Florence – Pretraia – Castello – Ginori Porcelain Manufactory

RETURNING along the Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Palazzo Brucciato, and taking the central of the three roads which leads to Petraia and Castello, the first village is Rifredi, which in the fifteenth century was frequently devastated by the soldiers of the Free Companies and of Castruccio Castracani, when at war with Florence. The village and bridge, Ponte Rifredi, derive their name from the little stream of Terzolle—Rio freddo (cold river), which, when swollen by the rains, often inundated the neighbouring houses and fields. The family of the Guidotti had their castles or fortified houses with towers here, and a curious old church to the right, known as San Stefano in Pane, dates as far back as A.D. 900. It is supposed to stand on the site of a temple to Pan, and some ancient Roman inscriptions which have been discovered near make it probable that the Via Cassia lay in this direction. Pious worshippers have converted Pan into Pane (bread), and understand by San Stefano in Pane that the Church was dedicated to St. Stephen dispensing bread A long low portico, supported by simple columns, usual in the village churches round Florence, is in front of the building. Within, the nave is divided from the aisles on either side by three arches of great width, resting on pilasters ; the arches nearest the altar are round, the others pointed. They were at one time considerably more distant from the ground, but the soil has accumulated and covered four out of seven steps which led to the high altar. A flat wall originally terminated the church at the east end, and the present apse was a late addition. The only artistic object of interest remaining here is a very fine tabernacle, by one of the Robbia family. In the centre is a vase of flowers with garlands of fruit suspended on either side of a small niche, containing the picture of the Madonna; to the right and left are nearly life-size statues of St. Philip and St. James ; and around are cherubim and supporting angels of great loveliness. The architrave is sustained by pilasters, on which are delicate arabesques. An illuminated choral-book is behind the altar, and in the priest’s house are kept screens or banners used in processions, and made of white satin with flowers embroidered in gold—a Florentine art of the seventeenth century. Two medallions in silver are introduced into the work, and represent in relief the Stoning of St. Stephen.

After passing through the village of Quarto (the fourth from Florence), the villa of Petraia, which is the property of the King of Italy, is discovered on an eminence, 800 feet above the sea-level, surrounded by a garden ; the ground rises in terraces, and is divided by trim hedges of ilex and cypress. To the right of the palace is a fountain with a statue of Venus wringing her hair, by Giovanni da Bologna. Though the work of a great artist, it hardly deserves its reputation. The fishponds are supplied with fine carp, and the garden is well filled with flowers interspersed with shrubs and trees, of which the principal are the ilex and cypress ; but even the palm flourishes here. All is kept in the order to be expected from a royal residence.

Until the sixteenth century Petraia belonged to the Brunelleschi, a wealthy family, to whom the celebrated architect was only distantly related. In 1364 the Pisans, aided by Free Companies of English and Germans, under the command of Sir John Hawkwood, besieged this villa, then a fortified castle; but the Brunelleschi made so stout a resistance that they forced the besiegers to retire. The tower of the present villa is supposed to be the same which was so gallantly defended during this attack. A century later, Petraia became the property of the Strozzi, from whom it was confiscated or seized by Cardinal de’ Medici, afterwards Ferdinand I. ; he rebuilt the villa as it now stands, and here, by his command, Scipione Ammirato wrote his Florentine history.’

The central court was painted by Giovanni di San Giovanni of Arezzo, 1590-1636, and some years later Il Volterrano added other frescoes. Both were followers of the school of Matteo Rosselli. The subjects of these paintings are : the triumphal entrance of the Grand Duke Cosimo I. into Siena ; the inauguration of the statue of the Grand Duke Ferdinand I. at Leghorn ; an allegory relating to the institution of the Tuscan Order of St. Stephen ; and the Coronation of the Emperor Charles V. by the Medicean Pope, Clement VII.

A short distance from Petraia is the Villa della Topaja, which Cosimo I. bestowed on Benedetto Varchi, who there composed his history. Adjoining the grounds of Petraia are those of the other royal villa of Castello, which is situated at the foot of the hill. A small church between the two villas, though an ancient foundation, was wholly rebuilt by the Medici in 1617. It contains a wooden crucifix by Giovanni da Bologna, as well as a picture of the Adoration of the Magi, by Cigoli ; the ceiling was painted by Il Volterrano. Lower on the hill is the Villa Corsini, belonging to Prince Corsini of Florence, and noted for the beauty of its gardens.

The view of the plain from the terrace above the garden of Castello is very lovely ; within a thick wood behind, is a statue of Winter, by Bartolommeo Ammanati, after a design by Il Tribolo. It represents an old man shivering with cold. Ammanati, born in Florence in 1511, was the pupil of Baccio Bandinelli, and of the Venetian, Sansovino ; he died in 1589. Il Tribolo, a favourite artist of the Grand Duke Cosimo I., was employed to decorate Castello, and from his acknowledged skill in laying out gardens, to design those of the villa, whilst the interior was adorned with frescoes by Pontormo, Bronzino, and Pier di Cosimo. These frescoes have long since dis-appeared, and the only part of the villa deserving notice is the garden. It consists of a large quadrangular sloping ground, divided into formal walks and plats, filled with orange trees, and entered by a flight of steps which descends from the terrace. A singular grotto, composed of rock work with wild animals carved in stone, is at one end. Several good groups of statuary adorn the garden, and the octagonal fountain, by Il Tribolo himself, is considered one of the finest of the kind in Italy. The best group is that of Hercules wrestling with Antæus, by Bartolommeo Ammanati ; water formerly gushed from the mouth of Antæus, as he struggles in the grasp of Hercules.

The name Castello is derived from Castellum, a conduit, of which there was one formerly on the hill above. The Grand Duke Cosimo I. placed his mother, Maria Salviati, the widow of the hero Giovanni delle Bande Nere, in this villa, and here she ended her days, in 1543. Cosimo lost his father whilst still a child, and his mother’s devotion to him was returned with so little affection that he could hardly he persuaded to relinquish the pleasures of the chase for a single day, to visit her on her deathbed. Though as bad a husband as son, Cosimo found a successor to the Grand Duchess Eleanora di Toledo, at whose death he immediately married Camilla Martelli, and retired with her to Castello, resigning the govern-ment of Tuscany to his son Francis. The Austrian Princess, Joanna, wife of Francis I., could not accept the daughter of a Florentine citizen as a mother-in-law, and appealed to her brother, the Emperor Maximilian II., who wrote a remonstrance to Cosimo, which only drew upon Joanna an indignant rebuke.

The Muscadel grapes, of the vineyards of Castello, are still as celebrated as when the excellence of the wine they produce was sung by Redi:—-

Ma lodato, Celebrato, Coronato Sia l’ eroe the nelle Vigne Di Petraia e di Castello Piantô primo il Moscadello.’

Between the Villa of Castello and the village of Quinto (the fifth from Florence) is the Villa Alberti, once Grazzini. Its former owners had decorated their house with paintings by Giovanni di San Giovanni, as well as by the Milanese artist, Luigi Ademollo; but these had all disappeared, and the gardens, once celebrated for their beauty, had fallen into decay, when the villa was purchased by Count Mori Ubaldini degli Alberti. It is now converted into an establishment for the cultivation of the silkworm, in which above a hundred women find employment. A former Carmelite monastery perched higher up, is now let out to families who seek country air.

Near Quinto is the porcelain manufactory of the Marchese Ginori, which bears the name of Doccia, a gutter, often applied to other places situated in a hollow. Here in 1735, during the reign of the last Medicean Grand Duke, Gian Gastone, the Marchese Carlo Ginori endeavoured, with patriotic zeal, to revive the ceramic art in Tuscany. He caused various experiments to be made to obtain good imitations of Chinese and Japanese vases ; and he fitted out a vessel to the East to import specimens of earths used there for the purpose. He also collected about three thousand chefs-d’oeuvre of ancient pottery and sculpture from all parts of Italy and Europe, and thus formed a museum for the use of his workpeople. Not satisfied with improving the manufacture, he endeavoured at the same time to educate and raise the condition of those he employed, by establishing schools in the little colony of Doccia, and he invited professors of chemistry and painting to give instruction on these subjects. His son, the Marchese Lorenzo Ginori, carried the benevolent schemes of his father to still higher perfection ; and his successor, the Marchese Leopoldo, intro-. duced Savings Banks and Societies of Mutual Aid, with other beneficent institutions.

This was the period when the philanthropic aims of the Emperor Joseph II., the son of Maria Theresa, had become a fashion ; and, contemporaneous with the French writers and philosophers of reform, who preceded the Revolution of 1786, he initiated the ideas of liberty and progress, which could only produce fruit in succeeding generations. The Ginori family were among the benefactors of the age, as they sowed the seed of future good ; but their excellent institutions do not appear to have at the time spread ideas of culture beyond the village of Doccia ; and Tuscany, with the rest of Italy, a hundred years after the foundation of the Ginori porcelain works, had not made any advance in civilisation, compared with other European states. The Marchese Carlo Leopoldo travelled in France, Germany, and England to obtain information about the latest improvements in porcelain, and he spared no expense in collecting new designs and models. After his death in 1837 the manufacture was conducted by the Marchese Pier Francesco Rinuccini, whom he had appointed guardian, until his daughter, the Marchesa Marianna Ginori, reached an age to superintend and manage the establishment for herself and her children.

Ginori china still maintains a high reputation, though the later works cannot compete with the old. The present Marchese Ginori has given a fresh impulse to the manufacture, but owing to the vast strides made during the last few years in our own and neighbouring countries, in knowledge and in the application of a high art standard to manufactures, Ginori china cannot yet be compared in variety and ‘beauty of form with the productions of England, France, Denmark, or Germany.