At the 16th-century garden that all Europe copied

THE enormous garden was surely unusual! In fact, one could use that much overworked word ``bizarre'' to describe it. In addition to beds of bright blooming flowers, towering green trees, shrubs cut and trimmed in animal shapes, cascading fountains of water, tranquil ponds, and the usual statuary in classical Greek style, it had a mechanical shepherdess who walked to the well, filled a pail with water, and returned. It had huge grottoes carved into the side of a hill. Once one's eyes were adjusted to the dim, azure light of the caves, water could be seen splashing down around nymphs, tritons, and griffins. For special occasions, there was scenery -- three-dimensional stage scenery -- that could be moved about to change the appearance and ambiance of the grottoes. I recently visited what remained of this spectacular garden at the Villa Medici at Pratolino to see an exhibit called ``The Garden of Europe: Pratolino as a Model of European Culture.'' And as I walked across the grounds, I wondered what the garden's 16th-century visitors might have thought as they wandered down the very same gravel paths 400 years ago, the same leafy linden trees spreading overhead to give respite from the hot summer's sun. Francesco I de' Medici's pride and joy

Francesco I de' Medici, who ruled over Tuscany as Grand Duke from 1541 to 1587, purchased this 50-acre estate at Pratolino (about 10 miles from his Pitti Palace in the heart of Florence) in 1568. He then commissioned Bernardo Buontalenti to transform it into a dreamland for the Grand Duke's beloved mistress, Bianca Cappello -- the woman who eventually became his wife.

Buontalenti designed a magnificent garden that took up an entire hillside at Pratolino. And he created magic! Tucked away in one of the bowers of verdant shrubbery, he placed a statue of a satyr that played a bagpipe; a hydraulically operated organ supplied the music.

In another corner of the vast garden, Buontalenti created the pride of his princely master, a setting for an outdoor banquet. Here, a lengthy walkway framed by arbors once led to a long stone table that was surrounded by benches of travertine marble. Huge statues of Greek gods looked down from all sides on this setting. Even if a bit sumptuous, it was all perfectly beautiful and quite innocent in appearance. But from a secret spot, the Grand Duke could control hidden jets of water that would shoot out and surprise guests as they walked under a nearby archway, admired a statue, or sat at the table. (Some jets even shot up from under the center of the table and certain benches!) Garden's influence outlasted its lifetime

Today, little is left of these fantastic grounds. Even the villa itself was pulled down about 100 years ago because the then-reigning Grand Duke wanted larger and more rustic hunting grounds available for his pleasure.

But Francesco's original garden exerted an influence that outlasted its lifetime. It was the inspiration for more than a dozen of Europe's most famous gardens -- as the current exhibition clearly shows.

The exhibition's organizers converted Pratolino's original farmhouse and stables -- which were built by Buontalenti in 1580 -- into a center for displaying pictures and documents from all over Europe. These illuminate the central theme of the exhibit. There are also reconstructed models of hydraulic devices and a narrated slide show.

In the main hall (once the main stables!), one can compare the original design of Pratolino's garden with those it inspired: French gardens, including that of St.-Germain-en-Laye near Paris built by Henri II, the garden of Henri IV at Fountainbleau, and the famous Luxembourg Gardens constructed at the request of Henri IV's widow, Maria de' Medici. Also influenced were English gardens, including those built at Somerset House by Queen Anne, at Richmond in 1610 by the young Prince of Wales, and at Wilton House by the Count of Pembroke. And there were also the Spanish gardens of Philip III, and others built in Bavaria and Bohemia, especially that of Hellbrunn with its trick banqueting table that resembles that at Pratolino.

The exhibit also features copies of the magnificent marble statues that once adorned the garden at Pratolino: These form a dramatic, picturesque grouping of alabaster forms against the smoke-blackened walls of the stables; the supporting arches of the building form a perfect frame for this picture in stark black and white. Titled ``Concerto poetico di statue,'' the poetic caption itself defies adequate translation into English. Pratolino's strange and curious history

The displays point out the somewhat strange and curious history of Pratolino. Its apex undoubtedly occurred during the reign of Prince Fernando (1663-1713), son of the priggish Cosimo III and the flighty Marguerite of Orl'eans. Ferdinand (to use the Anglicized form of his name) was a great patron of the arts, and had been trained as a boy in ivory-turning himself. He staged the first known ``public'' art exhibit, for which he even prepared a catalog. The theater in the villa at Pratolino was, for a time, host to the newest operas by Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti as well as those by a youthful Handel. The famous Bibbiena from Bologna was even brought to Pratolino to design costly, elegant scenery for such operas.

In 1795, Grand Duke Ferdinand III of Lorraine, who had inherited the estate from the last of the Medici's, rebuilt the park and gardens. Objecting to the formal, symmetrically organized garden he fell heir to, he advised his landscape artist, Joseph Frietsch, to plant the grounds in the English manner.

``One must not pretend,'' he wrote to Frietsch, ``that all plants are young, that all plants are beautiful and comely, because if they should be like that, the woods would be all uniform, and therefore be missing an essential part of their beauty. A woods that contains plants of every kind, including the decaying and dying, is infinitely more impressive, the contrasts of colors, of shade and light, more marked, and one finds in it more variety of outline, more majesty, and the individual plants gain more importance, more contrast.'' Razing the villa to make room for hunting grounds

On Ferdinand's passing in 1824, the villa at Pratolino passed to Leopold II, who decided to pull down the main villa and turn the estate into hunting grounds. Some of the statuary was moved to the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace in Florence; the balance remained in place to weather and decay with the passage of time.

The estate was sold in 1872 to Russiance Prince Paul Demidoff, who had the original servants quarters (which had escaped Leopold's ambitious demolition plans) redone to serve as his home. He dubbed it ``Villa Demidoff'' even though the huge Medici coat of arms continued to adorn the building. Demidoff also added a huge grand salon with 16-foot ceilings on the north side of the structure to house his collection of paintings, tapestries, and objet d'art. He also tried to restore as much of the garden as he could. But he seldom followed either the original scheme or that of Ferdinand's reorganization.

The Provincial Administration of Florence purchased the once-again decaying estate from the heirs of the last Demidoff in 1981, and since its acquisition has been trying to renew the gardens. This summer's exhibit, which also included a modest show of contemporary sculpture displayed at various locations around the garden, has been a major step in rebuilding this horticultural gem. Remnants of Pratolino's former glory

Today, as one ventures down the path from the top of the hillside with its scenic Swan Lake, one can see interesting remnants of Pratolino's original glory. The most impressive relic of the past is the gigantic Colosso dell'Appennio (Colossus of Apennines), a statue built at the crest of the hill near the lake and towering some 75 feet into the air. Designed by Giambologna in 1580, there are richly decorated grottoes inside the statue, the grottoes themselves having 35-foot ceilings inside.

Continuing on down the footpath, one can view the Fishpond of the Mask, built for Ferdinand of Lorraine's renovation, and restored by Prince Demidoff; the Grotto of Cupid, built by Buontalenti in 1577, containing various water tricks and games; the Grand Aviary built by art-loving Francesco I, which originally contained almost every known species of bird. (Prince Demidoff converted it into a swimming pool!) And then there is the Fountain of Mugnone, a grotto that originally stood at the base of the main villa, but which was removed by Ferdinand III when he transformed the garden. The fountain/grotto we see there today is a reconstruction ordered by Princess Marie Demidoff of the original.

A few of the original buildings remain to be seen at Pratolino today: the Medici chapel of 1580, designed by Buontalenti; the stables and servants quarters (now the Villa Demidoff) already mentioned; a tavern (osteria) used to house visitors of lesser station than those welcomed at the main villa; and the original carriage house, which was converted in 1687 into a ``pavillion'' (fanianeria) in which to keep pheasants and other birds for the princely hunters. Chamber music concerts

I ended my visit to Pratolino and its exhibit by returning to the Villa Demidoff where every Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. there is an informal concert of chamber music. It provided the perfect opportunity to reflect on all the wonderful things I had seen, and to imagine the glories that once had been the pride of the Medici and the majesty of their princely garden.

Through Sept. 28.

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