Thursday, 5 March 2015

Ramblings around Giambologna's Appennino at Pratolino

This is a short piece; perhaps musings on what might and should grow into a longer article. Sadly I just don't have the energy at the moment. It has been a long week of illness in which Twitter and trashy TV have been my entertainment. Despite the mental exhaustion, still, an unknown person got me thinking about an object which I hadn't thought about for a very long time. @History_Pics tweeted a picture of Giambologna's monumental garden sculpture 'Appennino'. As luck would have it, the book I required was on my windowsill, so I reached out to have a look and all my memories of Pratolino came flooding back.

One of the happiest periods of study in my life was the Italian Renaissance Gardens module at Birkbeck University around 2004. That year, by some co-incidence, an inspirational set of people had chosen this course, led by course tutors who lived, ate, breathed garden history of all types. I, on the other hand, had no idea about the subject but had dropped on to the course because it was something I had never heard of - I mean 'garden history'? My focus was Renaissance art and I baffled tutors with my determination to stay in the 16th century when so little of these original fragile and transitory works of art remain.

This was very clear when we went on a Garden History trip to Florence and Tuscany. By this time I had decided to focus on the most peculiar garden of the period. Francesco de' Medici was one of those rulers who spent very little time ruling and a lot of time investigating the un/natural world around him. Having recently become acquainted with the Elector of Saxony, who was roughly contemporary, I still feel drawn to Francesco and his shy, remote knowledge seeking. In comparison, August seems bluff, hearty and practical, so the Duke of Tuscany will always remain my first historical love.

I have written about Francesco's garden at Pratolino at length elsewhere, but space constraints have meant that the actual description of the garden which I pieced together for the dissertation has never been published. To do this I used various near contemporary visual and textual sources. Pratolino wasn't originally included on our trip but I begged the guide to include it, in return for a seminar using the work I'd been doing. My tutor, who was on the trip, was pessimistic, pointing out that very few of the marvels were left. Not only did I prove him wrong, but it was a beautiful day and I've never given a seminar in a buttercup field before or since.

We were following the footsteps of many famous diarists/writers. The earliest writers included Francesco de' Vieri and Michel de Montaigne who where there in 1580. For years it was one of the highlights for English aristocrats on their grand tour, amongst the eminent visitors who noted their visit in letters, diaries and treaties were Fynes Morison (1566-1630) and architect Henry Wotton (1568-1539). A little later English travel writer John Evelyn (1620-1706) wrote extensively about the gardens. Architect William Kent (c1685-1748) visited, as did the gardener, painter, architect, and science-aristocrat John Boyle (1707-1762). By this time, the garden was perhaps starting to resemble what we can see today, with mere vestiges of Francesco's mannerist splendour remaining.

Although words are helpful, near contemporary pictorial representation is invaluable. Guisto Utens included it as one of his lunettes of the Medici Villas. This doesn't help Appennino because the lunette only includes the garden to the south. More helpful here are Salvatore Vitale's 1588 print and Bernardo Sgrilli's plan from 1742. The latter is very detailed and shows planting, pathways and buildings. Most of these show Appennino to a greater or lesser extent, and this massive figure remains the ensuring symbol of the park as it is now.

Appennino is an extraordinary colossal work of art and was originally made up on two parts; a sculpted man in front of an artificial mount with the figure's crouching shape echoing that of the mountain. The lake below the figure provided a mirrored surface so that he could see himself reflected in the water. This would add to the effect of the natural lake/mountain environment being brought into the artificial world of the garden-park. The watery barrier and sheer size of the figure combine to make him seem remote and forbidding. Stefano della Bella's rather romantic views of the park in the mid-seventeeth century show the figure emerging from - or retreating to - his stufa'ed grotto, whilst two small figures look on, leaning on the lake's decorative and incongruous balustrading. The surrounding greenery ensure an alpine atmosphere.

There were several grottos within, and appropriate subterranean themed decorations covered the walls of the vaulted rooms; scenes of mines, miners and quarries, shepherds, animals in one grotto and fish in the other. In the largest room was a fountain, which according to a sketch done in sit by Giovanni Guerra in 1598, appears to almost fill the room. The basin of the fountain rose up from an octagonal pool with sea shells and mother of pearl snails spouting water upwards. Sat at the top was a rustic statue of Thetis made from shells, and water spouted all around her. Niches around the chamber contained statues of allegorical figures, Livorno, Elba, Sirens, and others. From there, there was a staircase up into a second chamber containing another fountain of shells and stufa with a basin of jasper and decorated with coral. A wonderful blogpost tells us more about the interior.

The mining references have taken on a new significance after my work with August's bench. Where Francesco was recreating the natural environment under his control in a garden-park, August was exploiting and taxing actual natural resources within his state. I'm not suggesting that Francesco didn't make use of the resources in Tuscany and exploit new technologies to extract and manipulate them, but I haven't seen any evidence of August recreating garden fancies to reflect the Ore Mountains. I don't want to generalise but this is a fascinating difference between the Medici Tuscany and Wettin Saxony and their attitudes to the natural world. So much more to be said here.

It is important to remember that Appennino was only one of many wonders which combined to tell a story. Italian Renaissance gardens, unlike many of the later English, French and Russian copies, had to be read. It is this allure and mystery which I find irresistible. At the top of the garden there was a majestic fountain statue of Jove, with his eagle, and water streaming from a golden lightening bolt. Roughly translated, the heavens provide the water - the live giving force - which feeds the mountains allowing the metals to grow within. The figure of Appennino is possibly the earth-bound energy or potential which needs to be released by human efforts. The mountains provide us with their bounty but they remain perilous, distant and hard to 'harvest'.

For the modern viewer, the image of a crouching bearded figure of monumental proportions reminds us irresistibly of William Blake's Ancient of Days. Jove is no longer at the top of the garden, so Appennino becomes 'God' in the garden as it stands. The compasses and light is only water here but the similarities and visual impact of the two art works  is striking. There is definitely more to discover here!


  1. Hello! I stumbled across your congenial blog post while looking on google for the early lines of poetry on Pratolino, the ones that were more fluff than testament since they were composed before most of the wonders took shape? Anyway no such luck, but I too am currently working on my dissertation on an aspect of Pratolino (the vague allusions to the magical animation of the automata by de' Vieri and the state of Neoplatonic theurgy in the Renaissance as context)- I'd love to read your description or any other things you've gathered on the subject! Kind regards, Lily lvfilson(at)gmail(dot)com

    1. Hi there! That sounds incredibly interesting. Really happy to help and send you a copy of my dissertation with bibliography if you like? I did the MA in 2005 so I don't know how much new stuff is out there now but there were some useful books. In Italian obviously!