbey, La Badia, located in Florence’s centre, was founded by Willa, Countess of Tuscany in commemoration of her husband, Hubert. It was one of the chief buildings in medieval Florence. Sunday mass and daily vespers are held at 6:30 am and sung a cappella, in four-part harmony by eight monks and 14 nuns, who make up the Fraternità di Gerusalemme, which now owns the church. It is a spiritual oasis miraculously removed from the outside bustle. Renaissance painter, Filippino Lippi’s work Apparition
of the Virgin to Saint Barnard (1486) is displayed in this church. This is also where, in 1373, Italian novelwriter Giovanni Boccaccio delivered his famous lectures on Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is also said to be where Dante first saw his beloved muse Beatrice, as Dante supposedly grew up across the street in the building now known as 'Casa di Dante'. In 1910, it became a museum, but in reality, it is unlikely to have been his real home.
Regardless of one’s religious denomination, attending vespers, or Mass at La Badia, is one of the most beautiful experiences one can have in Florence.
Making art ‘new’
The Opificio delle pietre dure was established in 1588 by Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici as a court laboratory, which specialized in the art of semiprecious stones and inlays, and was originally located at the Uffizi. It remained active for three centuries, and today some of its greatest handcrafted art is displayed in a small museum, located at Via Alfani 78. The second branch of the institute was founded in 1932 as a restoration laboratory. It was the first modern restoration lab in Italy, which began by restoring paintings by Tuscany’s Old Masters. When Florence’s Arno River flooded in 1966, many precious works of art were damaged. More space was needed not only because of the number of works, but also because of the sheer size of the damaged pieces, like the immense Crucifix by Cimabue from the Basilica of Santa Croce. These new laboratories were built in the Fortezza da Basso. Canvases, panel paintings and frescos are restored here, while hand-crafted workmanship using metal, ceramic, mosaics and bronze are ‘doctored’ in via Alfani.
Toasting Tuscan traditions
Castello di Ama in Lecchi in Chianti is a still-secret spot where vineyard owners create extraordinary wine and have commissioned site-specific art that has graced their estate for two decades, with works by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Chen Zhen, Anish Kapoor and Michelangelo Pistoletto, to name a few. A trip to Bargino, about 20 minutes outside of Florence, is also an interesting wineinspired trip to enjoy the traditions of the Antinori, a Florentine wine family par excellence.
In business since 1385, and known for their fabulous super-Tuscan wines, the Antinoris have finally opened to the public after 600 years in the business, thanks to their newly-inaugurated stateof-the-arts facility called ‘Marchesi Antinori Chianti Classico’. It spotlights the wine-making process, a centuries-old art collection and has all the makings
of a dynasty-inspired location. It is set among olive groves, vineyards and oak trees and landscaped to reflect Tuscan traditions. The underground cellar facility is concealed in a hill and only Rinuccio 1180 - their terraced restaurant overlooking the vineyards - can be seen from the road.
A museum overlooked
L’Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (The Academy for Fine Arts and Drawing) was founded in 1563 by Cosimo I de’ Medici, thanks to prodding by painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, who was also Italy’s first art historian. It was the earliest academy of drawing established in Europe. Notable artists from all over the world have been elected to honorary membership at the Accademia, beginning with luminaries such as Michelangelo, Cellini and Bronzino. In 1615 Artemisia Gentileschi was the first woman to be elected. Art lovers will marvel at two stunning but overlooked masterpieces on display there: Madonna Enthroned
with Saints (1395-1400) was authored by Florentine Gothic painter Matteo di Nardo and the Tabernacle
of the Boldone (1524-1525) by Florentine mannerist, Jacopo Pontormo.
Rhapsody in blue
The Museo Bardini was originally the church and convent of San Gregorio della Pace. In 1880 Stefano Bardini, a painter, restorer, art dealer and antiquarian bought the property and renovated the structure to house his art collection. All of its doors, windows and wooden ceilings came from destroyed churches and villas. Upon his death in 1922, Bardini bequeathed his palazzo and art works to the City of Florence. His eclectic collection consists of sculptures, paintings, furniture, ceramic pieces, tapestries and various fragments that he had salvaged when the old centre of Florence was demolished. This gem of a museum with vivid blue walls first opened in 1925. It has recently been reopened after two decades of renovation in the style that commemorates its original owner’s taste and unique flair.
Where artists today keep Florence creative
Il Palmerino, a 15th-century villa in the hills of Fiesole, was home to British novelist Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) from 1889 to 1935. For 46 years, she 'held court' for a vast network of AngloAmerican and Florentine writers, artists, scientists, politicians and intellectuals, who were attracted to her critical interpretations on Italian art. She wrote over 40 books and was one of the most famous modern exponents of supernatural fiction. A woman before her time, she was an advocate of feminism and social reform.
Today, the villa has been given to a cultural association, Il Palmerino, which was founded by its current owner, Federica Parretti, granddaughter of British writer and artist, Carola Costa Angeli. The organisation sponsors seminars and research programmes, which focus on artists, particularly women artists. Since 2008, this UNESCO World heritage site has a project that encourages artists from around the world to meet and share cultural prospects and initiatives, including artist seminars and individual study and research in art, literature and science. The villa has spaces dedicated to the retreat for arts and studies and has a library which will hopefully one day host the entire collection of Vernon Lee’s works. Above, left: The Frame Room at Museo Bardini Above, top: Il Palmerino by artist Lola Costa Above: Il Palmerino - The last Florentine home Right, top: The covered courtyard of the Villa La Petraia Right: The fantastic view of Florence from the Gondi Palace’s terrace
Mona Lisa and the King
Just next-door to Palazzo Vecchio stands the 15thcentury Gondi Palace, designed by Giuliano di San Gallo for banker, Giuliano Gondi. Once rivals of the Medicis, descendants of the Gondi family still own the palace, whose magnificent views from their grand terrace takes one’s breath away. The Palazzo Vecchio is practically at arm’s length. Their home is a treasure trove of works of art, including a stunning life-size portrait by 18th-century court artist Violante Siries Cerroti. The south side of the palazzo once hosted the home of Leonardo Da Vinci. He is said to have painted the Mona Lisa in that very space! The central courtyard has a portico with Corinthian columns on four sides and in the middle you’ll see a 17th-century fountain whose water is piped in from the Boboli Gardens (Florence’s Neptune Fountain gets water from the exact same source).
For those up for a country-side trek, Villa La Petraia is a Medici villa whose impressive indoor courtyard alone is worth the trip. Two cycles of frescos authored in the Medici period grace this space overlooking the Italianate gardens. King Vittorio Emanuele transformed the courtyard into a covered dance floor during the 1860s when Florence was the capital of Italy. Rather than living in the Palazzo Pitti as was the royal custom, the king opted to reside in Villa La Petraia with his mistress Rosa Vercellana.
Above, top left: Fortezza da Basso Restoration Lab, Opificio delle pietre dure Above, top right: A Tuscan landscape in semi-precious stone by B. Poccetti, Opificio delle pietre dure Above: Vase with Flowers, Opificio delle pietre dure from the 1600s...
Above: Torrigiani Gardens, Florence Right, top: The entrance to La Badia, the Benedictine Abbey in the centre of Florence Right: Cloister of the Oranges, Badia Fiorentina (All images courtesy AWA)