Nannina de' Medici, eldest sister of the Lorenzo il Magnifico, and her husband, the humanist Bernardo Rucellai (son of Giovanni Rucellai) built what is now the Palazzo Venturi Ginori here in the late 15th century. Nearby were the works that produced the purplish red dye that had made the Rucellai fortune.
Bernardo, who grew up with Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano and participated in the same intellectual and cultural circles (he was said to be the greatest pupil of Marsilio Ficino), was one of Lorenzo's most trusted lieutenants, acting as his representative in Florence when Lorenzo was out of town. But Bernardo began to criticize Lorenzo's despotic ways, and his relationship with the family waxed and waned. He thought the Medici should share power with their fellow aristocrats. The Medici, however, didn't think so.
Not long after the Medici were chased out of Florence in 1498, and their Villa Careggi burned by the anti-Medici faction, Bernardo thought his big moment had come. He was crushed when the Gran Consiglio elected his rival Piero Soderini as gonfaloniere for life in 1502.
In the meantime, Bernardo's charming and shady walled garden, the Orti Oricellari (a corruption of 'Orto Rucelli'), gradually became the new, informal meeting place of the Plato Academy. Bernardo had planted the garden himself, collecting rare species and erecting busts of ancient great men. When he was absent (he spent 1506-1510 in self-exile, partly spent writing a book on the classical ruins of Rome), the Rucellai sons and grandsons, especially Bernardo's grandson Cosimo, welcomed the intelligentsia, both local and foreign.
Although the Rucellai and their friends had withdrawn from public life in disapproval of Soderini, the main theme of the discussions in the Orti Oricellari was politics, looking towards ancient Rome and Venice as models to refashion Florentine institutions. The aristocratic humanists longed for the days of relative peace and stability under Lorenzo il Magnifico. According to participant Francesco da Diacceto
Florence, once flourishing, is sick. The most valuable citizens, and particularly the aristocracy, are persecuted by envy and exposed to insult and injury.
The eventual coup against Piero Soderini in 1512 was led by young men trained 'in the school of the Rucellai Gardens', wrote historian Filippo de' Nerli. The Medici were back in town.
Although the Plato Accademy had concentrated on philosophy and literature, its members also discussed language, especially the use of vernacular Italian as opposed to Latin. Bernardo's son Giovanni Rucellai presented one of the first modern Italian tragedies, Rosamunda, here in 1516.
In 1517, Machiavelli, although he had served alongside Soderini in the Florentine Republic and had been sent into exile after the return on the Medici, was allowed to return to the city, and became one of the Orto Oricellari's leading lights; here he read his famous Discourses on Livy (which he dedicated to Cosimo Rucelli) and staged his comedy, La Mandragola.
Political discussions in the garden moved from the realm of idealism to possible solutions. Although none of the participants held positions of power, they concentrated on creating theoretical justifications for their belief in the best system of government (Venice and ancient Rome, they believed, had much to teach Florence). Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini led the way into a new 16th-century political realism. Both of whom, significantly, chose to write in vernacular Italian rather than in Latin.
The new theorizing eventually led to the development of modern political parties. No longer would 'parties' (as in the quattrocento) be determined by family ties and inter-marriages of the members of the wealthy mercantile elite. Or at least that was the idea.
In 1523, the garden was closed down for good when two members of the academy were arrested and accused of a conspiracy to assassinate Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, soon to become Pope Clement VII.
The gardens were neglected and overgrown by 1573 when Bianca Cappello, mistress of the Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici, purchased the palace and lived there with her then husband. She restored the gardens and became famous for her amusing parties, adding features that would have shocked the Plato Academy, including a trap door that sent guests to 'hell' populated by servants in demon masks. After that fright, they were comforted by beautiful maidens, wearing little more than body paint.
After the sudden deaths of Bianca and Francesco, Cardinal Giovan Carlo de’ Medici converted the Orti Oricellari into an Italian garden. Antonio Novelli, a student of Giambologna, added the then-must have grotto, this one embellished with decorative plaster sponges.
He also added statues and fountains inspired by Pratolino. Most prominent was Polyphemus Drinking out of a Wineskin, using the same plastered masonary iron frame that Giambologna used for his Appennino at Pratolino. Water from the fountains of the Boboli Gardens were pumped in via channels along the via Maggio and Ponte Santa Trinita, inspired by Bernardo Buontalenti's hydraulics at Pratolino.
In the early 19th century, the new owners converted the Orti Oricellari into a romantic English garden with a temple of Flora in the centre (engravings of it survive). In 1861, it was rearranged again by Giuseppe Poggi back into a Renaissance style garden. The Via Rucellai later cut it in half, but Polyphemus, the Grotto and some of the statues, and the ruined tower from the romantic garden remain.
Via degli Orti Oricellari
Visits Open by appointment, usually weekends only +39 055 230 2212
Images by: Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License, PD Art