Wednesday 13 February 2013

Ramblings about the Grotto Grande

Interior of first chamber
This piece of work has been sat in my MA file for years. However the subject matter has recently become quite popular and if the gossip is anything to go by, it's shortly to get the Dan Brown treatment. So before this happens, I thought I'd get this essay into an abridged form (ha!) on here.

The Grotto Grande, or Buontalenti's Grotto sits in a quiet corner of the Pitti Palace/Boboli Gardens in Florence and has been subject to many interpretations. It is very much a patchwork reflecting the personalities of the three Grand Dukes under which is was built. The ostentatious façade (1556-1560) built for Cosimo I began as Vasari's fish pond and decorated with Bandinelli's Ceres and Apollo. It was the partnership of Francesco I and Bernardo Buontalenti who designed and constructed the façade’s second storey and the three unusually decorated chambers. The completion of the third chamber and the finishing touches were provided by Ferdinand I (1587-92) after the death of his brother, Francesco.

The surface of the upper storey has been covered with material from nature. Stalactites soften the classical edges of the facade and there are mosaics of coloured shells and stones which picture the insignia of the various Medici dukes. Though they are now poor specimens and you have to really look for them, there are plants in terracotta pots behind the stalactite edges of the gable. There is an anonymous eighteenth century watercolour of the grotto showing large healthy plants; this was a considerable time after Buontalenti but there is no reason to doubt that this was his idea.

The first of the three chambers is the largest and most elaborate. The dome rests heavily on Michelangelo's captives in the four corners. The walls are decorated with formations of Tuscan spugna, from which emerge faces and human figures and selected 'because the were over grown with a vegetation of 'venus hair' (Adiantum capillus Veneris) a delicate fern'. Further up the stone blends into frescos of pastoral scenes, wild animals and flying birds. Behind all this, a complicated system of thin pipes would drip water down the walls which supplied the moist conditions required by the ferns and mosses, whilst hidden under the floor, water jets would catch the unwary visitor. These guochi 'd'aqua were common features in gardens of this time, fulfilling the dual role of providing welcome relief from the summer heat and also demonstrating the wit, imagination and playfulness of the owner. On either side of the grotto, water tanks would stock fish. For the oculus, Buontalenti created a novel, albeit short lived intention; he made a fish bowl out of some large pieces of crystal, so light would enter the grotto but was wonderfully refracted by the water and the fish. Though it is still awe inspiring and fantastic in all senses of the word, the grotto today is dry and arid. At one time it would have had quite an impact – the light from the crystal, noise of the water, the texture of the walls, the smell of the damp greenery and the taste of the humidity in the air would have combined to present a place of wonder and marvel.

Beyond the heavily decorated archway are the other two chambers. The second chamber is a shallow rectangle whereas the third is an egg shaped boudoir. Both have little of the spugna which makes up the rustic decoration of the first. The architectural features which frame the frescos are nonetheless painstakingly studded with glossy shells and the archway is decorated with lifelike trellis work, complete with roses, birds and the sky beyond. The walls of the second chamber are decorated with women from classical mythology – possibly Pallas Athena and Hera Juno but they are unreadable now. The ceiling frescos by Guiseppe di Luca Gieri and Poccetti tell the stories of Anneas, including the 'escape from Troy' and 'landing on the coast of Lazio'. The sculptural group of Paris and Helen is by Vincenzo de' Rossi da Fiesole (1525-87) and was presented to Cosimo I in 1560. In 1587 it was moved to this room and erected over a green marble fountain basin. Many changes have been made since; the sculpture was at one point removed to the Bargello and a picture of the grotto from this time looks empty and sad. The frescos would have become less meaningful without their protagonists who provided the key to the stories depicted on the walls.

Due to skylights in the vault, the third chamber is light and airy, the walls and vaults delicately painted with vines and fragrant climbing flowers such as rose and convolvuli, realistic looking birds sitting amongst the branches. Dividing the walls and ceiling there is a rustic cornice of spugna, pebbles and grotesque faces. Complementing this and in contrast to the delicate walls, around the room are niches containing Giovan Battista del Tadda's naturalistic 'crystal mountain' fountains. As in the first chamber, the lack of water means they are dull dry and calcified and it takes imagination to see them as glistening piles of translucent crystal, quartz, marble and coloured glass. The niches themselves are decorated with natural products; shells, mother of pearl mosaics which would have added to the effect of the fountains.

At the centre of this cage like inner sanctum is a magnificent marble Venus by Giovanni da Bologna (1529-1608) which Francesco had obtained as a young man and kept in his bed chamber like a princely Pygmalion. The statue was placed in the grotto after his death and a supporting fountain with four white marble satyrs by Michelangelo Ferruci clinging to the edge of the basic was added. These satyrs appear to mock anyone who lusts after her beautiful figure and as Francesco loved her so much, it could be seen as disrespectful of his memory. Maurizio Fagiolo d’Arco suggests that there is an erotic aspect to this third chamber due to the similarities between this grotto and the one that Ferdinand had built in the gardens of the Villa Medici so that he could meet his mistress there. I’m not convinced about this as I feel the inner sanctum is a place of contemplation and not necessarily a place for seduction.

There is little contemporaneous evidence of the significance of the grotto’s decoration. The standard interpretation of the first chamber is that of the story of Pyrrha and Deucalion from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Jove drowned humankind in the flood, leaving only the god fearing couple. When the waters receded, they were horrified at the desolate and silent earth. An oracle told them to cast behind them their great mother’s bones and when they threw stones over their shoulders, men and women were newly formed from these. It is these figures that can be seen in the spugna and marble. It is noteworthy to mention that it was Deucalion’s ancestor Prometheus who created man out of water and earth which makes this story doubly relevant to the grotto.

In the Italian translation of the poem, as the human beings were being formed, Ovid tells us they resembled sculptures that were only roughed out in the block, described as abbozzati and non finito. Michelangelo was a master of this non finito sculptural effect and Paul Barolsky examines the four Captives in this Ovidean context and feels that though these sculptures were essentially 'unfinished', for the purpose that they serve within the grotto paradoxically, they are finished, 'they are being metamorphosed into flesh from stone'. In this respect they are linked to the forms in the spugna which are also non finito but interestingly he says that they are further tied in that the Captives are participating in a pastoral, the shepherds tending their sheep, playing their pipes, he says the roughness or rozzezza of the figures is appropriate to a pastoral scene, 'rozzo is derived from rudis, whence our word rude', with its meaning of humble or basic.

Modern interpretations (Jocelyn Godwin) explain the unfinished Captives and forms emerging from the spugna representing the human race, the vault perhaps contains the "waters above the heavens" which poured down in the Deluge. Indeed, the watery aspect of the grotto seems to represent a world newly emerged from the flood waters and the unfinished sculpture and forms seen in the decoration represent the transformation of mother earth into newly formed humans. I would also like to point out that the frescoed figures fishing and carrying rocks could perhaps represent Ovid's 'children of the earth', i.e., humble people involved in heavy work and 'lives of toil'.

Further theories suggest (Litta Maria Medri) 'the emergence of animals and man from the matrix of minerals probably had a precise connection with Francesco's alchemical work and his theories of the four elements. Both politically and personally, the two brothers were very different. Francesco was an introvert; melancholic, eccentric, with esoteric interests verging on the heretical but Ferdinand was 'extroverted, healthy and [...] autocratic'. According to Medri, Ferdinand wanted to eliminate evidence of Francesco's 'sinister, irreligious interests' and talks of a damnation memoriae. Thus under Ferdinand, the meaning of the grotto is turned into something less potentially harmful, an allegory the power of nature and evidence of the pax medicea, with the myth of Pyrrha and Deucalion as a 'respectable cover story’.

Medri's theory is of fundamental importance. The 'Theory of the Four Elements' is ascribed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle and rests on the supposed existence of four elementary properties or qualities, hot and cold, wet and dry which when combined, gave rise to the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. Aristotle held that these could be further incorporated with a prima materia, 'this had no material existence until it became allied with 'form', after which it could enable one element to pass into another, by a process of transmutation'. It was this implication of changing one element into another that so preoccupied the Ancients and all who followed. Francesco was no exception and enjoyed spending time in his workshop experimenting with different processes, for instance, he learnt to melt rock-crystal and recast it into vases; an example of 'one element passing into another'. It cannot be stressed enough how seriously this theory was taken and it dominated scientific thought until the middle of the seventeenth century. Transmutation, in turn belonged to the wider conception of metamorphoses, a universal and essential part of folklore. The possibility of transmuting one element or one metal into another would be ranged in the imagination alongside the observed and spectacular changes of seeds into flowers, caterpillars into butterflies, tadpoles into frogs. Ovid in the Metamorphoses, after the myth of Pyrrha and Deucalion, tells us how other life forms were created,

when heat and moisture
Blend in due balance, they conceive; these two, These are the origin of everything.
Through fire and water fight, humidity
And warmth create all things...
[Metamorphoses I. 428-432] 

The Aristotelian elements had to balance, otherwise nothing could live. This is especially applicable to the creation of a garden, plants have to have access to the correct amount of heat and humidity and indeed, the grotto would have been pleasantly warm and moist enabling the plants within to flourish and go through their own natural transformation. As for the visitor to the grotto, going up the steps, through the gate from the hot, dry, bright sunlight and into the dim, cool and moist atmosphere of the first chamber, the transmutation of the four elements would be immediately obvious.

The modern scientific age has dismissed alchemy as the dubious art of changing base metal into gold but in the case of Francesco a wider interpretation is required. Put succinctly, alchemy 'was a grandiose philosophical system which aimed at penetrating and harmonising the mysteries of creation and life' and theoretically its ideas could be used as a way of unlocking nature's secrets and as a scientist Francesco would have wanted to do just that. Conversely, its mysteries could be used to deliberately 'conceal the practice from all who had not been initiated into a certain secret which enabled them to understand', the grotto is a perfect example of this and why, as non-initiates, it is difficult to fathom its mysteries.

It is possible that ancient alchemical writings and alchemical symbolism can be used as keys to unlock and explain certain aspects of the grotto. Firstly I would like to look at an example of a second century AD fragment of writing called 'The Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers' to which Francesco may have had access. This is a mysterious piece of prose which links the alchemical process with what the writer sees in nature, that is to say, the seasons, growth, death and regeneration. The author writes,

Tell us how the blessed waters visit the corpses lying in Hades fettered and afflicted in darkness" […] Cleopatra said to them, "the waters, when they come, awake the bodies and the spirits which are imprisoned and weak. For they again undergo oppression and are enclosed in Hades…

The aquatic atmosphere in the grotto would have ensured the feeling that the waters had only just subsided; the prone forms in the spugna on the right hand side, dripping wet, oppressed and enclosed in the rock. The spirits of Michelangelo's Captives are certainly imprisoned in their corners, too weak to break free of the marble that forms them. The author continues, 'and yet in a little while they grow and rise up and put on divers glorious colours like the flowers in springtime and the Spring itself rejoices and is glad at the beauty they wear'. The bright colours of the plants and flowers in the grotto celebrate Spring that never fails to come every year, following the Winter that has made everything cold, weak and sleepy. The dull base metal, i.e., Winter has turned into perfect gold, the substance that every metal will evolve into, i.e., Spring, this is clearly celebrating the phenomena of the chemical changes that have taken place during the alchemical process.

Alchemical ideas were expressed in coded language, in emblem, symbol and enigma and these symbols are apparent in the grotto. When you walk into it and look up, there straight ahead of you is the sun. The sun is one of the major symbols in alchemy, the symbol of 'gold, philosophical gold (the virtue or mysterious power hidden in gold), the secret fire, the masculine power or principle in the opus'. Importantly, the sun was supposed to have magic rays that penetrated the earth and provided the warmth that the base metals needed in order to ripen into gold. Once again, there is transformation which is very reminiscent of Ovid, quoted above.

The interior shape of the grotto is very relevant and the symbolism is immediately apparent. The room that houses the Venus is egg-shaped and the importance of the egg can not be overestimated in its symbolic meaning of creation and fertility. It is fanciful, though possible to link this inner chamber with the earth as mother and the external sun as the masculine power, coming together and bringing forth the perfect form of Venus. As John Read says 'the operations [...] found their consummation in the hermetically sealed Vessel known [...] notably as the Vase of Hermes, the Vase of the Philosophers, or the Philosopher's Egg'. This vessel was regarded as an incubator, 'as the chamber in which was the bed of the pregnant mother who was to bring forth the child' and during the 'generation of the philosopher's stone, the vessel is referred to as the bed, nest, egg, womb, globe or garden in which the roses bloom'. In my view, this describes the third chamber perfectly with the cage-like trellises of roses growing round, protecting and enclosing Venus.

There are other less obvious symbols which could be possibly alchemical in the grotto; birds and trees are important symbols in alchemy. In the frescos, birds are depicted both in the sky and seated in the branches of trees, they have flown up into the sky and have descended to earth and as F Sherwood Taylor notes, 'these are an obvious symbol for sublimation, distillation, and all the processes where a 'spirit' is raised from a body'. Depictions of trees and other greenery abound within and are shown in various media, there are the frescos, the spugna and also when the grotto was watery, there would have been real mosses and ferns growing out of the sides. The symbolism of the tree can be summed up; it 'grows out of the earth, the mineral, and bears fruit, which is spiritual, having the power to become wine, which yields a spirit'. It may be however, that the landscapes with their birds and trees could be purely decorative and that their links with alchemy could be purely coincidental.

Gyorgy Szonyi's essay is useful in suggesting why, and in what ways, a grotto could be an excellent way of illustrating alchemical themes. He outlines briefly the three fields of interest in the alchemical texts and then how they are depicted, as diagrams (or cosmograms) or pictures of allegorical fables usually mythological in content, which represent processes or operations. He says that all these accommodate 'many fantasy elements and motifs [...] such as landscape, topography, buildings, gardens, labyrinths, etc'. Central to this is the 'sacred precinct' and the concept of sacred and profane; these two spheres are normally separated from each other; in special circumstances, however, they may still meet. Such a union requires an exclusively designed place, which may be artificially created, such as the temple, or located in nature representing the axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth [. ..] the three cosmic levels — earth, heaven and underworld - have been put in communication. Such natural cosmological images of the axis mundi can be a hill, a cave, a tree.

The grotto is obviously where the sacred and profane meet; it is the exclusively designed place which has been artificially created. Despite the classical, non rustic exterior, it has also been located in nature by the types of natural material used in its decoration and construction. In this way it connects heaven and earth. Further, it seems that all of the three cosmic levels are represented; the first chamber could be the underworld, watery, dank with the creatures of the earth looking down into the abyss. The second chamber is the earth and earthly events (as depicted by the story of Troy) with the third chamber representing heaven and the achievement of perfection. All are linked and all are in communication and all very different.

Godwin identified the grotto's religious connotations and proposes that the magnificent exterior of the grotto was more like 'the west front of a church' and continues

I would suggest that the Large Grotto functioned like a pilgrimage church, built to house a sacred relic. Just as a church is open to people of all qualities and understanding, so was the Grotto. [...] In a church, one enters the nave, proceeds to the chancel, then to the reliquary [...] prepared by the meditations occasioned by the first two chambers the pilgrim is granted an apparition of the Celestial Venus.

Both of these ideas are equally valid due to the very nature of the grotto. The levels of interpretation are such that it can have all these meanings or none at all. The mercurial, cryptic nature of the grotto fascinates the beholder; the meaning of the grotto is within grasp and then in a blink of an eye, it has shifted, out of reach. This feeling was probably familiar to the alchemists seeking to find the inner workings of nature, delving into the very secret of God's creation.

Though changes were made to the grotto, in terms of the moving about of the statues, amendments made to mosaics on the exterior, it is still very much a product of Francesco's era; from an ornate, classically inspired fish pool, it changed into a unique, symbolically complex work of art. The patron and creators used many sources as inspiration, clearly the poetry of Ovid played a significant role in the grotto; indeed it is becoming more apparent that Ovid's contribution to Renaissance art was absolutely fundamental in terms of inspiration, themes and ideas. Also the fusion of scientific thought and experimentation with those ideas generally characterised as humanistic played a major part in making the grotto a place of marvel and delight. There is the deliberate fusion of art and nature, the quest for naturalism and the claim that art demands a knowledge and mastery of other arts; 'it is a means of distilling the beauty of things, of coordinating and integrating knowledge'. Other themes include the preoccupation with wonders and marvels and importantly, Medici familial aggrandisement. The grotto is a place of transformation with hidden meanings which have changed over time; the way we see it now will always be necessarily different from how it was seen and interpreted at the time.

If you want footnotes, references etc for more info let me know! Apologies for the length of this posting but my blog, my rules ;)


  1. This is brilliant! I am currently writing an essay about the grotto as staging natural and social transformations, great read!

  2. My pleasure. Likewise your research sounds interesting. Never thought of them as places of social transformations simply because of their elite genesis. Playgrounds of the rich and educated. The ultimate grotto garden was Pratolino though. Lots going on there.

  3. I would like to learn please the primary source concerning: "For the oculus, Buontalenti created a novel, albeit short lived intention; he made a fish bowl out of some large pieces of crystal, so light would enter the grotto but was wonderfully refracted by the water and the fish."