The Italian region of Tuscany is famous worldwide for its great wine, beautiful landscapes, and magnificent arts. Although many of its treasures are natural features of the landscape, one family was crucial for collecting the splendid artwork. The Medici family were an extremely wealthy family that ruled Florence and Tuscany for many decades. They enjoyed spending time in the countryside of Tuscany and, for the purpose, built several rural manor houses and remarkable gardens. One of them is the Villa di Castello, built in the 14th century.
The family purchased the manor house in 1477, but it wasn’t until 1537 that it was fully completed. Cosimo I de’ Medici was behind the restoration of the house and the creation of the garden. He commissioned Giorgio Vasari, one of the greatest Renaissance artists, to turn the existing manor house into an elegant villa. While for the creation and design of the gardens, he chose Italian artist Niccolò, also known as “Il Tribolo.”
The name of the residence comes from castellum, meaning cistern, to commemorate an ancient Roman aqueduct that was discovered near the city of Florence. The Medici family is synonymous with the development of the Renaissance and it is widely known that they sponsored many artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, Da Vinci, and Raphael. Throughout their homes, there are many Renaissance arts, including extraordinary sculptures, remarkable frescoes, and beautiful paintings. Villa di Castello is not an exception.
Two of the most famous paintings in the world that today form part of the collection at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence were originally painted for Villa di Castello. The Birth of Venus and the Allegory of Spring by Sandro Botticelli were part of the interior decoration of the villa until 1550. Of all the breathtaking frescoes in the villa, the most impressive is the Annunciation by Raffaellino del Garbo.
Even though the magnificent villa is among the most beautiful in the region, what really catches the eye of a visitor is the impressive gardens, described by Vasari as “one of the most magnificent gardens in Europe.” Very much like any other Renaissance garden, it is decorated with beautiful statues and fountains, but perhaps the first thing one notices, at least in the warmer months, is the pleasant scent of citrus blossom. All over the garden, there are centuries-old orange, mandarine, and lemon trees planted in pots that were once cultivated by the Medici themselves. The family liked to experiment with different varieties, and therefore among the citrus trees, there are rare cultivars with specific scents and shapes.
Of all the fountains and ponds in the garden, the most splendid is the Fountain of Hercules and Antaeus, situated on the place where the Fountain of Venus once stood. It is an original Tribolo design, but its creation is work of the famous sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati, who used marble and bronze as construction materials.
Another remarkable design of Tribolo is the Grotto of the Animals. After his death, his artwork was finished by Vasari himself. The cave is named after the numerous animals that were gathered around a statue of Orpheus and his lyre. Among the animals depicted enjoying his music are fine crafted horses, birds, giraffes, elephants, and even a unicorn.
The gardens of Villa di Castello have plenty of colorful flower beds, but perhaps the most famous are the varieties of jasmine species, that today are kept in a greenhouse. The collection of jasmine is the work of two Medici members: Cardinal Giovan Carlo and the Grand Duke Cosimo III. Among the beautiful flowers, there is also some Indian jasmine, a gift to the family from the King of Portugal.
Gian Gastone de’ Medici was the last member of the family that owned Villa di Castello. Today, the villa is a property of Accademia della Crusca and is rarely open to visitors, although the garden is always accessible. The villa and its gardens are part of the cultural heritage of UNESCO.