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I think Boboli Gardens is the best site in Florence…above the Uffizi in collections of beauty, more architecturally interesting than Palazzo Vecchio (the Medici palace), and less crowded than the Ponte Vecchio. Call me bias, but nature trumps brick and stone every time for me. While Boboli is an achievement of landscape architecture, it is the designer’s focus on the way we can see nature that makes Boboli such a masterpiece in a town stuffed to the rafters with priceless art.

boboli gardens_10The gardens are easily a place you can spend most of a day, or an entire afternoon unwinding after the crowds of the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, and the Uffizi galleries. There is refuge here from hitting that holiday wall, when few sites sink in and a rest is required. If any place can pick you up (and the kids), it is this 11-acre (45,000 square meters) park with its hills, valleys, tall hedges, and reflecting pools.

Bobili combines arboreal landscaping with sculpture, water, mythology, buildings, and the Tuscan topography. The effect is to have made a living museum of the natural beauty that inspires artists and non-artists of all suits. Everyone has visited some type of garden or park that forms itself or is formed around the original landscape. The beauty inherent to the space comes through even with (or in spite of) the lightest touch from the designer’s spade. Boboli is another matter.

boboli gardens_7Boboli was once the garden of Italy’s kings. The gardens begin behind Pitti Palace, the largest of Florence’s many palaces. It was built for a Renaissance merchant, and construction began in 1458. The palace did not gain recognition until the Medici’s bought it in 1550. They commissioned Niccolò Pericoli, known as Tribolo, to design the gardens. While the palace is stern, imposing, enormous with the weight of wealth that financed its construction, it is the stepped terraces behind the palace that make Pitti a destination for garden lovers from around the world.

Tribolo used the topography as his canvas, and first washed it clean before applying his color-saturated brushstrokes. There appears little doubt that drama was on Tribolo’s mind. He built a story from the same ground on which Renaissance artists trod, cast figures from classical mythology to act within scenes using indigenous trees, plants and flowers as setting and backdrop, and put it on a stage larger than anything yet created. (Versailles outside Paris would emulate Tribolo’s masterpiece.) The story, of course, is a tribute to nature. And the best dramas always blossom from the simplest themes.

boboli gardens_9The curtain opens onto a semicircle courtyard, the actors set with marble postures, their faces fixed on the obelisk center stage. And you walk into the scene. You can’t help stepping onto the stage: stairs draw you up to a gurgling fountain on which more players stand, their faces and bodies bronzed in the sunlight, washed by the water jets. The seats here fill with spectators, watch you go to the rose bushes and break convention when you bend down to inhale their scent.

boboli gardens_8Scene Two finds you in a formal garden courtyard high above a valley. You overlook grand homes behind this kingly estate. Men and women blend around you in this formal garden. A ceramics gallery has its doors open stage left, where miniature porcelain figurines stand poised to perform a story inside this play. You leave before they make you buy them.

The story continues with statues spotting you around corners, standing on lone grassy groves, and lining steep slopes like sentinels as you drop into the depths of the landscape. Now pools reflect the stormed images of dragons and tourists come round a hedge. You flee for spots that will not interrupt your dream-state.

Another path leads up. You find yourself thirsty. You remember a café on a steppe at the far side of the gardens. It overlooks the tower of Palazzo Vecchio, the red-roofed dome capping Santa Maria del Fiore, and too many construction cranes for a postcard photograph. You ditch your camera and go away a thirsting of a different sort.

boboli gardens_5Up and down you climb the tall boulevards, wondering when other players will speak their parts. But they already have, you finally realize. Only you were listening in monochrome when they have spoken with voices of wet green. Before the final curtain falls, a face appears. It is crazed with cracks, a less-than-beseeching expression across its mouth. As you back away, you notice its skull has gone missing. You, player, are its thoughts. Turn to the audience now, and step back into the world. The drama is over for today.

Food and Drinks
in Boboli Gardens

Pitti Palace’s courtyard has a self-service café and bar that has sandwiches, hot entrees, and desert pastries. As you might expect, the prices are steep, even by Florentine tourism standards. No rules prevent you from bringing in picnic gear, so if you plan to spend a few hours here—and there’s plenty in the gardens to occupy your time at least that long, think about stopping at a sandwich shop along the way.

Below the imposing walls of Fort Belvedere on the garden’s eastern perimeter, an espresso café is open during the warm season, with tables on a small stage overlooking a small formal garden and, beyond, the gorgeous Florentine skyline.

boboli gardens_3Outside Boboli Gardens
Palazzo Pitti has three museums that you get free entrance into with the price of a ticket. While I focus on the garden, the museums have collected some fabulous art. The Palatine Gallery fills the first floor of Pitti, exhibiting a collection of more than 500 Renaissance pieces formed mostly from the Medici (and successors) private collection. Works by Raphael, Titian, Correggio, Rubens, and Pietro da Cortona hang as much as they were in the days Pitti was a residence.

The Palatine collection flows into the Royal Apartments, the second of the museums in Pitti. Though altered since the Medici lived here, the 14 rooms are intimate spaces in which to view portraits of the Medici family, period furniture, and the guilt decorations.

The Gallery of Modern art spreads through 30 rooms, exhibiting Italian works from various schools between 1700-1900. The collection doesn’t sound very modern, but you must understand that in Italy, “modern” refers to pre-World War II productions.

One other small gallery on the first floor holds special exhibits in its three rooms. When I visited last, in spring of ’06, an exhibition of Renaissance eroticism was in progress. Among paintings of nudes and nymphs frolicking, the exhibit had an installation of a Renaissance bedroom. There were no mirrors (thank you), but instead a painting from mythology depicting amorous play among the gods and goddesses.

boboli gardens_12Pitti and Boboli are in Florence’s Oltrarno district, south of the Arno River. Hotels and hostels are on every street, mixed in with the residential buildings. There are many restaurants and shops here that get overlooked by tourists, and so some good bargains can be found for the industrious shopper.

Just a couple blocks north is Ponte Vecchio, the 14th-century bridge that today houses jewelry shops. For a great sunset photo of the Vecchio, find a riverfront restaurant on the south bank along Borgo San Jacopo. And for a full list of tourist sites, museums, and restaurant & nightlife recommendations, visit the Florence city page.

Directions to Boboli Gardens
The entrance to Palazzo Pitti and Boboli is on Via Guicciardini, two blocks south of Ponte Vecchio. If you’re coming direction from the train station, leave through the main entrance, walk through Piazza Santa Maria Novella and down Via de’Fossi to the Arno River. Turn left and head for Ponte Vecchio, cross the bridge and down to the Piazza Pitti. Apart from the main train station into Florence (or the airport), only buses run as public transportation. Bus no.’s 6, 11, 36, and 37 will drop you off just south of Palazzo Pitti.

The focus of is on public parks that give roaming space to its residents and visitors at no charge. Sometimes an exception must be made. Boboli gets my choice for both beauty and proximity to the sites visitors want to see. It’s also well worth the € 7 ($9) price because you gain access to three museums exhibiting fine works from Italy and Europe.

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