Florence – Bellosguardo – Marignolle – Porta San Frediano

ABOUT a quarter of an hour’s distance from the Porta Romana is the height of Bellosguardo, well deserving its name from the variety of lovely views on all sides. The road thither skirts the last remains of the old wall, which has been preserved from demolition, because the strip of ground outside was at one time the Jewish Cemetery, and still being the property of the Hebrews, they will not allow its desecration. Here and there a grey stone amidst the grass marks the graves. From the Porta Romana to the Porta San Frediano the wall retains traces of postern gates and watch towers, and is still in some parts crowned with Guelphic battlements.

Soon after leaving the Porta Romana, the ascent to Bellosguardo begins. About one-third of the way is the church and Piazzetta of San Francesco da Paula. The church formerly belonged to a convent of Minims, a branch of the Franciscans, and bore the pleasant name of ‘ Bel Riposo.’ San Francesco, from Paula, in Calabria, at fifteen years of age dedicated himself to a religious life, and in 1436 founded his Order of Minims, or the least of the Franciscans. Alexander Strozzi, who possessed a villa on Bellosguardo, endowed the church in 1589, on condition of masses being recited for his soul, and that the friars should always choose the possessor of the Villa Strozzi for their patron. Within the church is a fine monument, by Luca della Robbia, executed in 1456, to the memory of Monsignor Benozzo Federighi, Bishop of Fiesole. In the Piazzetta is a statue of the eighteenth century, an imaginary likeness of San Francesco da Paula, by Piamontini.

In the year 1363 all the villas and houses on the hill of Bellosguardo were sacked and burned by the Pisans, aided by the Free Companies, under the command of Sir John Hawk-wood, whose valuable services afterwards to the Florentines were rewarded by a gift of land and a monument in the Cathedral. The villas scattered over the hill are therefore of comparatively modern date. At the top of the first steep ascent is the gate of the Villa Niccolini, situated on a height to the right, and belonging to the Florentine family of that name. The road makes two more steep turns, before arriving at a meadow called the Prato dello Strozzino, from the Strozzi Villa, now Nuti, which is at the farther end. An Oriental plane, of which nothing remains but the hollow trunk and a few branches, is supposed to be the oldest tree of this kind in Tuscany, and to have been brought hither by one of the Strozzi family from the East, who imported several plants until then unknown in Italy, and among them a species of fig—Fico Dotato—and the artichoke.

The Villa Nuti, formerly Lo Strozzino, is one of the most ancient at Bellosguardo. It belonged to the younger branch of the Strozzi family, who possessed most of the land between Bellosguardo and the old Pisan road. The style of architecture of this villa is that of Il Cronaca (1457-1508). A few steps beyond the meadow to the right, by a lane passing the garden of the villa, is the little church of SS. Vito e Modesto, whence there is an extensive view over the distant plain to the west. This church was founded as early as 1019, when it was dedicated to the Holy Sepulchre. It was afterwards placed under the patronage of the Pitti and Mancelli families, until it be-came attached to the brotherhood of the Buonuomini of San Martino.

From the Prato dello Strozzino a fourth sharp ascent leads to the Piazza di Bellosguardo. The large villa to the right, called Castellani, is entirely inhabited by English or American families. It belonged at one time to the Borgherini, an ancient and powerful clan of Florence.’ The Cavaliere Vincenzo Borgherini was implicated in a disgraceful fray with three other young patricians, and was condemned to several years of imprisonment ; his sentence was, however, commuted into banishment to his villa at Bellosguardo, where he died in 1768. The body might have been claimed as that of a condemned criminal, and the family, to escape this mortification, had it secretly removed, giving out that it had been carried off by the devil in the night. This was believed by the peasantry, and some of the hair was shown sticking to the bar of a small window, through which it was supposed to have been dragged ; the window with the hair was, until lately, pointed out to the curious in such legends. The villa is an excellent example of the old Florentine country house, with its quadrangular court and old well, but the flowers trained up the walls are due to the taste of its English and American inhabitants. From the windows to the back, from the balconies and garden, there is a lovely view of the lower valley of the Arno, with the Carrara Mountains in the distance.

Opposite the Villa Castellani is the Villa Zannetti, which belonged to the well-known Florentine surgeon, Ferdinando Zannetti, who died in 1882. He was as good a patriot and philanthropist as surgeon. During the war with Austria, in 1848, he was on the field of Custoza, assisting the wounded, for which service he was deprived of his rank of Cavaliere by the Grand Duke Leopold II. An Austrian general came afterwards to Florence, to be cured of some malady by Zannetti, who consented to heal him, but refused payment for his service, as, he said, he would cure, but would not accept money from the enemies of his country. Living in retirement, the most gentle and modest of men, he gave his time to the poor, and was so beloved by them that a man was once heard to say, ‘ There are three men who can be compared to Jesus Christ : Garibaldi, Gino Capponi, and Zannetti.’ It was in this villa that Zannetti received Garibaldi in 1866, and it was Zannetti who extracted the ball from the foot of the hero after the battle of Aspromonte.

The old tower beyond the Piazza of Bellosguardo, called da Montauto, dates as far back as the year 1300, when it belonged to the Corsi family.

Leaving the Piazza, an iron gate to the right encloses the grounds of the Villa Segni, better known as L’ Ombrellino, from the umbrella-shape of a summer-house in the garden. The villa once belonged to the historian Bernardo Segni. Galileo inhabited it for a time after his condemnation by the Roman Inquisition, when, since he was forbidden to speak of science, he devoted himself to the cultivation of his garden. Ugo Foscolo, the author of the Sepolcri, passed several months here, and when, in 1870, his remains were taken from England to Venice, a meeting was held in this villa to place a bust here to his memory.

Adjoining the Ombrellino is the Villa Michelozzi, one of the finest examples of Florentine architecture. It was built in the fifteenth century by the celebrated Michelozzo Michelozzi, who was so often employed by Cosimo, Pater Patriæ ; the villa still belongs to the Michelozzi family. Its square tower is a conspicuous object, seen from all parts of Florence.

Continuing along the road to Marignolle, the Villa Geppi, to the left, was formerly the property of the Marchese Macchiavelli, a branch of the family which produced the celebrated historian and politician, whose direct descendants became extinct in 1597. The last Marchese Macchiavelli died in 1843, when his name, title and lands, were made over to Giovanni Geppi of Prato, who had married his daughter. The long range of hills here is called the Campora, and the road lies between a succession of villas and gardens until it joins that of Marignolle, at the head of one of the five ways—Cinque Vie—from the Porta Romana. The whole district beyond has been known from early days as the Scopeto, a name probably derived from the groves of birch trees which once grew here.. A large monastery, San Donato a Scopeto, stood in this vicinity, and was rich in works of art ; the friars were called Scopetani, and a tabernacle attached to a farm, with part of the old walls, still remains of the building.

After passing another defaced tabernacle, the first villa arrived at is Marignolle, belonging to the Capponi family. The family of Marignolle to whom the land first belonged was among those whose dwellings were within the first circuit of walls in Florence, and their towers within the city, when the Marignolle were members of the Council, date as far back as 1199. They were so notorious as partisans of the Guelphic faction, that when the Ghibellines entered Florence after the battle of Montaperti, the Canons of San Lorenzo disinterred and concealed the body of one Rustico Marignolle, who had perished in a fray, lest his remains should be exposed to insult from his enemies, and afterwards conveyed them to the cloisters of San Lorenzo, where his monument is still to be seen. The Marignolle gave five Gonfaloniers and twenty-three Priors to the Republic between 1285 and 1512. They also assisted the Medici to rebuild the Church of San Lorenzo.

This villa, which afterwards became the property of the Capponi, was built by the Grand Duke Francis I. for Don Antonio, the adopted son of his wife Bianca Cappello, for whom Francis procured a Principality at Naples, and to whom he assigned a revenue of 60,000 ducats. The amiable character of Don Antonio made him beloved by all the Medici family, for whom he performed some important services. He died in 1621 The architect of the villa was Bernardo Talenti ; it commands one of the finest views in the neighbourhood, and some magnificent cypresses in the grounds are among the oldest in Tuscany. The Capponi purchased the villa from Don Antonio in the year 1600. The last male descendant of the elder and most distinguished branch of the family, the Marchese Gino Capponi, was buried here in 1875. Though blind for many years, he lived to finish his history of the Florentine Republic, in which no name deserves to be remembered as worthily as his own. That name remained unsullied during ages of crime, from the first Gino Capponi of the fourteenth century to the last Gino, on whom the title of Marchese and of Senator of the Italian kingdom could confer little additional honour.

A story or legend is connected with the fields of Marignolle, which has given rise to a custom still maintained in Florence. During the intestine wars of the city, a youth and maiden belonging to families of opposite factions, fell in love with one another. They found opportunities of meeting during carnival, but when near its end they dreaded a final separation. On the last day of the holidays the Florentines were in the habit of making a pilgrimage to a chapel of the Madonna at Marignolle. The lovers met once more in an adjoining meadow, where the youth persuaded the maiden to die with him rather than part. He first plunged a dagger into her heart, and then stabbed himself. Their bodies were found lying side by side, and the peasants covered them with branches and leaves from the box tree. Their story became symbolical of constancy in love and friendship, and every year at carnival time the young people still exchange sprigs of box, which they require one another to produce, whenever they meet ; and should either not have it when called on, the defaulter pays a forfeit in some gift asked for by the other.

The Fattoria, or Home Farm attached to the Capponi Villa, was once the Villa of the Sacchetti, a family supposed to have been of Roman origin, and to have settled in Florence after the destruction of Fiesole. Their houses in the city were in the quarter of Sant’ Apollinare and the Via Condotta. They are mentioned among the illustrious families of Florence by Dante in his `Paradiso’ :

Grande era gia la Colonna del Vaio, Sacchetti, Giuochi, Sifanti, e Barocci.

Paradiso, canto xvi. I. 105.

Ardent partisans of the Pope, a Sacchetti murdered the wife of an Alighieri because she belonged to the sect of Paterini or heretics, and the Sacchetti were among the most violent of the Guelphic party, who fought at Montaperti in 1 26o. Francesco Sacchetti obtained European celebrity as a novelist in the fourteenth century ; he is noted for his excellent style of writing, though his tales are unhappily even more objectionable than those of Boccaccio.

Another of the family, Gianozzo Sacchetti, fell a victim to his political aspirations. When on a visit to Lombardy in the year 1379, he fell in with some of his Guelphic countrymen who had been sent into exile by the popular party led by Silvestro de’ Medici, the ancestor of Cosimo, Pater Patrie. Soon afterwards, Charles of Durazzo (on whom Pope Urban VI. had bestowed the kingdom of Naples, forfeited by Queen Joanna for the murder of her husband) aimed at gaining possession of Florence ; he engaged Sacchetti to assist him in the prosecution of his design, by acting as a means of communication between him and the discontented Guelphic nobles in the city. One of the conspirators, Benedetto Peruzzi, took an impression of the seal of Charles of Durazzo, and wrote a letter purporting to be from that Prince to some of his adherents in FIorence, demanding the loan of 3,000 golden florins for the pay of his troops. By ill luck the letter was intercepted, and the authorities thus gained information of the intentions of Sacchetti and the rest of the conspirators. Sacchetti had invited his friends to a banquet in his villa at Marignolle, in-tending there to concert with them the plan of operation. Whilst in the midst of their revels, one of them started up, exclaiming they were betrayed. A watch they had placed on the tower of the villa, perceived by the light of the moon a strange glitter in the trees ; the next instant a number of armed men presented themselves before the door of the Villa. They were the trained bands or militia of Florence, led by the Capitano del Popolo, who, insisting on admittance, put all found in the house under arrest. The friends of Sacchetti effected their escape by a small postern, whilst their host, his brother, and Benedetto Peruzzi were seized, and conveyed to the Palazzo del Podestà. Peruzzi’s punishment was commuted into an enormous fine, and fines were levied on all the other conspirators, with the exception of Sacchetti, who, after having been repeatedly put to the torture, was beheaded.

Another Capponi Villa at Marignolle belonged formerly to the Gianfigliazzi, whose houses in Florence, including the Palazzo Masetti on the Lung’ Arno Corsini, were in the neighbourhood of the church of the S. Trinità. The Gianfigliazzi gave the land adjoining their villa for a monastery, and built another large villa, where Pope Leo X. lodged in 1515. This honour is recorded on two marble tablets, one over the door of the house, and the other in the room where he slept. Leo X. came to Tuscany on his way to meet Francis I. at Bologna, and whilst preparations were making for a grand reception of a Medici Pope in Florence, he passed the night at the Villa Gianfigliazzi. The little church of Santa Maria a Marignolle, which was founded by Don Antonio de’ Medici, was rebuilt by a Capponi in 1718, when their family arms were added to those of the Medici. The church of SS. Quirino e Giuletta, a little lower down on the hill, is as old as the beginning of the thirteenth century. The road now makes a steep descent to the river Greve, where there is a charming drive along the banks, leading back to Florence in the direction of the Porta San Frediano.

Near the village of Scandicci, another road leads to a most beautiful country in the vicinity of the village of Mosciano, which stands on a height. It is reached by an easy drive from Florence, and is interesting from its geological formation of tertiary deposits, where nummilites are found ; some siliceous fragmentary portions, which take a high polish, are used in the manufacture of pietra dura.

Pursuing the road to Florence, the Villa called Torre Galli or Nerlaia was once the property of the Nerli family. Another edifice, with high machicolated walls, was the Villa of Count Galli Tassi, whose statue, as the benefactor to the Hospital, may be seen in the little cloister of Santa Maria Nuova ; the villa now belongs to the Marchese Farinola, the grandson, by his mother, of the Marchese Gino Capponi. This building once afforded a refuge to the heretical Paterini, to which sect the Nerli themselves belonged. Nothing now remains of the old castle but the solid structure of the external walls. It is at this present time inhabited by the well-known authoress, Mademoiselle de Ramé, who publishes under the assumed name of Ouida.

After passing through the long village of Legnaia, whose fields supply Florence with the best vegetables, a villa belonging to the Rinuccini family is seen to the right, in a district called Soffiano. In the church above, of Upper Soffiano, were recently discovered some Giottesque frescoes, buried under whitewash. The high tower beside it was that of the Carducci, the patrons of the church, who had their villa in the vicinity. In the plain below, a small villa by the roadside is that of the Artimini, who, in the commencement of the fourteenth century, possessed a lordly villa between Signa and the Medicean Palace of Poggio a Caiano, near which is still the family burying-ground, though since the loss of their villa the Artimini have been obliged to lay their dead in Santo Spirito. The two brothers who now represent the family are professors of chemistry in the Florentine University, and at Pisa ; the elder has devoted much of his time to agriculture, and philanthropic endeavours for the improvement of the condition of the poor.

The Arno formerly took its course in this direction, and when it overflowed its banks it occasionally formed a lake here ; the name Guarda Via, given to the Artimini Villa, records the time when tolls were levied on goods brought up the river. The Well of St. Francis, in the adjoining fields, is supposed to have a peculiarly healing property, because St. Francis himself once visited this spot in 1253.

Beyond this is the Villa Strozzi, the property of Prince Strozzi. It stands on a wooded height, at the junction of the old highway to Pisa, and forms the last of the low range of hills, commencing with Bellosguardo. The Strozzi are the lineal descendants of Filippo Strozzi, the Florentine merchant, who, in the latter part of the fifteenth century, had his shop in Via Porta Rossa, and who built the splendid Palace in Florence. His son was first the favourite, and afterwards the victim of the infamous Grand Duke Cosimo I. The family had for generations possessed land in this part, as far as the Villa of the Strozzino at Bellosguardo. This villa is in the midst of delightful gardens and pleasure-grounds.

From the Villa Strozzi to the Porta San Frediano, the Pisan road lies through a suburb of the city called Pignone, or Monticelli—Pignone signifying a dyke, to protect the land from the inundations of the river, and Monticelli, the mounts, or low hills which border the road to the right. The population here chiefly consists of bargemen, fishermen, and costermongers, besides the workmen in the iron foundry of the Cavaliere Pietro Benini. The well-clothed, healthy appearance of the handsome men, women, and children of this district, are proofs of greater prosperity than is enjoyed by the population within the city. Before there existed as many facilities for land traffic, the little Port of Pignone received large barges from Leghorn, Pisa, and the Lower Val d’ Arno.

To the right of the road is Monte Uliveto, or the Mount of Olives, where in the tenth century a little Oratory, called S. Maria del Castagno, was inhabited by a hermit, and where the merchants and artisans of Florence went to pray ; in the course of time they formed themselves into the Confraternity of the Saviour ; they purchased land here, and built a monastery, which they dedicated to the Virgin. After the death of the hermit, in 1334, the Confraternity bestowed the monastery on the monks of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, of Sienna, who immediately took possession. Offerings and aid were not wanting to enlarge and embellish the building. Among the most generous contributors was Bartolo Capponi, who bequeathed a sum of money for the erection of the church, and in 1350 the monastery was finished. In compliance with the desire of Capponi, it was dedicated to San Bartolommeo a Monte . Uliveto. Though pillaged during the siege of 1529-1530, it was not destroyed, and it continued singularly rich in works of art, which have all been conveyed in late years to the Museums of Florence, though some traces of a fresco of great merit are still to be seen on the walls of the former Refectory, now divided into several rooms, inhabited by the priest. The monastery itself has been recently converted into a Military Convalescent Hospital. From a platform above, surrounded by cypresses, there is a fine view of Florence. The pathway behind Monte Uliveto leads to the little Church of San Vito, at Bellosguardo, and the Strozzino Villa. Various other churches, convents, and hospitals, which once existed between Monte Uliveto and the Porta San Frediano, were all demolished during the siege.

The Porta San Frediano, or the Porta Verzaja (verdure)–supposed to be so called from the vegetable gardens outside the city—was named San Frediano from a convent and church which once existed on this spot. The date of the erection of the gate was between 1324 and 1327, and was probably after a design of Andrea Pisano. Its lofty tower was destroyed when the victorious Ghibellines entered Florence, after the battle of Montaperti. It was through this gate that the Florentines always re-entered their city after their raids against the Pisans, and here Charles VIII. of France made his triumphal entrance in 1494 ; from this gate also Ferruccio, one of the last of Florentine patriots, issued during the siege of 1529-1530, when he attempted a diversion, by attacking Empoli and Volterra, an expedition which ended as fatally for himself as for Florence, when he was slain amidst the mountains above Pistoia. Traces still remain of the ante-port of this gate, which, like all those formerly attached to the other gates of Florence, has been long since destroyed.

The road from the Porta San Frediano to the Porta Romana passes beside the cemetery of the Jews, beneath the old walls of the city.