A FINE autumnal day or afternoon in the early spring should be selected for the drive from the Porta San Nicolo by Ripoli to Antella, as a long stretch of road is entirely exposed to the sun. Leaving Florence by the Barrier of San Nicolb on the southern side of the Arno, the road to the left of the Strada dei Colli divides into two, that on the right leading to the Villas Medici and Rusciano. The Villa Medici was restored and enlarged to its present size by Mr. Thomas Adolphus Trollope, who built a beautiful library and added other rooms in the style of the fifteenth century ; the villa was sold by him to the late General Medici, a gallant soldier, the comrade of Garibaldi, and equally faithful to the cause of his country and to the King of Italy. He died here in 1882
The villa of Rusciano, which is perched on an eminence higher up the road, was mentioned in a tale of the novelist Sacchetti, and originally belonged to the Salviati family. Brunelleschi built the present villa for Luca Pitti in the middle of the fifteenth century ; and to please Luca, whose ambition lay in a display of his wealth by the size of his dwellings, Brunelleschi’s design, if carried out, would have covered even more ground than it now does, though it is one of .the largest villas in the neighbourhood of Florence ; it has spacious reception rooms, a terrace overlooking the distant country, and is surrounded by lovely gardens, with old cypresses and other fine and rare trees. In 1472 it was purchased by the Florentine Municipality to bestow on Federigo II., Duke of Urbino, the Captain General of their forces, in reward for his recovery of Volterra, which had rebelled against Florence. The villa passed after-wards through several hands, until it was purchased by the banker Signor Emanuele Fenzi for his family.
The best road to Antella is that parallel with the Arno, and the return to Florence by Rusciano, or by San Felice in Erna ; both which roads avoid several steep ascents. For a considerable way, as far as Ripoli, this road, which was formerly the highway to Rome by Arezzo, is perfectly level. Ripoli is an extensive district south of the Arno, including the little church of Santa Margherita in Montici. The soil all along this tract is remark-able for its fertility ; and fruit trees, especially the cherry, abound ; whence Ripoli is called the Orchard of Florence.
The Badia, or Abbey, of Ripoli is a very ancient foundation, though nothing old now remains, except the crypt. Until the year 1550 it was the residence of the General of the Vallombrosian Order, and when first built, the adjoining convent was also founded for Vallombrosian nuns. In 1274, Gregory X., returning from the Council of Lyons, on his way to the Abbey of Ripoli, refused to enter Florence, which he had excommunicated, because the Guelphs and Ghibellines in the city had rejected his mediation. Finding the river too much swollen to allow him to cross higher up, he raised the interdict whilst he passed over the bridge of Rubacontedelle Grazieafter which he again excommunicated the city, and pursued his way to the Abbey. Here he remained for a time before he continued his journey towards Rome ; but he never got farther than Arezzo, where he died a few days after his arrival.
A lane between hedges to the left leads to the Villa Beccari, or Capponi, the residence of the well-known living naturalist, Odoardo Beccari, who returned within the last four years from a long exploration of Borneo and the adjacent islands. A stately stone pine and old cypresses are conspicuous in the grounds of the villa, which is of the fourteenth century, and may possibly have been the Municipal Palace of Ripoli. On the walls of the old hall are the remains of frescoes representing various coats of arms, whilst the framework of a portcullis may be seen above the gateway ; an internal gallery, with openings at intervals for the sentry to keep watch over the neighbourhood, seems to betoken a fortified mansion, which is confirmed by the Guelphic battlements on the walls. Close to the Villa Beccari is one of the oldest churches in Tuscany, San Piero in Palcopalco, signifying a stage or scaffold, which name was given to this church, because built at a sufficient elevation to escape the inundations from the Arno. A few yards beyond the Badia on the high road is the Parish Church of Ripoli, with nothing to attest its age except the Campanile, and an arched portico resting on octagonal columns. On the little space in front of the church, the banners of the Florentine Republic were unfurled in the month of May 1288, to announce the departure of the troops for the war against Arezzo, which ended in the famous battle of Campaldino, at which Dante was present.
The road now approaches a range of low hills, covered with wood, and studded with farms and villas. The little village called the Bagni di Ripoli derives its name from a Roman bath of the time of Augustus, which was discovered here in 1688. On the hill to the left of the long ascent which follows, was once a villa of the Baroncelli family.
From the village of Rubella came the old family of the Bardi. Here both the Peruzzi and Salviati have property, and at a little distance was once an hospital for pilgrims belonging to the Bigallo.
Turning to the right in order to reach Antella, a most beautiful view of Florence and the distant hills is obtained. A large old battlemented block of buildings is the farm, or Fattoria, of San Giovanni di Dio, an institution and hospital in the Borg’ Ogni Santi at Florence; a little farther on, in the midst of gardens and woods, lies the Villa Peruzzi of Antella, an old irregular house with a tower, which has belonged to the family since 1220 ; it is now the residence of the former Syndic of Florence, Signor Ubaldino Peruzzi. A little below the Villa Peruzzi, nestling amidst trees, is the Villa Bonaini, once the home of the accomplished head of the archives in Florence, the late Cavaliere Bonaini, and, higher, on the side of the hill, are the old church of Montesone and the villa of the philosopher Magalotti. Magalotti was born in Rome 1637, and having been created a Privy Councillor by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand II., and elected Secretary to the Society of the Cimento, he died in Florence in 1712. In this villa he was frequently visited by the poet Redi, who celebrated the excellence of the wines with which Magalotti regaled his guests.
From the Villa Peruzzi, passing another old villa belonging to the same family, the road descends to the picturesque village of Antella; after which it winds among low hills, until it reaches the Ponte a Ema, at the bridge crossing the river Ema, which gives its name to a populous village. On the summit of a hill to the left are the remains of a castle, which was cornmenced by the Vecchietti, whose palace is still left standing in the Mercato Vecchio of Florence ; the first Medici, jealous of rival families, ordered its demolition, with that of other fastnesses in the neighbourhood of the city. The Vecchietti accordingly left their castle as it remains to the present day, and built their villa at the foot of the hill. Between this and Rusciano was once the Paradiso, the only convent in Tuscany of Brigittine nuns and friars. The foundress of the order, St. Bridget of Sweden, was of royal blood, and married to a prince of Sweden, by whom she was the mother of eight children. After the death of her husband she built a monastery in Sweden for sixty nuns and twenty-four friars, and prescribed for them the rules of St. Augustine. The peculiarity of her Order was that it admitted free converse between monks and nuns. She came to Italy in 1369 to obtain its confirmation by Pope Urban V., and while in Florence she made many converts. When there she became acquainted with Petrarch, and formed an intimacy with Monna Lapa, the sister of Niccolô Acciajoli, and wife of Morente Buondelmonti. She died in 1375, and was canonised in 1391.
In 1394, Antonio degli Alberti, a wealthy Florentine noble, obtained leave from Pope Benedict XIII. to erect a monastery for the Brigittines near his villa at Ripoli, called the Paradiso. He supplied the building and gardens with all that could add to their beauty, so that even the laity delighted to visit the grounds. The nuns occupied the upper storey, and the monks, the lower. An abbess presided over both sexes, though the monks had their prior or confessor. But the following year, 1395, during a war between the Florentines and the Duke of Milan, they had to abandon the monastery, and Alberti razed it to the ground. He was soon afterwards banished, on an accusation of conspiring against the State, but meeting a Brigittine friar in Rome, he was persuaded to rebuild the monastery, and, as soon as the decree, by which his goods had been confiscated, had been revoked, he fulfilled his promise, and restored the Paradiso with greater munificence than before. In 1425 the nuns and monks had again to seek shelter in the city from the devastations of bands of lawless soldiers, and they even thought of establishing them-selves within the walls of Florence, but finally returned to Ripoli.
Such was the fame of their sanctity that in 1492 Pope Alexander VI. is said to have recommended Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to introduce the Order into Grenada, which had been recently conquered. During the siege of Florence in 1529 the monks and nuns had to fly in such haste that they carried nothing with them ; they were received into the house of Bernardo Nasi in the Piazza de’ Mozzi, and when able to return, they found the Paradiso in ruins. The monastery was not finally broken up until, by a Bull of Pope Pius VI. in 1776, they were ordered to disperse. Nine of the nuns entered the convent of St. Ambrogio at Florence.
After passing through the Ponte a Ema, one road descends by Rusciano and again joins the Strada dei Colli, another passes the famous quarries of Ripaldi, and enters the Via
Sanese near the Due Strade. The drive occupies about three hours through a rich and lovely country.