Florence – Villa Stibbert – Medicean Villa Of Careggi

THE road to the left beyond the Ponte Rosso is the Via. Vittorio Emanuele, and the first villa of importance in this direction is that of the Fabbricotti, once a country residence of the Princes Strozzi. It stands conspicuously on an eminence surrounded by an Italian garden laid out in terraces, and adorned with busts. A few steps farther on the opposite side of the road is a small tabernacle containing the bust of Sant’ Antonino, the good Bishop of Florence in the fifteenth century ; four tall cypresses rise behind it, and commemorate the site of the episcopal palace, in which the saint spent many years of his life, and where he died. During the siege of Florence of 1529-30 the building was razed to the ground.

A lane to the right, winding up a short but steep ascent, leads to the Villa Stibbert. All the undulating land between the Via Vittorio Emanuele and the Via Bolognese bears the name of Mont’ Ughi, from a certain Captain Ugo, who left Rome some time in the twelfth century in quest of adventures, or to make, his fortune. Arriving with his band of armed followers in the vicinity of Florence, he wasted the whole country, and, finally, established himself on this height, where he built his castle, and where, in modern days, an English gentleman, Mr. Stibbert, has converted two farmhouses into a beautiful villa. The story of Ugo is preserved in a fresco beneath a Loggia adjoining the house, painted by the Florentine artist Bianchi. From this Loggia a beautiful view may be obtained of hill and valley richly cultivated, which once was devastated by the robber chieftain. The little chapel beside the Loggia is supposed to occupy the site of Ugo’s Castle, and within its walls lie buried the remains of the celebrated engraver . Raffaelle Morghen, who died in 1833. His grandfather, a German, was invited to Tuscany by the Marchese Gerini to engrave the works of the Florentine artists in the Pitti Gallery. Raffaelle Morghen was born in Florence in 1758, and earned for himself a name, as the first engraver of his time.

The grounds round the Villa Stibbert combine English taste for order with the usual elegance of the Italian garden, consisting of terraces decorated with lovely busts amidst the luxuriant growth of a southern vegetation. Within the villa there is a most rare and remarkable collection of armour, which Mr. Stibbert allows to be seen on certain days to those who can obtain a card of admission through his personal friends.

Descending a few steps from the entrance hall into a vast saloon with a vaulted ceiling, the visitor finds himself surrounded by figures of men in various postures, and of horses with their riders in full armour. They represent different periods of Italian and German history. Numerous swords and other weapons, horses’ bits of singular construction, banners, &c., decorate the walls, which are painted with coats of arms and other devices in a low tone of colour. Some precious relics are under glass on tables in the middle of the room. In the centre is a horse and man fully equipped for the tourna-ment ; to the right a red-bearded figure wears the armour of the Emperor Maximilian, the letzte Ritter of the Germans ; he has on a kilt of crimson and green velvet striped with black. and gold, the Austrian colours ; and broad ribbons of crimson and green are crossed over his breast.

One very rich coat of mail inlaid with gold belonged to a Visconti of Milan. In a recess to the left, a rider comes forth clad in the armour of one of the Guadagni family. Six cavaliers, three on each side, guard the farther entrance to this saloon.

Three are Saracens in fine chain armour, carrying round shields, and with the horsetail for a banner ; the other three cavaliers are European.

The room beyond contains many valuable and curious examples of Japanese and Oriental armour, and has likewise two figures on horseback, the horses being decorated with gilt horns.

A second magnificent hall, lighted from above, contains the Picture Gallery, and a richly-decorated boudoir is painted and adorned with flowers in relief, after the taste of the Louis Quinze period.

After leaving the Villa Stibbert and returning to the high road, a steep and narrow lane to the right leads to the Monastery and Church of the Capuchins, once celebrated for its art-treasures. These are hard times for the monks, and their pictures are sold and dispersed, or have been removed to enrich the museums of the city. This lane communicates with the old Bolognese Road, passing the Convent of Santa Marta. The tabernacle at the entrance, below the Capuchin Monastery, was painted by the Siennese Francesco Vanni (1563-161o). A row of fine old cypresses within high walls encloses the garden, beyond whose precincts the botanist or lover of wild flowers may find attractive walks amidst the hills and woods.

Farther on the Via Vittorio Emanuele, is the Villa Ambron, and still farther, that of the Marchese Stufa, which, having been partly destroyed by fire, is better known as the Palazzo Brucciato. Here three roads meet. The centre leads to the Royal Villas of Petraia and Castello; the narrow lane ‘to the left, to the Villa Lemmi, which, until recently, contained very interesting frescoes by Botticelli, now sold to Paris. The road to the right leads to Careggi or Campus Regis, a name given to the whole district of well-cultivated land lying between the stream of Terzolle on the west, the heights of Mont’ Ughi to the east, and the southern spur of Monte Morello to the north.

A large gate with stone lions on the pilasters, and a neat lodge beside it, is the entrance to the grounds of the Medicean Villa of Careggi. The fragrant smell from pine and cypress groves, mingled in spring and summer with the scent of roses and other plants, perfumes the air, as the visitor drives up the approach to the house between shrubs and trees, and carefully-tended grass with beds of flowers. The Villa of Careggi was purchased many years ago, when it was in a ruined condition, by an English gentleman, the late Mr. Sloane, who having succeeded in making a large fortune by Italian mines near Volterra, spent his money munificently in Italy, and gave generous contributions towards the completion of the façades of Santa Croce, and of the Florentine Cathedral. He bought up other old villas in a state of decay, and restored them as nearly as possible to their primitive condition.

Careggi was built by Cosimo, Pater Patriæ, and converted by his favourite architect Michelozzo Michelozzi into a fortified castle. The pleasant situation, on an elevated part of the plain, not too far removed from Florence, made it a favourite residence of the first Medici. Here Cosimo, and afterwards his grandson Lorenzo, collected their literary friends, and held conversazioni or meetings of the so-called Platonic philosophers, whose readings, recitations, and discussions—however pedantic and wearisome they appear in later ages—revived a knowledge and love of classical learning, for which posterity may be grateful.

These meetings were presided over by the Greek scholar, Marsilio Ficino ; Cosimo had rescued him from poverty, educated him, and appointed him tutor to the youthful Lorenzo,. whom Ficino initiated in the wisdom of Plato. On every seventh of November a feast was held at the Villa, to celebrate the birth of Plato ; on which occasion nine philosophers (the number of the Muses) met to read and discuss the works of the Greek. Cosimo died at Careggi, at the age of seventy-six, in 1464 ; he had presented Ficino with a small villa on the hill above, but the philosopher preferred ending his days at Careggi, where he died in 1499. His pupil and patron Lorenzo had died there seven years before, in 1492, at the age of forty-three. It is said that he sent for Savonarola, when on his deathbed, and that after the friar had vainly exhorted him to restore liberty to Florence, he left him, without granting absolution. Another story of still more doubtful authenticity is also related. As Lorenzo’s physician was descending the stairs from the chamber of the dying man, the servants seized him, under the impression that he had poisoned their master, and thrust him down the well in the court. Both tales are recorded in paintings made by order of Mr. Sloane ; the first is a picture hung in the room where Lorenzo died ; the last is a fresco by the English artist Watts, on the wall of a conservatory attached to the house.

In 1529, a band of hot-headed youths from Florence, led by Dante da Castiglione, the hero of the duel during the siege of 1529-30, set fire to Careggi, on pretence that they were acting as the champions of liberty by destroying the property of tyrants. Before the flames could be extinguished, the greater part of the building was consumed. Shortly afterwards, Alexander de’ Medici, the first Duke of Florence, ordered it to be rebuilt, and adorned with paintings, by Pontormo and Bronzino. It continued to be the property of the reigning house of Tuscany until 178o, when it was sold to the Orsi family, from whom it was purchased by Mr. Sloane. A beautiful saloon, ornamented with fresco paintings of landscapes under pointed arches, as well as the Cortile and Well, belongs to the old Villa. On the first story, a Loggia, or covered balcony, supported by columns painted in Arabesques, is of the seventeenth century. On the same floor is a room with a fine ancient stone chimney-piece, which Mr. Sloane brought hither from another Villa ; opposite which is a large picture by the modern painter, Puccinelli of Bologna, representing the first members of the Platonic Academy, with Fra Angelico and other artists of the period. Three rooms beyond are shown as the private apartment of Lorenzo. In these are other paintings by modern artists ; that of the deathbed of Lorenzo, already mentioned, and Politian reciting in the presence of the Platonists ; the third picture has a similar subject. Lorenzo’s bed is preserved in a room to the left of the entrance to this apartment.

A narrow staircase leads up to an open gallery under the projecting eaves of the villa ; it is carried along the four sides, so that a good look-out could be maintained over the sur-rounding country.

In the beautiful gardens surrounding the villa are fine exotic, as well as native plants. Two statues of deformed beings are portraits of the favourite dwarfs of the Grand Duke Cosimo I. : one little creature is seated on a snail, the other on an owl. A quaint mosaic pavement, representing animals, is in front of the house.

Beyond the villa is the Fattoria, or farm, with an ancient tower and machicolated walls, probably the remains of Cosimo’s fortified castle, which may have been used as a watch tower, when the hills were covered with forest, and game pre-served for the amusement of the Medici. A winding road leads to the small cottage villa of Marsilio Ficino, near which another battlemented edifice probably served also for a watch tower. Between these two buildings is a large villa, which the Grand Duke Cosimo II. bestowed on one of his retainers. Ten minutes’ walk farther on, is the lovely villa of the Concezione, with a splendid ilex tree in front, which was purchased by a French gentleman, Monsieur Sabatier, from the Gerini family ; the road descends thence to the Via Bolognese.

The situation of both these last-mentioned villas, on the slope of a high range of hills, affords a most beautiful view over the valley of the Arno and of the mountains towards Rome. Villas and farm-houses are scattered in every direction amidst fields and orchards, with the silvery olives and dark cypress, giving colour and character to the scene. Among the villas may be distinguished that of the Della Ripa, once inhabited by Bianca Cappello, on whom the Grand Duke Francis I. bestowed various residences. Her toilet table was lately dis-covered by mere accident in a light closet, which had been walled up and forgotten ; it was covered with crimson velvet and white satin, and had on it a valuable service of Venetian glass.