The Medici’s Villa in Poggio a Caiano

The walls of the Medici’s Villa in Poggio a Caiano tell countless stories. While walking through the rooms of this magnificent private residence of the Dukes, we can meet Lorenzo il Magnifico, who commissioned the construction of the villa to Giuliano da Sangallo. We can also encounter Giovanni de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s son, who became pope with the name of Leo X. Giovanni decided to continue his father activity and started the decoration of the representative room on the first floor of the villa, today called Leo X’s room. If we are quiet enough, we can also hear the rustle of Bianca Cappello’s muslin dress and the sound of her husband’s, Grand Duke Francesco’s, steps in the corridor. Let us listen to what the villa wants to tell us…

Medici's Villa in Poggio a Caiano
Medici’s Villa in Poggio a Caiano

Lorenzo il Magnifico and the dream of a revival

In the 1470s and the 1480s the Florentine culture lived a period of prosperity. Lorenzo de’ Medici’s generous support bestowed on arts and artists, made of Florence one of the most artistically vibrant environments. Lorenzo’s intellectual circle, which included poets, philosophers, historians and humanists, evinced particular interest in the revival of the Classical antiquity, the return to the ideals of Roman and Greek art, poetry and philosophy.

Suburban villas played an important role in the life of every Roman citizen. A Roman villa was an extensive rural property that fulfilled double function. On the one hand, the villas were farms, where the owner’s slaves worked hard producing food for the household and some additional surplus for sale. At the same time, the villa was also the place where the owner could exercise leisure activities, called otium. Leisure for a Roman citizen meant reading, writing and studying and the villas were perfectly suitable as places where to perfection one’s spirit.

Andrea del Sarto, Triumph of Caesar
Andrea del Sarto, Tribute to Caesar symbolically represents the tribute paid to Lorenzo il Magnifico by the Sultan of Egypt, ca. 1525, Leo’s X room, Villa in Poggio a Caiano.

The Villa in Poggio a Caiano and Giuliano da Sangallo

In 1474 Lorenzo il Magnifico bought the first parcel of land in the area of Poggio a Caiano together with an old fortified building placed at the top of a hill overlooking the river Ombrone. With these acquisitions Lorenzo’s idea of recreating a Roman villa as a private residence and farm owned by the Lord of Florence was put into practice.

The new villa was designed for Lorenzo by Giuliano da Sangallo, one of the most creative and active architects of the period, author of the splendid church of Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato and, few years later some projects for the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo, 1482-83, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo – fragment of the double portait of Giuliano with his father Francesco Giamberti, 1482-83, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Sangallo’s project for Poggio a Caiano recovered some of the Roman models used in the architecture of the suburban villas, like the high basement in the ground floor, similar to the Roman basis villae. Another clear reference to the Classical models is a pediment supported by six ionic columns that decorates the main entrance to the villa.

The ownership of such an extensive property was an expression of the Medici’s power and political domination in Tuscany. In Lorenzo’s view, the location and the architecture of the villa itself were supposed to underline his family’s control over a vast territory of the Florentine state. The location of the villa at the top of a hill guaranteed a dominating position to the entire complex. Moreover, the main body of the building is surrounded by a terrace, which runs at the top of the high basement. From this privileged position, the owners could supervise their property and exercise the control over their state. The villas, therefore, were an expression of the Medici’s political domination in Tuscany and they fulfilled the function of subsidiary seats of the governors, spread across the territory.

The villa in Poggio a Caiano received a name, Ambra. It was called like the nymph Ambra, protagonist of Angelo Poliziano and Lorenzo’s bucolic poems.

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The terracotta Neoplatonic frieze

The idea of power and control is expressed also by the frieze in glazed terracotta decorating the entablature supporting the pediment. This unique decoration is traditionally attributed to Bertoldo di Giovanni, a Florentine sculptor trained in Donatello’s workshop, who remained in a close relationship with Lorenzo il Magnifico for his whole life. The frieze presents an allegory of time visualized by a sequence of consecutive scenes. The cycle starts with an allegory of Eternity, then we can see the birth of Jupiter and the beginning of an era, the era of Jupiter. Subsequently two-faced Janus (Janus bifrons) announces the beginning of a year. He is followed by the allegories of the four seasons and the twelve months, while the last section represents the allegory of the day, with Aurora preparing Apollo (Sun) and his horses for the departure. Eternity, era, year, season, month and day – the frieze represents always smaller units becoming an overall allegory of time.

Bertoldo di Giovanni, Allegory of Time, frieze in glaized terracotta, 1480s
Bertoldo di Giovanni, Allegory of Time, frieze in glaized terracotta, 1480s, Villa Poggio a Caiano.
From the top: Eternity, birth of Jupiter and the era of Jupiter, Janus Bifrons and the allegory of the year, the four seasons and the twelve months, allegory of the day.

The idea of time and of a return was very popular and frequently used by the Medici in their political and cultural propaganda. Already in 1469, when  Lorenzo il Magnifico participated to a knightly tournament in Florence, his motto was “Le tems revient”, the time renews itself. The Medici often referred to the myth of the Golden Age, period when the world, ruled by Saturn, enjoyed prosperity and peace. According to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, in the age of Saturn humans lived in a perfect symbiosis with nature, there was an eternal spring and the earth, even if not cultivated, offered fruit and cereals in abundance.

Frequent references to this myth became a tool of political propaganda in the hands of the Medici family. The Medici tried to promote the idea that their rule in Florence could restore the lost prosperity and guarantee a period of a true wealth and well-being. Seen in this perspective, the frieze decorating the villa in Poggio a Caiano, perfectly fits into this main narrative promoted by the Medici.

Leo X’s room in the Villa in Poggio a Caiano

Despite his engagement in the project of the villa, Lorenzo did not manage to conclude it. He died in 1492 and the government of Florence passed in the hands of his son, Piero. However, two years later, Piero was exiled from Florence and Florentine Republic was dominated by the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola. The task to restore and reinforce the Medicean influence in Florence fell on Lorenzo’s younger son, Giovanni, who in 1513 became pope with the name Leo X. Leo directed his glance towards his father’s favourite villa and decided to continue the works in Poggio a Caiano.

Ceiling in the room of Leo X, villa in Poggio a Caiano
Coffered ceiling in the room of Leo X with the coat of arms of the Medici family, villa in Poggio a Caiano.

Leo X promoted the execution and the decoration of the main, representative room on the first floor of the villa, today called “Leo X’s room”. On the walls of this grand chamber the Florentine artists painted the scenes from the Ancient history: Console Flaminius Speaking in front of the Achaean Council; Return of Cicero from the Exile; Syphax, Numidian King Receives Scipio; Tribute to Caesar. All of these events, however, were painted on the walls to talk about the history of the Medici family and of their political achievements. Thus, the Return of Cicero from Exile becomes an allegory of a triumphant return to Florence of Cosimo the Elder in 1434 and the Tribute to Ceasar symbolically refers to the tribute paid to Lorenzo il Magnifico by the Sultan of Egypt.

Alessandro Allori, Consul Flaminius speaks in front of the Achaean council, villa Poggio a Caiano.
Alessandro Allori, Consul Flaminius speaks in front of the Achaean council, symbolically representing Lorenzo il Magnifico speaking in Cremona, 1578-82, Villa Poggio a Caiano.

In the lunettes of the room return the same subject discussed in Bertoldo di Giovanni’s frieze. Between 1519 and 1521 Pontormo decorated the wall with the fresco representing Vertumnus and Pomona, the deities of seasons, their change, maturation of fruit and vegetables. The iconographic program of the room glorifies the deeds of the Medici family and again repeats the idea, that the Medicean rule guarantees prosperity and wealth.

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Bianca and Francesco

The political activity of Leo X and, later, the support of another Medicean pope, Clement VII, allowed the Medici to return to Florence and to receive the title of Dukes in 1532. The villa in Poggio a Caiano became one of their favourite suburban residencies and many members of the family spend here long weeks, enjoying nature, peace and quiet.

In particular, Poggio a Caiano, just like the magnificent villa in Pratolino, was preferred by the Duke Francesco de’ Medici and by his second wife Bianca Cappello.

Scipione Pulzone, Portrait of Bianca Cappello.
Scipione Pulzone, Portrait of Bianca Cappello, 1584, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Francesco and Bianca met when they were both married and initially Bianca was Francesco’s mistress. The two married in 1578, after the death of their respective spouses. The relationship between the two was really strong and Bianca was one of very few people who managed to understand and support eccentric Francesco.

The relationship between Francesco and Bianca was strongly disapproved by Francesco’s younger brother, Ferdinando. This, however, did not stop the Duke from sharing his life with her. Their love story had a dramatic ending, however. They both died in Poggio a Caiano, few days one from another, in October 1587. Even if their death was followed by various speculations about poisoning, the recent studies confirmed that they both died of malaria. Also the treatment used against malaria at that time was not helpful and probably contributed to the fatal ending.

During the sixteenth century malaria was treated with arsenic, which obviously is a very strong poison. It also seems that Francesco considered arsenic a vaccine against malaria and that he and Bianca took small doses of arsenic on a daily bases. The final prescription took when they actually fell ill was fatal.

The villa in Poggio a Caiano witnessed these tragic events. The walls of this residence tell these, and other stories and remind us about the ambitions and struggles of a family, who ruled Tuscany for over two hundred years.

If you want to discover the fascinating history of the villa and hear other stories related to this important Medici’s residency, contact me. I will be happy to organize your private tour in Poggio a Caiano.