Off the beaten track in Florence, Italy – the park of Pratolino

a day between nature and art

If you are tired of crowds in the centre of Florence, get on the bus and visit the park of Pratolino, once one of the most magnificent Medici’s villas, today a beautiful green area where nature meets with art.

The villa of Pratolino and the vast park surrounding it were built for Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici by the Duke’s favourite architect, Bernardo Buontalenti. With the cost of 782.000 scudi, which doubled the expenses for the construction of the Uffizi buildings, the Villa of Pratolino was a truly magnificent residence for the ruler of Tuscany. From among all the Medici’s villas, this one corresponded at best to Duke’s Francesco artistic taste.

Francesco bought the land in Pratolino in 1568 and one year later Buontalenti started to work on his project for the villa. The villa was finished in 1575 and together with Buontalenti in Pratolino worked also Giambologna, Bartolomeo Ammannati and other important artists.

Utens, Pratolino

As we can see on this lunette painted by Giusto Utens, which shows the Pratolino estate, the villa was surrounded by a vast park while at the sides of the building run two artificial streams. The flow of the water was interrupted by numerous fountains and grottos and water was the true protagonist of this unique project. The water put in motion numerous automa, which were mechanical robots, whose movement caused by the flow of the water created the illusion of life.

According to the accounts, Francesco used Pratolino as a place for the encounters with his lover, Bianca Cappello, who in 1579 will become his second wife. The secret grottos and the park gave the two privacy and concealment and it seemed a perfect place for their relationship to foster.

In 1587 Francesco and Bianca died in another of the Medici’s villas, the one in Poggio a Caiano. They both suffered of fever for about 10 days and died at the distance of one day one from another. It seems that they contracted malaria, which caused their death, even if the hypothesis of arsenic poisoning by Francesco’s brother, Ferdinando, was also taken into consideration. However, recent analysis confirmed the presence of malaria’s agents in Francesco’s bones, therefore we can declare Ferdinando’s innocence.

After Francesco’s death, the Pratolino villa was scarcely ever used by the other members of the family. Only the Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, son of Cosimo III, will restore the villa in late seventeenth century. Ferdinando would never become the Duke. He died in 1713, ten years before his father, and so the throne passed to his younger brother, Gian Gastone.

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Gian Gastone de’ Medici did not leave any male descendants and after his death the rule of Tuscany passed in the hands of the Habsburg-Lorraine family. The new rulers had to limit significantly the expenses  related to the court in order to repair the public finances of the Tuscan state. The Villa of Pratolino, left unguarded, rapidly started to fall apart. Water, that during Franceso’s times delighted Duke’s guests, gave pleasure and astonishment to everybody, during the eighteenth century led to its decline.

In 1819 Grand Duke Ferdinand III Habsburg-Lorraine commissioned Joseph Fritsch to re-design the garden of the villa. Fritsch turned it into an English garden. In 1820 he mined the villa and this is when we have lost forever Francesco’s intimate residence.

In 1872 the park was bought by the Russian prince Paul II Demidoff who restored the remaining buildings, such as Buonatalenti’s chapel and the stables. The architect Emilio de Fabris turned the secondary building of the paggerie (residency for the page boys) into the new Demidoff’s Villa.

If you visit the park today, keep in mind Utens’ painting showing the estate in the 1580s. It will help you to trace the remaining parts of this unique project and with its help you will find your way through the park.

Visit to the park of Pratolino:

After you enter the park, a wide path will lead you to the heart of Duke Francesco’s  estate. The first building you will find on your way will be the old stable, build between 1579 and 1580 by Bernardo Buontalenti and restored during the nineteenth century.

Giambologna’s Gigante – The Giant

Giambologna, Apennine
Giambologna, The Apennine, 1580, park of Pratolino.

Behind the stables you will find a little lake guarded by the immense figure of Giambologna’s Apennine , called the Giant. This unique statue decorated the first of the lakes, along one of the artificial streams created in the garden. Giambologna, the author of this work, was a Flemish sculptor. His real name was Jean Boulogne, he was born in Douai in 1529 and he trained in Antwerp with Jacques du Broeucq. In 1550 the artist moved to Italy and started his brilliant career. He became Medici’s court sculptor and developed his Mannerist style. Giambologna sculpted the Apennine in 1580. The Giant squeezes a big sea monster out of the mouth of whom spurts fresh water. The fountain included also two grottos, artificial caves, with water games and automa. Moreover, there are some hidden rooms inside the statue itself, in its head and inside his back (here you can find the 3-D models of the statue with the projection of the internal rooms).
Around 1690 the fountain was restored, the artificial mountain which supported the Apennine was destroyed and a statue of a dragon by Giovanni Battista Foggini was added at Apennine’s back.

Foggini, Dragon, Pratolino
Giovanni Battista Foggini, The Dragon, ca. 1690, park of Pratolino.

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In 1820s instead, during the works in the garden numerous trees were planted around the statue, to give the composition a more romantic character. This statue is today the most interesting element of the entire park.

If you continue along the main path, you will reach the residency for Medici’s page boys, which became Demidoff’s Villa in 1872. If you look around, you will find the giant hands and feet of Giambologna’s Giant. These are the originals substituted by the copies during the restoration.

Giambologna, Apennine's hand
Giambologna, Apennine’s hand, park of Pratolino.

On the big field below the paggerie you will see what remains of the original Medici Villa. The building was mined in 1820 and today, the most evident trace of this magnificent residence is the monumental staircase, which once led the visitors to the building.

The path climbs a bit and brings you to the Fish Pond of the Mask, one of the pools for hot baths, which originally was linked to the stream flowing from the Apennine’s fountain. The statue that guards the pool, called the “Mask”, represents a marine creature and remains an interesting trace of Buontalenti’s original project.

Buontalenti, Fish Pond of the Mask, Pratolino
Fish Pond of the Mask, park of Pratolino.

After another turn of the main path you reach the Cupid’s Grotto, built by Buontalenti in 1577. The structure of the grotto is maintained in its original form even if the sculptural decoration designed for this artificial cave is lost today. One of these statues was a bronze statue of Cupid, which stood in the middle, turned on itself and wet the spectators with spurts of water.

Buontalenti, Grotto del Cupido, Pratolino
Bernardo Buontalenti, interior of the Cupid Grotto, 1577, park of Pratolino.

The last monument, visible today only from the outside, is Buontalenti’s chapel, a hexagonal building surrounded by fifteen columns with a beautiful staircase leading to the entrance. Unfortunately, we can look inside only through the windows and I really hope the monument will be accessible one day.

Buontalenti, Chapel, Pratolino
Bernardo Buontalenti, Chapel, 1580, park of Pratolino.

The tour of the open part of the park ends here. For now, other monuments, like the Fountain of Jupiter or the Neoclassical hunting lodge are not accessible.

Useful information:

The park is open from 1 April to 28 October but ONLY on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank holidays.
Opening hours: from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm (in October from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm)

The entrance is free of charge.

You can reach the park by car (via Fiorentina 276-282, Pratolino), or by bus 25 from Piazza San Marco. The bus ride takes about 20 minutes.
If you take the bus, you need to get off at the last stop and follow the signs which will lead you to the entrance.

Enjoy your visit!