by Luciano Artusi - Vincenzo Giannetti
Via San Leonardo and its hill
We start out on our walk from Piazzale Galileo which, as opposed to Piazzale Michelangelo, does not give on to any views over the city as it lies on the other side of the hill of Arcetri. On one side of the square we can find the monument to Daniele Manin, the illustrious patriot who was the leading spirit of the Venetian resistance movement against the Austrians during the famous seige of 1848. The statue, donated by the Venetian exiles out of gratitude to the city of Florence, was initially placed in Piazza Ognissanti and then moved to this site in around 1930.
From here we take the main boulevard towards Piazzale Michelangelo, passing Villa Bonciani on the left, with Bar Fontana on the opposite side of the road; this coffee bar is named after its first owner, Tullio Fontana, who became famous for making the journey from Florence to Athens by bicycle, at the end of the century. Later, during the Thirties, it had another moment of glory when it became a popular meeting place for writers and artists, among them Ottone Rosai, the painter, a bizarre character and splendid interpreter of the Florentine landscape.
We now turn left into Via San Leonardo, with a unique and poetic character of its own, even further enhanced by the fascinating walls that line it on either side and almost seem to create its meandering path themselves. On the house on the corner we can find a plaque commemorating composer Ilic Ciaikovskij's stay in Florence:
IN THIS VILLA IN MDCCCLVIII LIVED AND WORKED PETR ILIC CIAIKOVSKIJ FROM THE IMMENSE RUSSIAN PLAINS TO THE GENTLE TUSCAN HILL HE CAME DRAWING INSPIRATION FROM BOTH FOR HIS IMMORTAL MELODIESWe can find Villa Piatti almost opposite, at nr. 53, with lovely 16th century windows, placed on either side of the doorway topped by a Medici coat of arms, gracing the facade. It is followed by Villa Lauder, painted a characteristic brick red, with a beautiful Renaissance style loggia on the first floor and an interesting grey stone tabernacle on the facade that contains a bas relief of the Holy Family in Impruneta terracotta.
Dominated on either side by two tall turrets, Villa Vay de Vaya can be found at nr. 50, just past Via Schiapparelli, with a terracotta tabernacle of the Madonna that bears the following inscription:
IN MEMORIAM C.B. CONTESSA VAY DE VAYA
A plaque on the facade of the plain house on the opposite side of the road indicates the studio of Ottone Rosai, the Florentine painter who portrayed so many views of the characteristic streets and squares of the Oltrarno area, scenes from daily life, figures of humble craftsmen and of Via San Leonardo itself, whose enchanting walls so inspired the artist. The house next door bears a plaque in memory of Mario Pratesi, a Tuscan writer of the 19th century.
Suggestive Via S. Leonardo
A wall, topped by a parapet walk that projects over the road, encloses the small 14th century courtyard of Villa Il Barduccio or Barduzzo, which, in 1400, was the residence of the Barducci family, then extremely wealthy Florentine bankers. Giovanni, the founder of the family, was to inspire Donatello for the portrait of the prophet Abucuc, known as «Zuccone» (Pumpkin head) because of the size of his head.
We now come to Villa Il Gioiello, at nr. 40, formerly property of the Vettori family, and, a little further on, to Villa Agnese at nr. 31, decorated with the Guidetti family coat of arms.
As our walk continues, the winding curves of the road tend more and more to remind us of a corridor, roofed over by the sky, because the enveloping walls, the real protagonists of this extraordinary itinerary, rarely allow us to get any glimpses of the countryside.
Once past Villa Vecchietti, at nr. 28, with two solid stone buffer posts still standing on either side of the entrance, which is topped by the "blue, with five silver ermines" coat of arms of this ancient family, we come to the small Church of San Leonardo in Arcetri, whose wall belfry emerges from above the treetops. Shaded by romantic cypress trees, the courtyard in front of the church really looks more like a garden. Built in around the year 1000, it has undergone many alterations over the centuries, but can now be seen as it was originally thanks to its restoration, partly carried out in 1929 and completed in recent years. The interior contains the historic 13th century marble Pergamum or pulpit from San Pier Scheraggio, which was used by such personalities as Giano della Bella, Dino Compagni and Giovanni Boccaccio to give their speeches. As we said, the pergamum was originally in the Church of San Pier Scheraggio; it was brought here in 1782, when Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo became the patron of San Leonardo in Arcetri, as the Church of San Pier Scheraggio had had to be demolished to make room for the main entrance to the Uffizi Gallery.
Further along, on the right, we can find 16th century Villa Razzolini, at nr. 11, followed by Villa San Leonardo, hidden away in the interior, at number 9. The plasterwork on the walls around the entrance to the villa is decorated with geometrical graffiti with daisy corollas placed in the centre of the designs. The entire route in fact becomes even more characteristic from here on because the walls are covered with fanciful designs, whose abstract shapes give the impression of mysterious symbols; then the road narrows and we can see the massive outline of Fort Belvedere through the thick foliage of the trees.
Grand Duke Ferdinand I decided to have the fortress built (the first stone was laid on October 18th 1590), in order to furnish the hills of Florence with a defensive system that could protect the city, provide a safe refuge for the reigning family in the case of popular revolts, defend the Pitti Palace and, above all, create a safe hiding place for the huge Medici treasury. Until then, the treasury had been secured in a cell dug out of the rock at the bottom of a well at the foot of the hill. The cell was sealed with a strong iron door and locked with a cleverly devised padlock, invented by Buontalenti, that would kill anyone who tried to open it without the secret combination.
A graffito in Via S. Leonardo
Close by the Gate of San Giorgio, we can find a 19th century tabernacle standing in the shade of two ancient cypress trees; it was restored in 1855 by the noble Pratellesi family.
Our tour continues along Via di Belvedere, a solitary and fascinating road because it follows the the ancient walls of the city as it descends the hill; traces of antique graffiti can again be seen on the plaster covering the wall on the opposite side of the road.
It seems almost like a miracle to arrive at the first bend in the road and suddenly come upon a marvellous view of the city, framed by the towers and the gate of San Miniato; a vision that is made even more suggestive by the powerful buttresses and their contrast with the poetic simplicity of the road, full of blissful country solitude.
Once we reach the small group of houses outside the walls, we turn right to take Via di Monte alle Croci and then Via dell'Erta Canina that follows a steep gradient up the hill.
The road is at first made rather like a flight of steps paved with cobbles but, as we get further, up it becomes a path. When we get to the top of this somewhat demanding climb, we are met by a peaceful hamlet of ancient houses and palaces which, until the end of the 19th century, went under the name of Castel d'Arcetri.
On the right we can find Villa Pianigiani, and further on Villa Malchiori, at one time better known as Villa La Sorgente, because the spring that could once be found here produced so much water that the Grand Ducal government of the time bought it in order to supply all the public fountains in the quarters of San Niccolò and Santa Croce. A singular plaque placed on the facade of the plain house at nr. 29, halfway through the hamlet, seems to be advising an obligatory halt to enjoy the serene atmosphere to be found here:
REPOSE FROM PORTA A SAN MINIATO UP L' ERTA CANINA 900 LENGTHS OR A QUARTER OF A MILE
The narrow winding road is lined with ancient houses, like Villa Buonamici and Villa Bellavista, previously called Il Paradisino, where Pietro Tacca the sculptor once lived, as did painter Antonio Ciseri, in the 19th century. Villa Ciantelli stands at the end of the characteristic village, surrounded by an enormous and beautiful garden.
Villa Razzolini from Fort Belvedere
We now turn to the right and follow the wide path beside the avenue that, in Poggi's time, was known simply as "the main road of the hills", until we come to two secluded little villas: L' Idolino and La Perugina, built at the beginning of the century. The wide boulevard swings around in huge bends and this particular path, described as one of the most beautiful walks in the world, gives onto a series of fascinating views over the city for most of the way.
We arrive at Villa Lo Stento after a sharp bend that opens onto a view of the countryside and the tiny valley of Carraia. On the opposite side of the road we can just make out the lovely Villa Selva e Guasto, whose name comes from the two farms that were once part of the Grand Ducal estate of Poggio Imperiale. The facade is a typical example of 17th century architecture, like the family chapel, situated at the far end of the garden. We next pass the stables of Villa Piatti, with their terracotta medallions of horses' heads on the facade, and then find ourselves back in Piazzale Galileo. Towards the end of the 19th century, this wide square was the meeting place for the carriages of the Florentine aristocracy and a very popular destination for the walks that meandered up here from Porta Romana and on to Piazzale Michelangelo; now it has completely lost its original function and is silent, without life and, apparently, completely forgotten.
Taken from "Walks around the hills of Florence" by L.Artusi and V.Giannetti. © 1997 SEMPER EDITRICE FIRENZE