Pretty, ugly, and pretty ugly in the Boboli Gardens

The other afternoon I braved the heat (which I hate; it’s been in the lower 90s the last few days, which is nothing compared to all of August when it was at or above 100 for nearly the entire month, but is still terrible) and wandered over to the Boboli Gardens, which started life as a Renaissance pleasure garden for the Medici Dukes. After traversing the huge square of stone and pavement in front of the Palazzo Pitti, which must be one of the hottest places on earth, I climbed up, up, and up into the gardens. I sat for awhile on a bench in a lovely shaded spot in a tiny grotto (which had this terrible view):

ugh, too much ugliness to bear

And after restoring myself for a bit I wandered for a while. The Boboli Gardens are an ideal locale to take a book and snack and settle into the shade for a lazy afternoon, both of which I had, of course, forgotten. Regardless, they’re also an excellent place for thinking about dichotomies like growth/decay, beauty/ugliness and old/new. It’s perhaps too obvious to talk about gardens growing, but the growth that you can find in gardens like the Boboli (or other Renaissance/Baroque villas) is still astonishing. These oranges for example:

they look good, but they’re probably not delicious

The bright spots of orange bursting through the dark green foliage practically force you to marvel at the wonders of nature. This was in contrast to some of the grassy areas of the gardens (which you can see bits of in the top photo), parts of which were dead, brown dirt patches. Like much of the middle of the USA, large swathes of Italy had a spectacularly hot summer and suffer(s)(ed) from terrible drought. Even in the well manicured Boboli (and expensive to enter- presumably they do not lack funds for caretaking based on their admission price) this was apparent. However it wasn’t just barren earth that was showing evidence of decay; it could also be found on the maps of the gardens. Every one of the large signs displaying a map of the (rather grand) park was blossoming with rust, almost to the point of illegibility. And while the rust obscured the usefulness of the map, there was something evocatively beautiful about them:

not particularly helpful for getting you to the viale dei cipressi, but lovely nonethelss

There are also wonderful examples of ridiculous-ness in the garden. Reminders that the Renaissance, which is often characterized by ideas like ideal beauty, perfect proportions, austerity, and rigidity can also be goofy, with a dash of the grotesque thrown in as well. While the fountains that provide the welcome sounds of splashing water can be decorated by elegant nymphs and Neptunes, you can also find fountains that look like this:

why yes, that is a dwarf riding a turtle! And this actually is a legit (late) Renaissance artwork by Valerio Cioli from c 1550.

This fountain can only be summed up with a resounding: “HA.” And the Renaissance commitment to the pastoral in terms of their villa decoration is genuinely commendable. See here one of the scenes from the Grotta di Buontalenti:

the perfect pastoral scene complete with a replica (although the originals were originally here!) of one of Michelangelo’s Captives

And just in case it wasn’t clear: check out this detail of a ram:

just chill-axing on a rock over here

In a city, despite it’s manifest loveliness, that seems at times like Renaissance Disneyworld, it is valuable to be reminded of the dichotomies of that period and of our own. Like whimsical animals amidst all the aping of the Classical world, the goofy and grotesque fashioned in perfect white marble, or a meticulously trimmed row of orange trees opposite a lawn with only a few blades of brown grass surrounded by dirt, these seeming contradictions demonstrate the foolishness of focusing too much on one side of things; particularly here in Italy, where the layers of history go so deep, it is always, always possible to find the exact opposite of what you thought you knew for sure.


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