The Dukes' Revels
Stretching up invitingly from the Pitti Palace, the shady green of the Boboli Gardens, Florence’s largest (and only) central garden of any size, is an irresistible oasis in the middle of a stone-hard city. Some of its acres once belonged to the Bogoli family, and a corruption of their name stuck to the place.
The Boboli was not the first of the great Renaissance Italian gardens, but it arrived at a time when the mania for aristocratic formal pleasure gardens was at its peak. In 1550, with the expansion of the Pitti Palace underway, Duke Cosimo I hired sculptor Niccolò Tribolo to plan its gardens. Many hands worked on it afterwards—Vasari, Ammannati and especially Bernardo Buontalenti—and little outside the central axis remains from Tribolo's plan. The result, however, became the model for all the great royal gardens of Europe, including Louis XIV's Versailles.
The Boboli reigns as queen of all formal Tuscan gardens, the most elaborate and theatrical, a Mannerist–Baroque co-production of nature and artifice laid out over a steep hill, full of shady nooks and pretty walks. It's all beautifully kept, and though it was opened to the public in 1766 it never became a real public park. Even now you'll have to pay to get in.
The park is populated by platoons of statuary, many of them copies of Roman works; near the entrance are two prisoners from Trajan's conquest of Dacia (Romania). Others are fond Mannerist pieces like Cosimo I’s court dwarf Morgante posing as a chubby Bacchus astride a turtle.
Grotta di Buontalenti
Just beyond this lies the remarkable Grotta di Buontalenti. One of the architect’s most imaginative works, it seems to anticipate Gaudì with its dripping, stalactite-like stone, from which fantastic limestone animals struggle to emerge. Casts of Michelangelo’s Nonfiniti slaves stand in the corners, replacing the originals put there by the Medici (now in the Accademia), while in the shadowy depths stands a luscious Venus coming from her bath by Giambologna.
Amphitheatre and Neptune Fountain
The Amphitheatre, ascending in tiers from the palace, was designed in the form of a Roman circus to hold Medici court spectacles, most famously in 1661 a performance of Il Mondo Festeggiante, a play that included a lavish display of ballet on horseback, tableaux vivants, and phantasmagoria, all in the most splendid costumes, attended by 20,000 people in honour of the marriage of the lugubrious Grand Duke Cosimo III to the frisky Marguerite-Louise, niece of Louis XIV. It has a genuine obelisk, erected by Rameses II in Heliopolis, snatched by the ancient Romans and shipped here by the Medici branch in Rome. The granite basin, large enough to submerge an elephant, came from Rome's Baths of Caracalla.
Straight up the terrace is the Neptune Fountain; a path leads from there to the pretty Kaffeehaus, a boat-like pavilion with a prow and deck offering a fine view of Florence and drinks in the summer. Other signs from the Neptune Fountain point the way up to the secluded Giardino del Cavaliere, located on a bastion on Michelangelo’s fortifications. Cosimo III built the Casino del Cavaliere (1700) here to escape the summer heat in the Pitti Palace; this is now the home of the Museo delle Porcellane. The view over the ancient villas, vineyards and olives is pure Tuscan enchantment.
In the early 17th century the Boboli doubled in size, with a western extension laid out along a cypress-lined avenue called the Viottolone. This leads to a lagoon with an island at its centre, the Isolotto, featuring swans, lemon trees, curious statuary and Giambologna's Fontana dell'Oceano (original in the Bargello). No garden from this era would be complete without its water tricks, and the area around the lagoon had plenty—from little jets to splash passers-by to a grand, man-made geyser that shot up 70 feet. Sadly they're no longer operational, though the elaborate irrigation system built to water the gardens is still on the job.
Hours: open 8.15, last admittance Nov-Feb 3.30pm, Mar and Oct 4.30, Apr, May and Sept 5.30, Jun, Jul and Aug 6.30. Closed the first and last Mondays of each month. The Grotta di Buontalenti is open for guided tours at 11, 1pm, 3pm and in season 4pm and 5pm.
Picnics are allowed, though respect the areas with the 'keep off the grass' signs.