Florence – The Villa Palmieri

THE OLD BOLOGNESE ROAD – PRATOLINO – MONTE SENARIO

BEYOND the arch erected in honour of the Grand Duke Francis II. and Maria Theresa, at the Porta San Gallo, is a public garden or Boschetto—Parterre—as it is usually called. Here once stood a Hospital for Foundlings, and for the reception of pilgrims ; and, later, an Augustinian convent and church, dedicated to San Gallo by Lorenzo de’ Medici. From thence is derived the name of this gate, as well as that of the architect, Giuliano Giamberti San Gallo, who was born in the vicinity of the convent. The church was demolished by order of the Florentine Republic in 1529, to prevent its occupation by the troops of the Prince of Orange during the siege ; but the convent was only suppressed under the Austrian Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo (1765-1790), when he introduced various reforms in the State, and among them, the diminution of idle friars throughout Tuscany. The place, where the monastery of San Gallo had stood, was converted into the present public garden.

Passing the barrier of the Ponte Rosso, called so from a bridge, which was demolished here in 1868, the Via Faentina to the right leads to San Marco Vecchio, which in early days belonged to the canons of San Lorenzo. Everything of interest in this little church has been removed, and it is, therefore, only worthy of notice as one of the oldest in the neighbourhood. Still further on this road, above the stream of the Mugnone, is the Villa Palmieri, which has the disputed honour of being supposed to have been the scene of Boccaccio’s tales, probably, with better foundation than any of the other villas which have the same reputation. Boccaccio may have drawn entirely on his own imagination, but the Villa Palmieri rests its claim on long tradition, the road leading to it being called Via Boccaccio, whilst the whole district bears the name of the Valle delle Belle Donne ; besides which, two water mills in the vicinity still at work, are mentioned in the Decamerone. The description of the villa and ground also very closely resembles those of the Palmieri. Boccaccio relates that the place chosen by the gay company of ladies and gentlemen, escaping from the horrors of the Plague, was only two short miles from the city ; and he continues : ‘ The spot was on a rising ground, remote from the high road, and covered with various shrubs and green leafy plants, agreeable to the eye. On the summit was a palace, with a large and beautiful cortile in the midst, and with loggie —covered balconies—halls and chambers, each beautiful in itself, and adorned with excellent paintings of cheerful subjects ; there were meadows around, and marvellous gardens, and wells of fresh water, with vaults containing the most precious wines; better adapted perhaps to those curious in good liquors, than to sober and modest women. When all this was well swept out, and the beds in the chambers made ready, and fitted with all the flowers of the season that could be had, and cream-cheeses prepared on reeds, the company arrived with no small delight.’

They seem to have risen with the dawn, and dispersed to take walks over the country; after passing the heat of the day in recounting tales to one another, under the shade of the trees, in the garden, or meadows, they again separated to amuse them-selves until supper, concluding the day by song and dance. One of their rambles was to the green and pebbly bank of a clear stream, which descended from a hill to a shady valley, where they bathed their feet in the pure water, possibly that of the Mugnone. Another was to the valley of the Belle Donne, where was a little lake in the forest, which may have been that in the vicinity of the villa where afterwards resided the poet Walter Savage Landor. The two mills are also referred to, as belonging to a neighbouring villa, due mila passi, two thousand steps from that which Boccaccio makes the scene of his tales.

The Villa Palmieri is now the property of the Dowager Countess of Crawford and Balcarres, and the grounds combine the beauty of an Italian garden with the care and order of an English home.

Returning to the barrier of the Ponte Rosso, the Bolognese road rises directly by a steep ascent between houses. To the left is the horticultural garden of Florence and the country house of the late Baron Bettino Ricasoli, a statesman whose name will ever be remembered among those who founded the Kingdom of Italy. To the right is the Pellegrino, at one time a hospital for pilgrims, which gave its name to the whole district, but which has entirely disappeared, and a large and ugly block of buildings used as a school for boys has taken its place. The church of the old monastery is still standing, just before arriving at the little borough of Pietra.

The first villa to the left, after passing through Pietra, is Lavaggi. It is in the district of Montughi, which extends from the Via Bolognese to the Via Vittorio Emanuele. The Villa Lavaggi was at one time the residence of Brunetto Latini, the master of Dante, who is buried in the cloisters of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence ; Villa Lavaggi afterwards became the property of the Pazzi family. It was here that Jacopo Pazzi received Cardinal Raffaello Riario, a youth of nineteen, when his visit was made a pretext for festivities, during which the famous Pazzi conspiracy against Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici was hatched. The villa was confiscated after the mur-der of Giuliano and the defeat and destruction of the conspirators. The accomplished René of Anjou, on his way to and from Naples, where he went to claim the kingdom left him by Queen Joanna II., lodged at this villa. René returned to his native State of Provence, and died there in 1480. The villa after-wards became the property of the Massa family, from whom it passed to the Panciatichi. Here the celebrated songstress, Madame Catalani, spent her last days ; and, after her death, it was sold to the Marchese Lavaggi, of Rome.

A narrow lane beyond the villa, but wide enough for carriages to pass, connects the Bolognese Road with the Via Vittorio Emanuele. In this lane is the Convent of Santa Maria, once rich in pictures, but which have all been removed to the galleries of Florence. The road lies across the lovely undulating land of Montughi, and joins the Via Vittorio Emanuele by a steep descent from the Capuchin Monastery.

The village of La Lastra, farther on the Bolognese Road, consists of a group of houses on a rocky bank to the right : there the exiled Bianchi assembled, A.D. 1300 they were sixteen hundred horsemen and some thousand foot, all resolved on reinstating themselves in Florence, who succeeded in reaching the Piazza di San Giovanni, but from want of organisation were overcome, and forced to retreat and disband.

The Villa Salviati beyond, now called Hagerman, is the property of a Swedish gentleman. On this site was the Castle of the Montegozzi, who were succeeded by the Aldobrandi, from whom it passed to the Salviati. Looking down the steep road leading to the principal entrance to the grounds, a bridge may be observed over the Mugnone, called the Ponte alla Badia, because connecting the Bolognese road with the celebrated abbey or Badia of Fiesole, which is on the opposite high bank of the stream. This bridge was constructed by the Consuls of the Guild of Wool, and is supposed to be the scene of the battle where Radagasius the Goth was defeated by Stilicho, on the day of Santa Reparata.

In a little oratory near the bridge, dedicated to Santa Maddalena, are remains of frescoes by Fra Bartolommeo, but the best among them have been removed to Florence ; and on a conical hill stands the Castle of Basciano, which belonged to the family of the Scolari, the friends and allies of the Buondelmonti, who held it till the Republic ordered the demolition of all fortified buildings within reach of the city ; on the high altar of the church is a Madonna enthroned, by Neri de’ Bicci.

The Villa Salviati is one of the largest near Florence, and the grounds are extremely beautiful. Here Veronica Cybo took the head of the unhappy Catarina Canacci, whom she had caused to be murdered, and, concealing it in a jar of flowers, presented it to her husband, Jacopo Salviati, Catarina’s reputed lover. The most popular singers of this century, Mario, Duke of Candia, and his wife, the beautiful Giulia Grisi, inhabited this villa for several years previous to her death.

Continuing along the Bolognese Road, the next place on the left hand is Trespiano, formerly part of the land belonging to the Lords of Cercina and Castiglione, but for many past years, the cemetery for the poor of Florence. A mile from Trespiano, on an eminence beneath Monte Morello, may be seen the old castle of the Castiglione family, where, until recently, was preserved the sword of Dante da Castiglione, who fought the famous duel during the siege of 1529. The sword has, however, been removed to the Bargello. The Castiglione were originally Castellani, and claimed a descent from the Roman conspirator Catiline. They were among the most ancient families of Tuscany ; one of their number fought on the Ghibelline side in the battle of Arbia, after which, in 1268, the whole clan was for a time banished from Florence. In 146z a Castiglione was first chosen Prior of the Republic, and the last Prior of this family was Guido da Dante, the father of Dante da Castiglione, who was born in 1503. At the foot of the eminence on which the castle is perched is the village of Cercina, part of the lordship ; and from the green sward in front of the little church there is a lovely distant view of Florence. The best and safest way to reach Cercina is by Careggi, returning to Florence by Trespiano and the Bolognese Road.

Beyond the Villa Salviati is a small villa belonging to the well-known living actor Salvini. On a height within the grounds, and in the midst of a wood of pines, stands the Uccellatojo, or Bird Tower of Dante. The Mugnone divides this hill from that of Fiesole, and there is a singular charm in the contrast of wild mountain scenery to the north with the cultivated land to the south towards Florence.

The village of Montorsoli, near the entrance to the Salvini Villa, produced the sculptor, Giovanni Angelo da Montorsoli, the pupil of Michael Angelo, one of whose best works is in the Medicean Chapel, or Sagrestia Nuova, of San Lorenzo. Farther on, to the left of the road, is the Oratory of San Filippo Benizzi, who is best known to foreigners by the beautiful paintings of Andrea del Sarto in the court or entrance to the Church of the SS. Annunziata. Here the saint was wont to rest on his way to his monastery of Monte Senario, and pilgrims to that famous sanctuary, whether arriving singly or in procession, paused at this Oratory before ascending the mountain.

The Medicean Villa of Pratolino, now belonging to Prince Paolo Demidoff, is the place of most importance along this road. So little remains of what once made it famous, that the difficulty to obtain permission to see the house and grounds is the less to be regretted. The Grand Duke Francis I. purchased the estate from Benedetto Uguccioni in 1569, and employed Bernardo Buontalenti to prepare it for a royal residence. Besides the villa, Buontalenti constructed a hexagonal chapel with a cupola supported by fourteen columns. In accordance with the taste of the age, he made a labyrinth and grottoes, and placed figures in different parts of the grounds, which moved by machinery, to cause surprises, and he added waterspouts and fountains. On an island in a small lake Giovanni da Bologna was commissioned to execute and place a colossal statue, which can be distinguished from various parts in the neighbourhood of Florence, and by which he meant to symbolise the Apennines. Giovanni di San Giovanni and other artists decorated the interior of the palace.

Pratolino has long ceased to be a favourite residence, and since the days when it was inhabited by Francis I. and Bianca Cappello, it has been allowed gradually to fall into ruins, whilst the villa itself was demolished by later Tuscan sovereigns. Ferdinand III. built a modern palace in the grounds, and the present owner, Prince Demidoff, is making various improvements, and has stocked the place with game.

From Pratolino the road passes over breezy mountains and common, till it arrives at the foot of the steep ascent to Monte Senario, which can only be accomplished in a cart or sleigh drawn by oxen or on foot. Within a short distance of the monastery is L’Acquirico, where there is a fountain and a cross. This was another resting-place for the founders of Monte Senario, and a miracle is said to have been here per-formed upon a boy, who had been drowned, and was restored to life.

The history of Monte Senario is closely connected with the early history of Florence. On the site of the beautiful Campanile of Giotto, close to the Florentine Cathedral, once stood an Oratory belonging to a confraternity who dedicated them-selves to the service of the Virgin, and to sing praises in her honour. Even after the construction of the Campanile, they continued to meet there, and entered the Cathedral by a bridge connecting it with the Bell Tower. An inscription on a marble tablet facing the Campanile records the fact, and above it may still be seen the effigy of the Virgin and Angel of the Annunciation. The Laudesi, or singers of praise, were a band of seven gentlemen belonging to good families in Florence, who called themselves the Servi, or Servants, di Maria. Their names were Bonfiglio Monaldi, Giovanni Manetti, Benedetto dell’ Antella, Bartolommeo Amidei, Ricovero Lippi Uguccione, Gerardo Sostegno, and Alessio Falconieri.

According to the old legend they were assembled at prayer in their Oratory on August 15, the day of the Assumption of the Madonna, in the year 1233, when they saw a vision of a luminous globe, with seven rays, which rested on their heads, and immediately afterwards the Virgin, in the midst of a choir of angels, appeared, exhorting her worshippers to abandon their families and friends, to give all their goods to the poor, and to dedicate themselves to a monastic life. The eldest of the confraternity, Bonfiglio Monaldi, placing himself at their head, led them to a meadow out of Florence, called Camarizia, or Campo di Marte, where are now the Piazza and Church of Santa Croce. In the centre of what is now the cloister of Santa Croce, the Servi di Maria erected a little hut or oratory, where they offered up their prayers. From thence, Monaldi and his brethren walked in procession to the palace of the Florentine Bishop Ardingo. They were all attired in long grey habits, and the people followed them in crowds, whilst, as the legend relates, the very infants at the breast cried out,

Behold the servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary ! ‘Among these miraculously endowed children was Filippo Benizzi, after-wards the great saint of the Order ; who, although only five months old, exhorted his mother to give alms to these holy men. The fame of their sanctity at length attracted such a multitude of spectators to gaze at them when at their prayers in their humble oratory, that they determined to seek a more solitary place, where they could dwell apart from all human beings. Their prayer for guidance was answered by another vision of the Madonna, who pointed out to them Monte Senario, then a desert covered with forest and infested by bears, wolves and other wild animals. The name has been variously derived from Monte Asinario, the Ass’s Mount ; Monte Sanario, the Mount of Health ; Monte Senario, the Mount where the wind moans among the trees ; and Monte Senario, the highest of six hills.

Bishop Ardingo confirmed the choice of the Madonna, and bestowed the land on the Servi di Maria. They arrived at the place with no garments but the monks’ habits they wore, and no food but a little bread. On the day of our Lord’s Ascension they set up an altar on the top of the hill, and commenced building an oratory. Each brother sought a separate cave, in which to dwell as hermits, in imitation of the Thebaid in Egypt, and the place was soon known as the Holy Hermitage of Monte Senario.

To provide a hospitium or lodging for the brethren when they descended from their hill to beg alms in the city, in 1256 they built another oratory at Cafaggio, just outside the gates of Florence, on the site now occupied by the Church of the SS. Annunziata, which they called Santa Maria in Cafaggio. But in their retirement at Monte Senario they were still not secure from the intrusion of strangers, who came from all parts to behold these saintly men. When Cardinal Castiglione came to Florence as Legate from Pope Gregory IX., he was taken by Bishop Ardingo to Monte Senario. In 1244 Piero Martire, Grand Inquisitor of Italy under Pope Innocent IV., and persecutor of all heresies, was sent to investigate and render an account to the Holy Father of these penitents, and above all to ascertain that they had no taint of heretical doctrines. Whilst at his prayers, Piero Martire beheld a vision of the Virgin attired in a black mantle, and seven pure white lilies were thrown to him by angels, who told him they had gathered them on the mountain. The Inquisitor hastened at once to the Hermitage, and after he had satisfied himself regarding the innocence of their lives and the orthodoxy of their doctrine, he never ceased extolling their virtues in his sermons. The Pope confirmed the Order, and granted them certain privileges, and, further, made use of them to gain fresh adherents to his cause, by proclaiming that all who would abandon his enemy the Emperor Frederick II. (` the persecutor of the Church’), and join the Servi di Maria, should receive full absolution for their sins.

On February 27th, 1239, in the midst of an unusually hard winter, a miracle is recorded : a vine which had only been planted one year, put forth leaves, producing the most delicious grapes, whilst the fields around became suddenly green with young grass, and enamelled with flowers as in the spring. On the occasion of this marvel the Hermits all wept with joy, and the good bishop Ardingo himself shed tears, beholding therein a sign that the Virgin intended to increase the number of her servants. Towards midnight, as Ardingo was kneeling at his devotions, the Madonna appeared to him, carrying with her the black garment of a friar, and an open book containing the rules of St. Augustine with the title of Servi di Maria. She invited all to join in cultivating the Vine of the Lord, and to wear the black habit in remembrance of her sufferings and the death of her Son. As the Hermits had at the same time a similar vision, they henceforth received other brethren into their Order, and changed their baptismal names to others more saintly in character. In 1255 Bonfiglio Monaldi visited Naples, and received the formal confirmation of his Order at the hands of Pope Alexander IV.

The brethren frequently now descended from Monte Senario to visit other parts of Italy in search of proselytes ; and a church and monastery rose at Caffaggiolo, which were dedicated to the SS. Annunziata, or the Virgin of the Annunciation.

The reputation of the Servi di Maria was, however, really established by their great saint, Filippo Benizzi, the son of Jacopo Benizzi and Albaverde Frescobaldi. Filippo was born in the family palace facing the Palazzo Guicciardini, near the Piazza de’ Pitti. He received his education in the Universities of Paris and Padua, and, at the age of nineteen, returned to Florence, intending to practise as a physician. To quote the words of Mrs. Jameson : ` One day, as he attended mass in the Church of the SS. Annunziata, he was startled by the words in the epistle of the day : ” Draw nigh and join thyself to the chariot,” and going home full of meditation, he threw himself on his bed. In his dreams he beheld the Virgin seated in a chariot ; she called him to draw near, and to join her servants. He obeyed the vision, and retired to Monte Senario, where such was his modesty and humility that the brethren did not for a long time discover his talents.’ Filippo joined the Order fifteen years after its foundation in 1247 ; the various miracles attributed to him are recorded by Andrea del Sarto in his frescoes in the SS. Annunziata.

In the year 1412, one of the family Della Stufa, dying without children, bequeathed a sum of money for the enlargement of the monastery and for the repair of the church. A century and a half later, in 1596, the Grand Duke Ferdinand I., brother of Francis I., and the instigator of the murders of his sister Isabella Orsini, and of his sister-in-law Eleanora, and the supposed murderer of Francis himself, and his, Duchess Bianca Cappello, exhibited his piety by giving money to rebuild the monastery. He was hunting in the neighbourhood of Pratolino, and unexpectedly came upon the Hermitage, the residence of the founders, and was so delighted with the friars, that when the new monastery was nearly finished, Ferdinand brought his young wife Christina of Lorraine to visit it.

Pietro Leopoldo I. suppressed the monastery in 1777, but it revived under later and less enlightened sovereigns.

Near the entrance to the Hermitage, as it is still called, are two modern statues representing the Beato Bonfiglio Monaldi, the first General of the Order, and San Filippo Benizzi. They stand on a green sward outside the convent, the doors of which are still closed to all females, though the brethren kindly admit both sexes to visit the lovely woods around. A bell and clock tower are at the entrance of the building ; on the tower is a representation of the Virgin of Sorrows, and for a motto, the prayer of her servants, ` Dolore quos genuisti salva filios.’

Around the little court of entrance are other reliefs, descriptive of the seven sorrows of the Mother of our Lord. The grotto in which one of the founders, the Beato Manetto dell’ Antella, died in 1268, is still shown, and is reached through the woods. Several other grottoes, which were formerly inhabited by the Hermits, are also preserved for the visits of pious pilgrims, who are promised a hundred days’ indulgence for their sins, in reward for prayers offered up at these shrines.

The view into the Valley of the Mugello, the country of Giotto, from Monte Senario, is extremely beautiful. At no great distance is the Abbey of Buonsollazzo (good comfort), on whose site Hugh of Brandenburg, Viceroy of Tuscany for the Emperor Otho III., beheld a vision so terrible, that he resolved to expiate his sins by founding this abbey, and, shortly after-wards, he built the Abbey, or Badia, of Florence.

The battle of Radagasius, which, as before mentioned, is supposed by some to have taken place in the hollow near the Salviati Villa, is by others said to have been fought in the Valle le Croci, seen from Monte Senario and the name Croci to have been given from the sufferings of the combatants. In the Valley of the Mugello is also situated the Villa of Cafaggiolo, built by Cosimo de’ Medici, Pater Patrice ; here he also founded a Convent of Minorites, or Lesser Franciscans.

Cafaggiolo and Careggi were Cosimo’s favourite residences, and his son Piero placed his children, Lorenzo and Giuliano, in the former villa during their boyhood. Lorenzo selected the same villa in which to educate his young sons Piero and Giovanni, afterwards Pope Leo X. They were living at Cafaggiolo with their mother, Clarice Orsini, at the time of the Pazzi conspiracy ; for Lorenzo considered it prudent to keep his wife and children far removed from the dangers which menaced the family in Florence.

Catharine, the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, afterwards the wife of Henry II. of France, and the nstigator of the massacre of St. Bartholomew, was sent to Cafaggiolo when a girl, attended by twelve noble Florentine naidens, to receive Margaret the natural daughter of the Emperor Charles V., who at the age of nine arrived in Tuscany on April 18, 1533, to be affianced to Duke Alexander de’ Medici. His murder by his cousin Lorenzino released Margaret from so infamous a marriage, and when Lorenzino fled the day after he had committed the deed, he sought refuge at Cafaggiolo. Forty years later, the villa was the scene of one of those dreadful tragedies which stain the memory of the Medicean Grand Dukes.

Eleanora, the daughter of Don Garzia di Toledo, and niece of the Grand Duchess Eleanora, the wife of Cosimo I., was married to their son, her cousin, Don Piero de’ Medici. After the death of Cosimo, and the succession of his eldest son Francis to the Grand Ducal throne, Eleanora was suspected of infidelity to her husband. The Cardinal de’ Medici, afterwards Ferdinand I., listened to stories of her misconduct, as well as of that of his sister Isabella, who was married to an Orsini, and was scandalised by what he considered detrimental to the honour of his house. He therefore sent information to his brother Francis, and at the same time suggested that the culprits should be put to death. Though Francis himself was living in open scandal with Bianca Cappello—his wife, Joanna of Austria, being still alive—he shared the indignation of the Cardinal. He sent for Eleanora, and after ordering the immediate execution of her supposed lover, he dismissed her to her husband at Cafaggiolo. Eleanora at once surmised what was to be her own fate, and after bidding a tearful fare-well to her infant son, she obeyed. She reached the villa that evening, and had no sooner passed the threshold, than she was assaulted by Piero himself, who in his fury stabbed her repeatedly, until she lay dead at his feet. Then kneeling down, he asked pardon of Heaven, whilst making a vow never to marry again. The body was placed in a coffin, which must have been in readiness, and the next hour her remains were sent to Florence, where they were interred in San Lorenzo. Isabella met a similar fate from her husband.

As the Grand Duke Francis preferred Pratolino to Cafaggiolo, we hear no more of this favourite country seat of the first Cosimo, though it is still kept in good preservation, and was only sold a few years ago by the Crown to the Prince Borghese.

Monte Senario is celebrated for the beauty of its wild flowers, especially for its sweet-scented violets, as well as the snowdrops which whiten the ground in early spring. It also produces many medicinal herbs and a variety of fruits.