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Villa Gamberaia


Via del Rossellino 72, 50135 Settignano (FI), Italy

Just kilometers from the city of Florence, a narrow country road (with narrow escapes) leads us from the center of Settignano to Villa Gamberaia, a Tuscan villa par excellence, elegant in its architectural simplicity overlooking both city and countryside. Inside the main gate, a graveled walkway flanked by cypresses leads us to the villa but gives no hint of the splendid gardens that await us.

In order to build Villa Gamberaia in 1610, a huge terrace was leveled on the slope and a high wall was constructed behind the villa to support a citrus garden and the woods, where many of the trees have stood for centuries. Within the foundation are wine cellars and agricultural store-rooms which can be reached directly from the house or from the fields below it, uniting the house with the land and surrounding countryside, achieving both practical and aesthetic qualities. An open air drawing room links the ground level of the house to the upper level of the garden. In 1717, an open loggia on the south side of the villa was added, to allow a view of the broderie parterre and the cypress belvedere which were created at this time. The inner courtyard of the villa is open to the sky, an unusual characteristic of the architecture and from here one can enter a large salone on the ground floor that overlooks all of Florence.

Today is filled with brilliant light, perfect for exploring the garden, one which had its beginning in the 17th century as an orchard, followed by a broderie garden a century later, when broderies were made popular by the French. These gardens were “embroidered” with varying layers of shaped boxwood and embellished with broken shards, glass and stones, to create intricate designs, enjoyed best when viewed from above. The real transformation of the garden began in the 20th century when the property was purchased by Princess Ghika, her particular design luring scholars and landscape architects from around the world to visit and study its characteristics.

The water parterre created by Princess Ghika is located south of the villa. The enclosed beds of the broderie parterre became pools of water with borders of lavender, iris, lilies, roses and oleander, introducing more color to the garden to be reflected in the pools. Rows of tiered boxwood, spheres and other topiary shapes give this peaceful garden a symetrical, sculptural dimension. Over the decades the boxwood grew to overtake the flowering plants giving the garden a predominantly green appearance, but recent plantings of flowering plants have brought back shades of color once again. A circular pond graced with water lilies and water irises rests tranquilly in front of the cypress belvedere at the far southern end of the water parterre.

Beneath an arched opening in the hedge are two chairs and a small table, inviting us to sit and gaze back at the villa gleaming in the late morning sun. We have brought a small picnic with us and this is a perfect spot to contemplate the history of this villa that was almost completely destroyed during WWII. Upon purchasing the ruined villa, its new owner, Marcello Marchi, used existing prints, photographs and maps to restore the villa to its original design and furnished it with tasteful period pieces that reflect what the interior would have once looked like. The villa is available for rent and for events such as weddings.

Our apartment was built into the structure that was once used for indoor tennis. It faces a central element of the garden, the famous bowling green, a 225-meter expanse of grass along the north-south axis. On the northern end is the Nymphaeum, a massive fountain carved into the hillside surrounded by cypress trees. The southern end overlooks the Arno valley. The east-west axis is 105 meters long and runs through the center of the villa and leads one to the cabinet di raccoglia, also known as an open-air drawing room, an intimate oval shaped garden linking the villa to the upper citrus gardens and the woods. Curved walls are covered in stones, pebbles, shells and rocks, with niches, terracotta urns, statuary and fountains. There is a large limonaia that houses the lemon and citrus trees during the winter months. The facade of the house offers a uninterrupted view of the city of Florence.

I have chosen to sit in the shadow of the Nymphaeum and write these notes. I lean against an ancient wall that looks as if it might crumble into my lap. If only walls could talk, perhaps help me describe the beauty I see before me. I am not well versed in garden talk, but I know poetry when I see it! And a symphony when I hear it!

All images and reviews copyright 2018 by Ginda Simpson

Villa Gamberaia ~ Original watercolor painting by Ginda Simpson

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