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Villa Reale di Castello: the scent of citrus in an Italian garden

Continuing on our short description of the Medicean Villas which became a UNESCO World Heritage recently, it’s the turn of the Villa Reale di Castello. Probably Castello is less striking than Petraia, yet it has its own particular charme. 

The entrance of the garden is through a big gate on the left hand side of the villa, also called "dell'Olmo" (of the "elm tree") or "Reale" (Royal). In front of it, there is a wide semi-circular grass patch surrounded by a low enclosing wall which is centered on the same axis as the tree-planted entrance lane, running perpendicular to the ancient road between Florence and Prato.
The gardens were initiated by Cosimo I de' Medici in 1538 and they surround the building purchased by the Medici family about one hundred years before.
The main garden represents the better preserved example of Italian style garden according to Leon Battista Alberti's criteria and description. It was designed by Niccolò Tribolo, replaced at his death in 1550 by Davide Fortini and then in 1554 by Giorgio Vasari.

The garden, that can be considered the prototype of the XVI century garden, has a very compact shape and it is disposed on three terraces leading down towards the villa's rear side façade. The three terraces, however, are not symmetrically situated with the central axis, because the Villa was actually not finished and it looks different from the one depicted in the Lunetta of Justus Von Utens.
The basic plan has its central perspective wholly included within the garden walls. The garden is conceived along the central axis, marked in the first terrace by a design composed by almost-square flowerbeds. The vast terrace, a proper external extension of the villa, has a beautiful pool in the central lane, the work of Tribolo. A statue by Bartolomeo Ammannati portraying Hercules struggling with Anthaeus was placed on steps. This statue by Ammannati replaced "Fiorenza che sorge dalle acque" (Florence that rises from the water), sculptured by Giambologna, that was moved around 1785 to the nearby garden of Villa Petraia, as reported in the previous article (see Petraia). Originally, the fountain was surrounded by a bay laurel and myrtle grove, as it’s shown in the Lunetta by Justus Von Utens.

In springtime at Castello, lemon and rare citrus fruits plants (the largest potted citrus fruit collection in Europe) are placed along the lanes and around the fountain.
These plants are maintained in the two "Limonaia" (at present just one because the other is under restoration) marking the second terrace sides, called - not without reason - "lemon's garden".
A gate sided by two Etruscan pillars leads to the wonderful Grotto by Giambologna, placed at the center of the highest terrace containing a wall.
This grotto, known as the "Animal's grotto" represents one of the park’s main architectural elements, and anticipated the fantastic concepts of Manierism (a philosophical movement of that time, whose basic concept was the pursue of an ideal of art through schemes and designs canonized by a tradition of techniques and academic norms). It is composed by two chambers, communicating through an arch, following a pattern developed by Bernardo Buontalenti in Boboli (but some historians state that this grotto was realized before that of Buontalenti).

Above the grotto, there is a big bronze statue by Bartolomeo Ammannati, called "January" or "Appennino" representing and old man, trying to protect himself from winter chill with his arms (the name Appennino is from the mountain chain providing water to the whole region and that separates Tuscany from North Italy). The statue is placed in the center of a quadrangular basin, on a spongy rock, and dominates the garden, surrounded by holm oak groves which recall the "selvatico" (hunting wood located between the villa and the surrounding country) existing before the garden arrangement of the XVI century. Tribolo had planned for a fish pond (Appennine's basin) to be placed on the top terrace. The wood near the pond was designed as a "ragnaia" (woods characterized by straight paths used to hunt non migratory birds), to separate the formal garden from vineyards and olive tree fields.

A glimpse of medieval taste can be found in the small secret garden, located on a side of the vast central space, where we it’s maintained a collection of Mediterranean aromatic plants.
The garden underwent the most important changes during the Napoleonic period. An ice box was created in the center of the garden, that caused the removal of Fiorenza Fountain. The Ragnaia wood was replaced by an English style park, later enlarged by Leopoldo II to include the similar park of Petraia.

Last but not least, as it has been already mentioned Castello hosts the most famous collection of potted ornamental Citrus in Europe. The collection commissioned by Cosimo III at the end of the seventeenth century gathered most of the then existing germplasm in Italy and it has been a great help for decoding species and/or varieties through the analysis of the works of Bartolomeo Bimbi (see previous articles on Citrus fruits). 

The discovery of the Medici's Villas continue. Near Florence, a leading historic residence

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