The crunch of gravel under your feet. The distant hum of traffic, overtaken by tweeting birds, the whooping of a dove. The smell of wet leaves, dry pine needles, and a hint of citrus. Running water from a fountain. I love the meditative feel of having a Medici Garden all to myself. I can imagine Isabella de’ Medici walking in the outer edges of the Boboli gardens at daybreak… did she ever walk alone, or would she have always been accompanied, even here, amongst the tall green walls?
When I first came to Florence longer term, it was January 1999. I was doing a year-long masters in art history with Syracuse University in Florence, a program that culminates in the year’s students putting on a symposium based on a theme. The month of January was dedicated to seeing as much as we could in order to pick a theme. It had to work for a class of eight students with different interests. One theme we strongly considered was Medici gardens.
And so we set out, by public transportation, to visit each in turn. On most occasions, we were the only visitors. Sometimes, I went alone. I remember being surprised at how the Medici villa at Castello, so famous to me from my readings about the most famous generation of the Medici family in the 15th century, was so close to the city, and was now being used as offices connected to the nearby Careggi hospital. The garden itself was planned in 1540, within an enclosed wall and developing on three terraces and hundreds of citrus trees in pots. It features a two-roomed grotto with polychrome mosaic walls. In January, it was deserted. I remember the feeling of the pebble mosaic pavement on my feet, sitting by a fountain with my new colleagues, contemplating the grey sky above us.
The Medici villa at Petraia is another easy to reach Medici garden that we visited that year. Like Castello, you can reach it by ATAF bus and it’s free. You can also go inside the villa, though the most exciting part is the frescoed courtyard right at the beginning.
Another day, we trekked out to Poggio a Caiano, reachable by public bus from the Prato train station. I personally loved the architecture of this villa and the many lemon trees in its garden.
The big Boboli gardens in Florence were a regular stomping ground for us. We also went out to Pratolino – little is left of the Medici here, though it’s a good spot for a picnic. In the end, we opted not to do our theses on these gardens as we could not find enough different takes on the material, or perhaps we simply could not agree, but I will always associate visiting these places with my first days of discovery and study in Florence.
The gardens of the Medici villas, as well as the villas themselves, have recently been added to the UNESCO world heritage list. On this occasion, the Polo Museale Fiorentino commissioned the development of a perfume called Giardini del Granduca that would evoke the smell of a Medici garden. In the morning, I like to think.
The eau de toilette is inspired by the Medici collections of citruses since the Cinquecento – many of which can be found in the Limonaia at the Boboli Gardens. It also has notes of rose, another plant cultivated in the Medici’s formal gardens. There’s a hint of peach, and more than a hint of cinnamon. Cedar and cypress are also present. The perfume can be purchased in most state museum gift shops in Florence and costs 45€.
I tried the perfume today. Its historic and location-based references seem made for me. It’s a strong smell – the cinnamon strikes you first. But as the day wears on, it becomes sweeter and also sophisticated. The citrus notes linger on well into the evening.
I love the idea of smelling like a historic Medici garden. When I face the trials and tribulations of public transportation in the morning, I can close my eyes for a moment, take a whiff of my wrist, and try to pretend I am in a peaceful place with the crunch of gravel, the tweeting of birds, and a fresh smell of water rising off the ground.