The Buontalenti Grotto in the Boboli Gardens is a fascinating place, where you feel as though you’re in a fairy tale.
The Grotta di Buontalenti (also known as Grotta Grande or the Big Grotto) was built by Bernardo Buontalenti between 1583 and 1593, commissioned by Francesco I de’ Medici.
In sixteenth-century Tuscany, enriching noble villas and palaces with gorgeous gardens was a widespread fashion, and grottoes were one of their essential elements.
Artists appointed by important Italian families built the decorative grottoes, reconstructing natural caves, often using real limestone concretions removed from actual caves.
Grottoes were decorated with fountains, sculptures, and frescoes, often inspired by fantastic themes with references to the world of alchemy.
In the Buontalenti Grotto, you can also find a number of magical, fabulous, and allegorical elements, as well as symbols that refer to esoteric subjects with subtle reminders.
The exterior of the cave announces its interior—bizarre and surprising. The entrance, with stalagmites and stalactites, is flanked by two niches with the statues of Ceres and Apollo by Baccio Bandinelli. The coat of arms of the Medici family stands at the center of the upper band, along with plaques featuring zodiacal signs.
Buontalenti Grotto, a masterpiece of Florentine Mannerist style, consists of three rooms arranged in succession.
The first chamber is dedicated to nature and metamorphosis.
Rocks, hollows, and stalactites evoke the atmosphere of a natural cave, but if you look carefully you realize that they depict sheep, goats, and shepherds playing their pipes. Wall and ceiling frescoes by Bernardino Poccetti depicting fantastic animals complete the surreal atmosphere.
In the corners, you can find copies of the famous Michelangelo’s Prisoners (Prigioni). These four sculptures (the originals are currently kept at the Galleria dell’Accademia) are four figures carved in stone, yet sketched, and which support the roof of the cave.
The Prisoners represent the transforming power of nature and recall the ancient myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha, described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The power to transform is also a typical power of alchemy, the discipline able to turn lead into gold. Raw elements become precious material through spiritual refinement.
In previous centuries, the light that filtered in through a skylight on the ceiling used to create optical illusions on the walls, reflecting the shadows of the flowing water and fishes that were once there.
Alchemists considered water as the first matter and used to refer to it as “burning water” or “mercurial water.”
Buontalenti Grotto’s second chamber is square, and its walls are decorated with scenes from the Trojan War. The square space symbolizes the four elements: air, water, earth, and fire.
Sculptures depicting Paris and Helen by Vincenzo de’ Rossi joined in a fatal embrace stand in the center of the room.
In the language of alchemy, Paris represents sulfur. The siege of Troy is instead an allegory of the elixir: sulfur dissolved during this operation and was transformed into mercurial water, the first matter.
The third and last chamber is oval in shape, symbolizing the philosophical egg in which all transformations take place. Decorated with wall fountains, this chamber features at the center the Bathing Venus sculpted by Giambologna, which depicts universal love and the life-giving power of nature.
The thesis that underlies the entire representation is that in order to contemplate the infinite, one has to unify pleasure and virtue, senses and feelings. Only under the guidance of love can you totally understand the divine.
In the Gardens of Boboli are two other fantastic caverns in addition to the Buontalenti Cave: the Grotto of Madama, also made by Buontalenti, and the nineteenth-century Cave of Adam and Eve.
Because of its enchanted atmosphere, Buontalenti Grotto was chosen by Dan Brown for one of the most dramatic scenes in his Inferno.
You can find much more about the most famous Italian gardens in this e-book that we recommend:
Pictures by sebastiagiralt and Wikipedia