Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Villa Poggio Torselli

The Queen of Villas and her Garden

Villa Torselli seen from its cypress-lined avenue, a perspective visible when driving along the road from San Casciano north towards Ospitaletto. Apparently dubbed the Queen of Villas (although when and by whom is unclear)
the austere facade is surmounted by terracotta sculptures of the four seasons, a theme reiterated throughout the villa and the leitmotif of the garden, not surprisingly
Yes, that is Florence 8 kilometres to the north and yes, that is the Duomo, barely perceptible right of centre, although to the eye it was quite distinct

Since it was built in the 15th century when it belonged to the Machiavelli family, the villa at Poggio Torselli has been home to various prominent Florentine  families. It was associated with the Angiolini, Corsini, Macalli, Capponi, the Orlandini del Beccuto and Antinori clans. Information is conflicting about which of the last two we have to thank for the villa's definitive transformation from a farmhouse to a 'villa di delizia' in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but we do know that one of the architects was Lorenzo Merlini. The villa, with its austere but elegant buildings is unmistakably Florentine. Paul I, Czar of Russia (18th century) and Pope Pius VII (1804), on his way to crown Napoleon emperor, were notable guests at Poggio Torselli.
original, cunningly sloped pavement to catch as much rainwater as possible
some of that rainwater would be appreciated in the long, narrow vegetable garden which skirts the eastern wall of the upper garden
the canonical pool discreetly located in an olive garden with immaculate lawns and hedging

part of the 18th century irrigation system of the Italian garden has been restored: it consisted of well water pumped into this cistern which then fed into basins and channels to run water all around the garden
the well
A residence for the warmer seasons of the year, the villa was dedicated to the four seasons, but particularly spring and summer. Terracotta sculptures and frescoes in and around the villa testify to the seasonal theme.
sinuous box hedges surrounding the lawns in front of the villa; everything is rounded, even the tree foliage

bay hedge and bay topknot
pet cemetery for family dogs, cats and hamsters in a corner of the gardens
In 1999 the Braccagni Maggiali family sold the villa to the president of the Palermo football team and despite what is proclaimed on its website, the residence and its annexes are no longer open to visitors. Since this new ownership the villa has undergone modernisation which includes a large swimming pool and spacious bathrooms for each of its many bedrooms; it is now hired out for events, the fate of many such locations throughout Tuscany. 

one passes through this lobby before entering the Italian garden

the view from the lobby steps onto this charming, verdant, colourful garden

stairs to the main body of the villa and the doors which lead to the ballroom where today concerts and events are held: note the devil's trumpets, or datura
an angle on the Italian garden in which green and citrus dominate: the little tree at the centre of the parterre is a dwarf fruit tree

view east from the villa's terrace, looking towards the fountain and the creeper-covered arched arbour

another delightful angle on the Italian garden with its mix of old roses
The garden, which slopes down towards the east, is actually on two levels, divided by a long, narrow vegetable garden and olive-shaded pathway; the lower level features a swimming pool in a meticulous olive garden (rather than grove), and is off limits to casual visitors.
The northern and southern wings seem to embrace the upper level of the Italian garden, noted for its citrus collection. It was through a fascinating book on the history of citrus in Italy, The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee, (whose single grave fault is that it has no illustrations), that we first heard of Villa Torselli. 
The  garden has evolved into a more informal space than previously, is jam-packed with bedding plants and herbaceous borders. This intensive planting competes somewhat with the chromatic and geometric severity of classic Italian garden design and detracts a little from the citrus collection which is its most important and historical feature. The pots of ancient citrus trees are housed from mid November to spring in a vast space which was originally the villa's theatre, now a magnificent limonaia with terracotta flooring and the traditional terracotta and wood-beamed ceiling, springtime home to numerous swallows. 

a tree of chinotto, the bitter citrus which thrives only in Liguria, on Italy's northwestern coast, one of the key ingredients of Campari
the limonaia, once a theatre, is a magnificent winter home for the 130-plus citrus pots; one should return in early spring just to see their serried ranks, ordered according to height, and to smell the wonderful citrus blossom perfume or zagara as it it called here
in my eagerness I mistook this for the fabled citron, instead it is a grapefruit variety
these are citrons, citrus medica, the first citrus fruit to reach Italy in AD 70 when Jews fleeing Jerusalem brought them to Calabria (cf. Helena Attlee's book, mentioned above)
Interesting varieties, much prized in the renaissance: these oranges originate from a Medici plant
a rare bizzarria or citrus aurantium bizzarria, a renaissance discovery

attractive and interesting backdrop along the terrace wall: luxuriant espaliered Seville or sour orange trees
A riot of colours, this revisited Italian garden is notable for the number and variety of plants thriving within the geometric strictures of the formal garden. Perennials, annuals, aromatic plants, roses and a mixture of plantings from red 'municipal' salvia and pansies around the fountain to pots of calla and red and white amaryllis and datura, to unusual perennials and cottage garden flowers such as hollyhocks, and dwarf or 'bonsai' fruit trees at the centre of some box-edged parterres - although it is unclear why they are dwarf: the combination evinces more the enthusiasm and curiosity of the three full-time gardeners than an overall harmonious vision. It is, however, an undeniably  joyful celebration of planting and one could even argue that it is more 'egalitarian' than its formal ancestor. 

some of an attractive range of pastel-shaded hollyhocks
hortensia quercifolia in a (large) pot
this was a row of calla lilies, zantedeschia aethiopica against a wall of trachelospermum jasminoides

more of those hollyhocks
in keeping with a villa associated with the Machiavelli family and the Italian renaissance: a mandrake plant, probably mandragora autumnalis; together with the datura (depicted above) and some opium poppy plants, these plantings adhere to its herbal or simples garden origins
Tommy, the resident cat and the true 'padrone' of the villa; once we had disturbed his sleep he followed us everywhere; to keep an eye on us no doubt

Villa Poggio Torselli, Via Scopeti 10, San Casciano Val di Pesa
for reservations, info@poggiotorselli.it
15 euros per person to see the garden and grounds
open all year around upon appointment

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