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Photo ©Shaun Merrit
Boboli's tunnels
5 secrets of the Boboli Gardens
In search of hidden treasures in the Medici park, from the Buontalenti Grotto to the Limonaia

Boboli is one of the most important Italian gardens in the world and has recently been included, along with the other Tuscan Medici gardens and villas, in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

This green park in the heart of Florence, which stretches across 45 thousand square metres, is much more than just a garden. It is a true open-air museum, where fountains, caves, streets and buildings alternate with small woods, statues and ponds, telling the story of the three reigning dynasties that created and embellished it: the Medici, Lorraine and Savoys, when Florence was the capital of Italy.

It all began in 1549, when Eleanor of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de' Medici, bought the Pitti family's palace with their garden and decided to enlarge and modernize it with the architect Niccolò Tribolo. Since then, Boboli has been expanded and enriched continuously up to the present day.

Today we’re sharing 5 curiosities from the most beautiful garden in Florence. Five secret trails to discover this unique corner of the city.

Grotta Grande, a cave of wonders
The first room in the Grotta Grande, where Michelangelo's
The first room in the Grotta Grande, where Michelangelo's "Slaves" were once housed- Credit:  Ilaria Giannini

The Grotta Grande or Buontalenti Grotto is a small treasure trove. Built by Bernardo Buontalenti between 1583 and 1593 on behalf of Francesco I de' Medici, it is a Mannerist masterpiece. Michelangelo's unfinished statues, the four Slaves, were displayed in the grotto’s first room until 1924, when they were replaced with copies. The originals are now in the Galleria dell’Accademia.

The grotto is divided into three rooms and reads like a romantic initiation, so it’s no surprise that it became a place where lovers would meet to escape prying eyes.

The second room is decorated with a sculpture of Theseus and Arianna by Vincenzo de 'Rossi, a clear allusion to the cave’s romantic connotations, while the third and last room is set up like a real cave, a love nest dominated by the fountain of Venus after the Bath by Giambologna.

The ice houses, historic fridges
The ice houses in Boboli
The ice houses in Boboli- Credit:  Sailko

Two small domes between the amphitheatre and the Pegasus meadow are one of Boboli’s best kept secrets: they are the historic ice houses. Food and drink was kept from spoiling in these partially buried spaces, which were cooled with snow from Abetone and stored underground. In short, these artificial caves produced a perpetually cold environment, just like our modern refrigerators.

The Capricorn and the Turtle, Medici symbols
Capricorn on the facade of the Grotta Grande
Capricorn on the facade of the Grotta Grande

Among the many symbols that adorn the garden, there are two that are oft repeated and linked to one person in particular: Cosimo I de 'Medici.

The first is the Capricorn or goat, which we find almost everywhere: on the facade of the Grotta Grande, inside the Grotticina della Madama also known as Grotta delle Capre (Goats’ Cave), another work by Buontalenti, and also on the columns of the gates to the large Vasca dell'Isola.

The Capricorn was a symbol of power adored by Cosimo, who believed in the astrology of the time. Many great leaders were born or had planets in the Capricorn sign, including Lorenzo the Magnificent himself, who was born on January 1st.

The tortoise with the sail, on the other hand, was accompanied by the phrase "Festina lente" or "Hastily slowly", the motto that Cosimo chose for his government because it espoused that prudence must always accompany action if it is to be successful. We find the tortoise on the facade of the Grotta Grande but also in the Fontana del Bacchino, where the court dwarf Morgante is depicted as Bacchus riding the tortoise at Cosimo's request. Morgante was one of Cosimo’s friends.

The Egyptian obelisk
Boboli Gardens and the Egyptian obelisk
Boboli Gardens and the Egyptian obelisk- Credit:  Shutterstock / Pisaphotography

What is an Egyptian obelisk doing in Boboli? First of all, it’s real. It comes from the city of Aswan and was probably sculpted during the reign of Ramesses II, between 1297 BCE and 1213 BCE, which makes it one of the oldest monuments in Tuscany.

Over six and a half metres high, the obelisk arrived in Rome in the 1st century CE with the Roman Emperor Domitian. In the 16th century, it was bought by Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, who placed it in the gardens of the Villa Medici in Rome.

Only in 1788 did Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Lorraine take it to Florence, and in 1840 he placed it in front of the large granite basin where it still stands today.

The basin is also a rarity. It comes from the Baths of Nero in Rome and is among the largest intact tanks from antiquity still in existence.

The Medici lemon
Boboli in bloom
Boboli in bloom- Credit:  damian entwistle

The Medici had a real passion for citrus fruits, so much so that they cultivated and cross bred different species and spread the fashion throughout Tuscany.

Today many of these ancient citrus fruits are preserved in the Boboli lemon house, which was built in 1778 at the request of Grand Duke Peter Leopold.

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