Florence – Villa Demidoff – Poggio A Caiano

A COUPLE of hours beyond the Porta Prato, the road which follows the course of the Arno for a considerable part of the way, and passes through the long straggling villages of Peretola, Quarrachi, Petriolo, Brozzi, Campi, and San Donnino, leads to the Medicean Villa of Poggio a Caiano.

Passing the Ponte aile Mosse, which crosses the little stream of the Terzolle—already mentioned, near the village of the Rifredi—the first place of importance is San Donato, the villa of Prince Demidoff. According to the old legend it was here, amidst a thick forest growing near a marsh, that a certain Pagan lady, who had been converted to Christianity, built a church and a tower, in which she ended her days. On her death-bed she bequeathed all she possessed to found a monastery, which was standing in the eleventh century, and then belonged to the Regular Canons of St. Augustine, who had an hospitium here for pilgrims on their way to Rome or the Holy Land. In the year 1147 the Florentine crusaders assembled in this monastery, when Gherardo, Archbishop of Ravenna and Papal Nuncio, consecrated the new church dedicated to San Donato, and gave his solemn benediction to the two thousand cavaliers, who, under the leadership of Pazzo de’ Pazzi, set forth for the Holy Land. There they joined the Emperor Conrad and Louis VII. of France, in their disastrous expedition, soon after which Saladin regained possession of Jerusalem, and the Christian kingdom of Antioch was conquered. It was then that the Pazzi, after planting the Christian standard on the walls of Damietta, rode back to Florence, with a light kindled at the sacred sepulchre of Jerusalem.

About the year 1235 the Padri Umiliati 1 succeeded the Canons of St. Augustine in possession of the lands of San Donato, and they established an extensive wool manufactory here, said to have been antecedent to the period when the wool trade became the staple commodity of Florence. When the Padri Umiliati left their monastery of Santa Lucia del Prato for that of Ogni Santi within the walls of the city, they relinquished San Donato to the Augustinian nuns of Santa Maria Decimo. In 1321 the soldiers of Castruccio Castracani, Lord of Lucca, ravaged the whole country, and the nuns sought refuge in the convent of Santa Maddalena de’ Pazzi in Florence. Some years later the building was granted by the Florentine Municipality to Sir John Hawkwood, or Acuto, in recompense for the aid he had afforded in the defence of their territory. He died in 1394. The nuns subsequently returned to San Donato, and were not again disturbed until 1809, when the convent was suppressed by the French.

Count Nicholas Demidoff, a wealthy Russian noble, pur-chased the building and land in 18×4, and converted the ruins into a splendid villa, and the field into a garden which was renowned for its hothouses with rare plants, and he also added a park or pleasure ground. The Grand Duke Ferdinand III. conferred the title of Prince on Count Demidoff, and his son Anatolio married the Princess Matilda Buonaparte, daughter of Jerome Buonaparte and of the Princess Catharine of Wurtemberg. The rich collection of works of art which the villa once contained, have been sold, or removed, and the present Prince Demidoff is occupied with the embellishment of his new purchase, the Villa of Pratolino.

The road is now separated by hedges from the fields of corn, and maple trees over which the vine is trained. To the right at some little distance is the Torre degli Agli, belonging to the Panciatichi family; Monte Morello rises beyond, with villas and farmhouses scattered in all directions at its foot. The high towers, so frequently seen on the plain, are supposed to be the remains of the castles or country residences of Florentine families, and to have supplied the place of the modern telegraph, enabling their possessors to communicate with their allies in the city. Flags were raised on them in the day and fires kindled at night.

The history of the populous village of Peretola is lost in obscurity until the year 1325, when Castruccio Castracani defeated the Florentines in the battle of Altopascio, and made Peretola his head-quarters. The family of Amerigo Vespucci, one of the discoverers of the New World, came from this village, but they afterwards migrated into Florence, and had their dwellings near the Monastery of Ogni – Santi. The Church of San Clemente in Peretola has a fine marble ciborium in the choir behind the high-altar, probably a work of Desiderio da Settignano, or of one of his school. The doors which closed the receptacles for the bread and wine have been removed to a place of safety, as, being of bronze gilt, they once tempted the cupidity of a thief, and were stolen, though after-wards recovered. The rest of the ciborium is of marble : angels stand on either side of the receptacle for the cup, and pilasters, ornamented with delicate sculpture, support the architrave. A Deposition with the Virgin and St. John or Nicodemus are within an arch, and above is a representation of the Eternal. Amidst the decorations are seen the nails of the Crucifixion, which were the arms of the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, to which the church belonged. Beyond Peretola is Quarrachi, a village dating from A.D. 866, and now consisting of a series of new-built tidy houses with gardens. The next village is Petriolo, and at the end of a lane to the left is • the old Church of San Biagio. Beneath the portico, supported by slender columns, are frescoes, apparently of the fourteenth century. Over the door is a Madonna and Child, with a bishop on one side holding his pastoral staff, and on the other, the Magdalene. To the left are three life-size admirable figures of St. Nicholas with his golden balls, St. Bartholomew with his knife, and St. John the Baptist in a purple garment and bare feet and legs ; but this figure is much injured. To the right of the door is a Deposition from the Cross ; the painting is almost destroyed, but apparently one of the Marys receives the body ; Mary Magdalene stretches out her arms towards the Christ, and the Virgin sinks fainting amidst other women. On one side of the cross is a group of men : a kneeling figure in front holds the nails, another behind with a very fine head, looks back ; he has a casket resembling that introduced among the offerings of the Wise Men, whom this group probably represents ; mourning angels float above : one of them, resting his cheek on his clasped hands, is singularly beautiful. The interior of this church is spacious, and the nave is divided from the aisle by three wide arches.

Before reaching Brozzi, another lane, to the right, leads to Santa Lucia alla Sala, which dates from 1058. In the little church are two very exquisite marble ciboriums : beautiful in proportion, and delicately carved.

Brozzi is the chief place in the commune, which comprises several boroughs, all built on marshy land, and subject to frequent inundations from the Arno ; dykes have been there-fore thrown up between the houses and the river, forming a grassy embankment to the left of the road. The church of San Martino in Brozzi contains an hexagonal baptismal font of coloured marble with carved heads of cherubim, and with delicate pilasters ; likewise two beautiful little ciboriums, resembling those in Santa Lucia, but differing in the decorations, which here consist chiefly of the heads of cherubs. At the farther extremity of the village, on the outskirts of San Donnino, is the ancient church of Sant Andrea, of which the Campanile alone possesses any claim to architectural beauty. The frescoes beneath the portico are indifferent compositions of a late period, but within the church are some paintings of good fifteenth century work. To the right of the entrance is an altar with a very lovely Virgin and Child, in the manner of Filippino Lippi ; on either side are, St. Anthony and St. James ; St. Paul and St. Sebastian, who holds the arrows of his martyrdom ; above is the Eternal. Opposite is another altar with the Virgin and Child ; St. Sebastian is again represented with his arrows, and St. Paul with the sword Above, is a large fresco of the Baptism of the Saviour ; the Baptist is finely rendered, and there is much beauty in the angels. Behind the choir is a picture, apparently of the school of Ghirlandaio. All these paintings are in a very dilapidated condition. The villages along this road, from Peretola to San Donnino, have been long renowned for their straw manufactures, and the marshy land between them and the Arno, known as Osmannora, is noted, ever since the days of the Republic, for the richness of the soil and its agricultural products. The wine of this part of the country, however, has not as good a reputation, and, according to Redi :

E per pena sempre ingozzi Vino di Brozzi Di Quarracchi e di Peretola.’

San Donnino and San Romolo are best known under the name of Villamagna. In San Donnino is one of the oldest churches of the district, within which are also, as in Sant’ Andrea, some good works of art in an injured condition. 2

On a spur of Monte. Ginestre is situated the Palace of Poggio a Caiano. The long street of the little town is on a steep ascent beside the walls of the palace grounds. The first well-authenticated record of Poggio a Caiano (which in still earlier times is supposed to have been a castle of the Cancellieri of Pistoia) states that it belonged to Palla Strozzi, a contemporary of Cosimo de’ Medici, Pater Patriæ. Strozzi died in exile at Padua, and the villa with the adjacent grounds were purchased by Lorenzo de’ Medici. The beauty of the situation induced him to visit the place frequently, and to lavish large sums on its improvement ; he formed a good library here, and invited his literary friends to visit him. Angelo Poliziano sang the praises of Poggio a Caiano in a Latin poem composed in 1485, and entitled the ‘Ambra,’ which he recited before a Florentine audience, and afterwards made use of as a preface to his Lectures on Homer. The name was derived from a little island in the river Ombrone, which flows through the grounds of the villa. Lorenzo had adorned this island with gardens and works of art, but it was destroyed by an inundation. Poliziano, who endeavoured in his poem to imitate parts of the `Metamorphoses’ of Ovid, represented the Ambra as a nymph, the daughter of the Ombrone.

Lorenzo introduced game into the grounds, and among them were several rare species sent to him as presents from foreign potentates. He rebuilt the villa, converting it into a splendid palace, employing the architect Giulio di San Gallo, who constructed ceilings with carved decorations, in imitation of those in Rome. San Gallo was the pupil of Francione, architect and wood-carver, who competed with him for the design of this villa. After the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici in the Cathedral of Florence, Lorenzo sent his brother’s illegitimate child Giulio -afterwards Pope Clement VII.1—to Poggio a Caiano, where he placed him under the care of Antonio di San Gallo, the brother of the more celebrated architect. Lorenzo died before the building was finished, and the work was suspended until, under the Pontificate of his younger brother Giovanni—Pope Leo X., when Giulio”—at that time Cardinal de’ Medici—was ordered to complete the palace. He gave the direction of the works to his cousin Ottaviano de’ Medici, whose superior taste made him an authority in all matters appertaining to art ; and he employed Andrea del Sarto, Franciabigio, and Jacopo Pontormo in the pictorial decorations. The subjects were suggested by the celebrated writer Paolo Giovio, whose monument is in the cloisters of San Lorenzo at Florence. He selected whatever best served to exemplify the greatness of the Medici family. The frescoes were finished some years later by Alessandro Allori.

On the exterior of the palace are exquisite reliefs by Luca della Robbia, taken from classical subjects, probably placed here by Cosimo, Pater Patriæ Within, is a spacious dining-hall with paintings under pointed arches, as in a room at Careggi. There is also a magnificent apartment on the first floor with a vaulted ceiling, on which are the Medici baths, the Papal tiara and the keys of St. Peter in compliment to Leo X., all executed in relief and richly gilt.

Baldinucci thus describes the frescoes on the walls From the time of Andrea del Sarto various subjects have been painted in fresco in the Great Hall. One of these was commenced by Andrea, and represents Csar in Egypt, re ceiving gifts from the various races composing that nation, and is typical of Lorenzo the Magnificent receiving animals from foreign princes. The fresco having been left unfinished at the death of Andrea, Alessandro Allori was ordered to complete it, which he did successfully ; partly following the composition of Andrea, and partly his own. Jacopo da Pontormo painted the walls round the windows with nymphs and shepherds. Franciabigio had also left half finished the story of Cicero returning from his exile, when by a public decree he . was named the Father of his Country ; thus alluding to the same honour having been paid to Cosimo Vecchio at Florence. Alessandro Allori painted, opposite this, the Apples of the Hesperides guarded by nymphs from Hercules, and a figure of Fortune under the cornice of the room. Above the two remaining windows, he painted Fame, Glory, and Honour over one door Fortitude, Prudence, and Vigilance ; over the other Magnanimity, Splendour, and Generosity. Lastly, opposite the fresco by Andrea del Sarto, Alessandro painted the supper given by Syphax, King of Numidia, to Scipio, after the defeat of Hasdrubal in Spain ; by which he intended to show forth the glorious journey of Lorenzo the Magnificent to the King of Naples, by whom he was received with honours, as is well known to everybody. Franciabigio also painted Titus Quintus Flaminius speaking in the council of the Achæans against the Orator of the Aetolians and King Antiochus ; and deprecating the league which was proposed by the Achæans themselves. The painter meant by this conceit to symbolise the Diet of Cremona, in which Lorenzo the Magnificent frustrated the designs of the Venetians, who aimed at the possession of Italy.’

On May 4, 1536, the Emperor Charles V. visited Poggio a Caiano from Florence. He was on his way north from Naples, and he remained six days to arrange the marriage of his natural daughter Margaret with Duke Alexander de’ Medici. Whilst at Poggio a Caiano, the Emperor, observing the massive construction of the palace, remarked the place was too strongly fortified to be the residence of a simple citizen.

In 1530 Eleanora of Toledo, daughter of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples, was brought here to meet her bridegroom, the Grand Duke Cosimo I., the successor of Duke Alexander. Cosimo was accompanied by the Archbishop of Pisa, and here began the miserable married life of the first Grand Duchess, who was destined to witness the murder of her own children by their father. Her daughter-in-law, Joanna of Austria, wife of Francis, the heir to the throne, spent the first years of her unhappy marriage at Poggio a Caiano ; her rival, Bianca Cappello, when she was first placed here by the Grand Duke Francis, during the lifetime of Joanna, converted the place into a scene of amusement. The fair Venetian passed her days in every variety of diversion, and shared the pleasures of the chase with Francis. The most interesting, because the oldest part of the palace, are the rooms said to have been assigned to Bianca. They apparently formed part of the original villa, as they are of very old construction, and have neither paintings nor the rich decorations of the Medicean apartments. The sitting-rooms are on the ground floor, with a curious internal staircase leading to the bedchamber above. The windows are in deep recesses, and there is an ancient stone chimney-piece in the first room, beyond which is a long low dining-room.

Poggio a Caiano was the scene of the tragical end of Francis and Bianca. The assassination of Bianca’s first husband and the death of Joanna had enabled Francis to marry her, and she had been many years Grand Duchess, when in 1587 they invited Cardinal Ferdinand de’ Medici, brother and heir of Francis, to visit them at this palace. The brothers had been for a long time at variance, and in spite of Bianca’s sincere desire to conciliate his goodwill, the Cardinal displayed an inveterate hatred towards her. He had already intrigued to cause the violent deaths of his own sister Isabella and of his sister-in-law Eleanora, because their conduct reflected on the honour of his family ; and the marriage of his brother Francis with his former mistress, even though she had been adopted a daughter of the Venetian Republic, was not to be forgiven. The Cardinal, however, accepted the invitation to Poggio a Caiano, and arrived accompanied by the Archbishop of Florence, who intended to act as mediator between the brothers. He was supposed to have succeeded, when one afternoon, after Francis bad returned from hunting in the grounds of the palace, the Grand Duke and Bianca were both suddenly taken ill at dinner. They were said to have injured their constitutions by habitual intemperance in eating, but, whatever the cause, their case rapidly became serious. Bianca, who was warmly attached to her husband, was frequently heard to exclaim that between his death and hers only an hour could intervene. When she dis-covered by the countenances of her attendants that Francis was dead, she cried out, ` I too must die with my lord,’ and she expired eleven hours after him. It has been supposed that Bianca had prepared a poison for the Cardinal, which Francis partook of by mistake, and that, rather than survive, him, she finished it ; but with all her faults, Bianca was never before accused of crimes of this nature, ,whilst the character and motives of Ferdinand make it easy to believe him capable of thus ridding himself of a woman he hated, and of a brother who stood between him and a throne. Ferdinand certainly did not accuse Bianca of this intention to use poison, but ordered both bodies to be opened to acquit himself of the charge ; the physicians he employed could hardly in those days have acted otherwise than declare their deaths natural, and exonerate the new sovereign from foul play. Francis was buried in state in the Medicean Mausoleum of San Lorenzo, but when Ferdinand was asked where Bianca’s body was to be laid, he replied,

Where you please ; we will not have her amongst us.’ Her remains, therefore, are supposed to have been thrown into the common charnel house, but some believe she was buried privately in San Lorenzo.

The Cardinal, now Grand Duke Ferdinand I., revisited Poggio a Caiano, when, at the age of forty, he went to meet his bride, Christina of Lorraine, a girl of sixteen. She was assigned to him by his cousin Catharine de’ Medici, wife of Henry II. of France, in order to strengthen the alliance between France and Tuscany. It was in this palace, also, Ferdinand conferred with Cardinal Gondi, Archbishop of Florence, how to effect the conversion to Catholicism of the Protestant Henry of Navarre, afterwards Henry IV. of France. The Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine died in 1636, after having acted as Regent during the minority of her grandson Ferdinand II., and a few years later another matrimonial sacrifice was made here, when Margaret of Orleans was sent to Tuscany to marry the son of Ferdinand, afterwards Cosimo III_ Her father-in-law, Ferdinand, assigned Poggio a Caiano for her residence, or rather prison, when she had fallen under his displeasure. Cosimo was a narrow-minded bigot, wholly devoted to priests, and passed his life in what he considered pious contemplation ; he was melancholy and averse to all that savoured of science and philosophy, as well as to the idle gaiety of a Court. Margaret, the daughter of Duke Gaston of Orleans, younger brother of Louis XIII., and of Margaret, the sister of the Duke of Lorraine, had been educated with the idea that she was the destined bride of her cousin Louis XIV., and the future Queen of France. She had no sooner formed an attachment to her other cousin, Prince Charles of Lorraine, when Cardinal Mazarin determined that, whilst Louis was to marry a Spanish Princess, Margaret, in order to form another political alliance, should be given to Prince Cosimo of Tuscany. She was lively, witty, generous, and wayward, fond of riding and the chase, and accustomed to the diversions of a French Court. The Grand Duke Ferdinand hoped to reconcile her to the change from France to Tuscany by providing amusements for her at the Court of Florence, and indulging every whim, but the first year passed, and Margaret continued openly to avow her detestation of her husband and of his country, both of which were increased by the arrival at Florence of Prince Charles of Lorraine, when the Princess became quite unmanageable in her wild course of life ; Ferdinand and Cosimo therefore resolved to try a different method, and to send her into confinement in the Palace of Poggio a Caiano. Margaret soon feigned contrition, and was allowed to return to Florence, from whence she made several unsuccessful attempts to escape to France. She had given birth to three children : Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, born in 1663 ; a daughter Anna, who afterwards married the Elector Palatine ; and a second son, Gian Gastone, born in 1671, after the death of his grandfather Ferdinand. Cosimo, now Grand Duke, wearied by his wife’s caprices, banished her a second time to Poggio a Caiano, from whence at length, after ten years of a miserable married life, Margaret obtained leave to quit Tuscany and retire into a convent at Montmartre, near Paris. An income of 80,000 francs was assigned her, and her cousin Louis XIV. allowed her to enter into the amusements of the Court, where he diverted himself with her witty sallies and abuse of her husband. Her charms of person and manners, and the gaiety and generosity of her nature, had endeared Margaret to the Tuscan people, who hated Cosimo, and they lamented her loss, and reproached him for his treatment of her. Cosimo vainly complained. to Louis of the ridicule thrown on him by the Grand Duchess, until her conduct became so extravagant that the king was persuaded to send her from Montmartre to a stricter convent, where she passed the remainder of her life.

Margaret’s eldest son, Ferdinand, resembled his mother in his tastes. He took up his residence in Poggio a Caiano to escape from his wife Violante, a Bavarian Princess, more virtuous than beautiful ; and here he passed his time in amusements, and in the company of actors. Ferdinand died before his father, Cosimo, and his younger brother Gian Gas-tone became the last Medicean Grand Duke of Tuscany.

The gardens of Poggio a Caiano are well worth a visit. They are beautifully laid out, the grounds are undulating, and the river Ombrone flowing through them adds to the charm of the scene. Many splendid trees, exotic, as well as native, grow here amidst grass and flowers, and pleasant vistas present themselves at every turn of the winding walks.

The broad terrace of the palace affords a splendid view of all the surrounding country.