The secrets of Villa Demidoff

A few days ago, I visited one of my favourite places, which brims with magic: the garden of Villa Demidoff in Pratolino, just north of the built up area of Florence. The park opens from May to September of every year. This is too short for us to enjoy so much beauty, which is of a kind not found on the usual tourist itinerary. A beauty which is, however, tinged with slight melancholy.

The present villa was once the Piaggeria, bought in 1872 and then restored by the Russian Prince Paolo Demidoff, who made it his residence. All that is left of the magnificent sixteenth century villa, whose network of grottos and other bizarre works astonished famous travellers of refined taste, such as Montaigne and Ludovic of Bavaria, is the gigantic and enigmatic statue of the Appennino welcoming you as you enter. This large figure by Giambologna stands out, almost lost and bowed down by his great age, from behind a mirror of water.

He seems to watch us, as if wishing to recount a love story erased by the passage of time; just as the stones of the great villa have been. A “cursed” love story, just as the two lovers were “cursed”. But of course! Princes don’t always end up “living happily ever after”, as they did in fairy tales. And it is a real prince we are going to talk about; and not just any old prince, but Francesco I (1541-1587), one of the most illustrious members of the Medici family.

After becoming Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1574, Francesco was disliked by his people, who even celebrated when he died. With his introverted and surly nature, he lacked the political skill of his father, Cosimo I. He preferred to study alchemy and science – spending most of his time in the laboratory he had had built at San Marco, surrounded by alembics and furnaces – or in the little studio at Palazzo Vecchio, created by Bernardo Buontalenti. In this exquisitely decorated place he kept his jewellery, semi-precious stones, coins and machinery collections. From here also, by means of a secret staircase, he was able to leave the palace without being seen.

Shy and taciturn, Francesco de’Medici had another overwhelming passion which made the Florentines hate him even more: his love for a Venetian noblewoman and adventurer named Bianca Cappello. Having fallen in love with a humble representative of the Florentine bankers Salviati, Bianca had left Venice to escape her family, who were violently opposed to such a marriage. The two lovers fled to Florence, where she gave birth to a daughter, named Pellegrina.

Nobody knows when or how. The fact is that Francesco fell hopelessly in love with her. It created a scandal throughout the city. To make matters worse, he was betrothed to Joanna of Austria, the Hapsburg Emperor Maximillian II’s sister. His bride-to-be was neither very beautiful, nor a very nice person. And yet, although she found life at the Florentine court difficult to put up with (she thought it very provincial), Joanna bore her husband’s extra-marital relationship with great dignity and composure. A son named Filippo, who died very young, resulted from the union with Bianca.

The person who benefited from this affair between Francesco I and the fair Bianca was the latter’s husband. Not only money and favours flowed to him, but also a splendid palace dubbed “Golden Horns” by the Florentines. However, he became so addicted to gambling and other vices that, in the end, he asked for too much. So it was that one night he was stabbed to death near the Santa Trinita bridge; while his lover, who had consoled him during his conjugal misfortunes, was murdered in her bed by masked men.

Bianca knew that, if she gave Francesco the son Joanna was unable to produce, her place at court and in her prince’s affections would improve greatly. So she paid for a newborn child to be taken from his mother and given to her. The mother, a certain Lucia, was told the child had died soon after birth and that her milk was needed for a newly born infant at the house of Medici. Surprisingly, the scheme worked for a time, with the collusion of the court physician. Francesco, feeling the happy father, named the child Antonio. This was the name of the saint by whose grace, he believed, the favour had been granted. Then, the truth came out. Despite that, Francesco changed neither the child’s name nor his affections for him.

Then, in 1578, after a fall in the church of the Santissima Annunziata, Joanna of Austria died. She was only 31 and pregnant for the seventh time. Her last words were of affection for her husband. He, however, only three months later, secretly married Bianca. She thus became the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, thus increasing the hatred of the de’ Medici family and the people, who thought her a woman of easy virtue.

Yet the couple probably genuinely loved each other. Unable to bear the Florentine court any longer, Francesco had Buontalenti built, near Pratolino. This sumptuous villa also had a wonderful garden. It was to here, and the other residence of Poggio at Caiano, that the Grand Duke retired with Bianca. But she was never able to give him the son they wished for; and by the age of forty, her beauty had disappeared as a result of dropsy. Francesco’s health was failing due to the poisons he used during his experiments in alchemy and his strange eating habits.

On 8th October 1582, after a day’s hunting, he was overcome by a high fever. A few days later he was dead. In the meantime, Bianca started to show the same symptoms. When Francesco died, nobody dared tell his wife, but she understood anyway and whispered: “Let me die with my lord”. Her wish was granted in only eleven hours. People said Bianca had baked a poisoned cake for her brother-in-law, Cardinal Ferdinando, but that Francesco had eaten it by mistake. Then, in despair, Bianca had also eaten some of it.

This was the epilogue to a love affair which had caused scandal and should have been kept quiet. The Medici family, who had never hidden their aversion towards Bianca Cappello, lost no time. Francesco’s funeral was as solemn and spectacular as possible. But poor Bianca’s body was buried, by night, in a common grave. All trace of it has been lost. The stupendous villa at Pratolino, which had been their love nest, was abandoned and eventually had to be demolished. All portraits of Bianca were destroyed along with her possessions; her coat of arms were effaced. Nothing, not even the memory, of the beautiful Venetian who had won Francesco de’ Medici’s heart was to survive. Only very few impressions escaped this destructive frenzy. And yet, despite the deep hatred, the figure of Bianca Cappello is still one of the most celebrated in the history of the de’ Medici family.

The park’s vicissitudes make a coherent picture difficult; so much so that, overall, it appears bizarre and confused. Yet this also adds to the garden’s enormous fascination, to the enchantment of a place that arouses the curiosity of all who pass through its magnificent wooded paths, between its buildings overgrown by the maquis, statues in the classical style, splendid dried-up fountains and architectural features whose meaning initially escapes us. Villa Demidoff’s great charm, longingly romantic, also lies in this.

Better, then, to throw away the guide books and let yourself wander along the pathways that wind through the woods and meadows. Among grottos, fountains, the remains of pools and aviaries; down long avenues where you could once see rainbows in the spray of water, sixteenth century caps, Greek heroes and a thousand other amazing things. And once again, you find yourself in front of the statue of the Appennino, pushing down a monster’s head, as if to drown it in the lake below. He is, as always, the real guardian of this huge garden with its thousand secrets.

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