The Boboli Gardens are one of the most important Italian gardens and a fantastic open-air museum that embraces another site of culture in Florence, the Pitti Palace.
More than a garden, more than just a “green lung” in Florence, this gorgeous park in the heart of Florence takes your breath away and brings to mind the splendor of the life of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany.
The park hosts centuries-old oak trees, sculptures, and fountains, and offers peaceful shelter from the warm Florentine sun in summer, beautiful colors of the changing foliage in the fall, and scents of blooming flowers in the spring. The Boboli Gardens are a spectacular example of “green architecture” decorated with sculptures and served as the prototype for many European royal gardens, in particular, Versailles.
Today’s Boboli Gardens that extend from the hill behind the Pitti Palace as far as Porta Romana, reached its current size and appearance, becoming one of the largest and most elegant Italian-style gardens, through several stages of expansion and restructuring carried out at different times. Its creation and development spans four hundred years, from the 15th to the 19th century.
History and layout
The original fields and gardens were laid out behind Santa Felicita in the Oltrarno by the Borgolo family, the name from which Boboli is thought to derive, and were bought in 1418 by Messer Luca Pitti. In 1549, the property was purchased by Cosimo I de´ Medici and his wife Eleonora di Toledo, who chose this place for a new grand ducal palace.
The initial plan was drawn by Niccolò Tribolo, although the works were completed after his death in 1550 by other architects including also Giorgio Vasari (from 1598 to 1561), as well as Bartolomeo Ammannati and Bernardo Buontalenti under the reign of Francis I, who succeeded his father Cosimo.
The Medici and the Lorraine families continued to enrich and enlarge the garden in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, adding an outdoor museum, the scenographic setting to exhibit both Roman and Renaissance statues.
The Gardens lack a natural water source. To nourish the plants, a conduit was built from the nearby Arno River, which carries water into an elaborate irrigation system.
The primary axis, centered on the rear façade of the palace, rises on Boboli Hill from a deep amphitheater that is reminiscent in shape of half of a classical hippodrome or race course. At the center of the amphitheater, and rather dwarfed by its position, is the ancient Egyptian Boboli obelisk brought from the Villa Medici in Rome. This primary axis ends at the Fountain of Neptune (ironically known to the Florentines as the “Fountain of the Fork” for the trident grabbed by Neptune, the god of the sea) with the sculpture of Neptune by Stoldo Lorenzi, visible against the skyline as one climbs the slope.
The Italian architect Giulio Parigi laid out the long secondary axis, the Viottolone or Cyprus Road at a right angle to the primary axis. This road, flanked by cypresses and statuettes, led up through a series of terraces and water features, the main one being the Isolotto complex (an oval-shaped island in a tree-enclosed pond) with the bosquets on either side, and then allowed for an exit from the Gardens near Porta Romana, which was one of the main gates of the walled city.
In the centre of the Isolotto space, you can admire the Fountain of the Ocean by Giambologna, surrounded by three other sculptures representing the Nile, Ganges, and Euphrates.
Another important fountain was that of Bacchus, a grotesque-style fountain that represents Braccio di Bartolo, the court dwarf most loved by Cosimo I de’ Medici.
As you walk through the alleys of the gardens, you can see a number of sculptures, many inspired by Roman mythology.
Some of them are really odd, such as the statues of the players of saccomazzone.
This game was in vogue in eighteenth-century Italy. Two blindfolded players, with one hand on a rock, try to drive out the enemy by hitting it with a long, knotted rag.
Another rarity of the garden and a source of curiosity is the Fountain of Mostaccini, built with a long sequence of steps and masks (mostaccini).
They had both a decorative function and a practical one: in fact, they were able to attract small birds, which were then caught in nets hanging from the trees above.
The Boboli Gardens feature many surprising oddities, some little known and of little artistic importance, others of great beauty…
Among the most beautiful ones is the Grotto of Buontalenti, which accurately reproduces the natural elements of a cave in the playful style typical of Mannerism.
On the cavaliere, or rampart of the walls built by Michelangelo in 1529, stands the Giardino del Cavaliere, reached by a double staircase, at either side of which stand two statues of the Muses.Next to this garden is the building that houses the Porcelain museum of the Pitti Palace while underneath the building is a large water storage area known as the “trout reservoir“, from which the pipes that supply water to the entire garden lead off.
The Lorraine family made further additions in the 18th century, including the green “Kaffeehaus” with its glazed dome, and the “Lemon House” designed by Zanobi del Rosso.
In the same period, the Lorraine’s entrusted the building of the Neoclassical Palazzina della Meridiana next to Palazzo Pitti to Gaspare Maria Paoletti (1778) which today hosts the Costume Gallery within the Pitti Palace.
The Prato della Meridiana in front of this building is a large, steeply-sloping lawn, from which smaller avenues dotted with statues lead off.
Boboli gardens were created to please the eyes and the mind, providing fun and entertainment to those who walk along their tree-lined streets and among their many fountains.
They are a luxurious place, where culture and entertainment are intertwined and where mind and soul can be satisfied together.
Dan Brown is fascinated by the Boboli Gardens, and they play quite an important role in his 2013 novel Inferno, as Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks escape through their pathways.
» To learn more about Boboli, we recommend the Gardens of the World, an interesting DVD.
This post was originally published in June 1, 2013 and has been updated and enriched on September 14, 2017.