Florence art guide

The Villa Reale at Castello

Front view
Front view


You can reach the Villa Reale, which takes its name from the area of Castello, by walking the few hundred metres down the hill from Petraia and taking Via di Castello.
Its name is apparently derived from a water reservoir ("castellum" in Latin), that once formed part of the Roman aqueduct, later used to supply the play of water and fountains in the park; it has since been filled in to form the square in front of the villa.
The primitive 14th century building, known as the "Vivaio" or Nursery, changed hands several times before it was eventually bought by the cadet branch of the Medici family; Lorenzo "the Elder" (1395-1440), the younger brother of Cosimo the Elder, was the head of this branch of the family. However it was another Lorenzo, known as "the Younger", the son of Pier Francesco and therefore the grandson of the founder of the family, who bought the estate in 1477. Botticelli was to carry out the famous masterpieces that are the pride of the Uffizi Gallery today - the Primavera (1477-78) and the Birth of Venus (1485 c.), which was conceived as a companion for the former - especially for this villa and this member of the Medici family, the second cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Only a few decades were to pass before the villa was sacked during the seige of 1527; the Medici were thrown out of the city and then returned to govern it, this time permanently. However they returned with the last surviving member of the cadet branch, usually known as the Medici family of Castello.
This was Duke Cosimo I, the son of Giovanni delle Bande Nere; he had grown up in the villa of Castello, far from the political intrigues of the city and the rest of the family, thanks to the foresight of his mother, Maria Salviati.

Pool by Ammannati  with statues
Pool by Ammannati
with statues
by Giambologna

Cosimo was always particularly fond of the villa and commissioned Vasari to restore and enlarge it. Tribolo, called in especially from Bologna in 1537, was entrusted with the design of the garden.
This was where the real fame of the Italian formal garden was born, long before the magnificent gardens of Boboli and Petraia were created, though it really ought to be called the garden of the Medici family. Historian Benedetto Varchi created an iconographic programme that covered two main themes: an allegorical portrayal of the life of nature and the glorification of the Medici family, Florence and Tuscany. The entire garden was created on terraces that followed the line of the hill, with grottos, niches, nymphs, statues and fountains, together with unexpected jets of water that would suddenly spray the heads or the legs of visitors.
The many fine garden ornaments include the lovely fountain of Hercules suffocating Antaeus by Tribolo and Ammannati and a statue of Winter (or the Appennine) carried out by Giambologna. An artificial grotto, carried out in clear Mannerist style (1570 c.), still contains a basin, shaped like a classical sarcophagus, that is attributed to Ammannati; this is surmounted by a pyramid-shaped group of both exotic and ordinary animals, that look as though they are escaping from the rock, carried out by Giambologna and school in various types of stone and marble.
This ambitious project was to reveal Tribolo as a great hydraulic engineer for, with the help of Piero di San Casciano, he even connected the villa up with the waters from the nearby springs of Castellina and Petraia.
When Tribolo died (1550), his work was continued by Vasari and later by Buontalenti, who was anyway working at Castello in around 1592 to restructure the villa; however the original design of the garden was never completed: it was supposed to be decorated with many more statues and fountains and have a wide driveway bordered by little canals full of prawns and fish that would have been linked up directly with the Arno, some distance away.

Villa di Castello
Villa di Castello by G.Utens

The famous Etruscan Chimera (today in the Archeological Museum)) was kept for a while at the villa because it was believed that it would bring bad luck if it were kept in Palazzo Vecchio.
The sophisticated garden creates a charming contrast with the simple fifteenth century style of the villa whose facade, although imposing in size, is carried out on an almost austere architectural design, very different from the refined style of the villa at Poggio a Caiano designed by Giuliano da Sangallo for Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1485. The frescoes by Bronzino and Pontormo that once decorated it have since unfortunately been lost. Ferdinando II commissioned Volterrano to carry out the new decorations.
From the 15th century onwards, foreign visitors to the villa were to talk about it with wonder (Montaigne and the botanist Pierre Belon, who wrote a descriptri.Cosimo I's home on his retirement from public life. The prince lived here with his second wife, Camilla Martelli, until his death in 1573.
This residence was always popular with the Medici court because of its proximity to the city and the Lorraine family was to continue this tradition: Pietro Leopoldo in fact had other decorations carried out there during his reign. The Savoy family preferred Villa Petraia and eventually donated it to the country in 1919.
Today the garden can be visited during the day, while, since 1965, the villa has been the seat of the Crusca Academy, founded for the study of the Italian language in 1582.

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