A visit to the Medici villas during your stay in Tuscany is an experience not to be missed. You will get away from the chaos of the city and discover what are real architectural jewels immersed in nature and rich in history.
There are 12 villas which belonged to the Medici family and which were included in 2013 in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Let's see what they are and why you should see them. The Medici used to live in Florence, first in the Palazzo in via Larga (today Palazzo Medici Riccardi near the Duomo), then from 1540 in Palazzo Vecchio and finally in Palazzo Pitti where they lived until 1737, when the last Medici, Gian Gastone, died. However between the XVth and the XVIIth century the Medici commissioned the construction of splendid villas in the countryside, places surrounded by beautiful gardens, in which to laze and welcome the most prominent intellectuals of the time. They were also surrounded from woods in which the Medici could practice their most favorite hobby, hunting. It may seem obvious that the Medici chose the villa as their type of building, but this is not the case if you think that until the XVth century the typical extra urban building owned by prominent families was the castle, that is, a fortified building, often with crenellated towers and whose main function was to defend the territory. A sort of military outpost in short, more than a welcoming residence in which to spend time in the countryside.
It will be Lorenzo the Magnificent who will first decide to transform a fortified building in Poggio a Caiano into a different building, an elegant villa symbol of its power and culture, built on a knoll from which to admire the surrounding panorama. The villa of Poggio a Caiano, a few kilometers far from Florence, is in fact considered the prototype of the Medici villa and was built by Giuliano da Sangallo following the basic principles of extra-urban civil architecture which in the meantime had been theorized by Leon Battista Alberti in 1450 in his De re aedificatoria.
What was a villa supposed to be like?
Leon Battista Alberti wrote that a villa had to be built on the top of a hill in order to enjoy the view, it had to be surrounded by a garden from which to admire both the villa itself and the surrounding landscape, it had to be equipped with agricultural and pastoral activities in order to be self-sufficient. All or almost all the Medici villas have these characteristics. They were splendid country residences, symbol of the Medici's power and wealth, as well as real farms.
Your tour of the Medici villas should therefore begin with a visit of the villa in Poggio a Caiano to which many members of the Medici family were attached.
First of all Francesco I, who died here in still mysterious circumstances, followed in the same fate by his wife Bianca Cappello. A guided tour of this villa will allow you to get to know this very opposed love story with a tragic ending. On the other hand, the one between Cosimo III and his wife Marguerite Louise d'Orleans was not at all a love story: their marriage was by far the most unfortunate in the history of the Medici dynasty and poor Marguerite preferred to retire into exile in this villa rather than living with her husband at Palazzo Pitti…. take a look at the portrait of Cosimo III and you will understand why!
Villa La Petraia and Villa di Castello are located a short distance from each other, nestling on the hills 8 km from the center of Florence. In the first you can admire the most beautiful ballroom in Italy, created in 1872 when Florence was the capital, transforming what was the courtyard of the villa, whose walls had been frescoed at the time of the Medici, creating an elegant glass structure like cover, redoing the floor and adding a sumptuous crystal and amethyst chandelier! The Villa di Castello is home to the Accademia della Crusca (a society of Italian linguistics and philology) and cannot always be visited, but its garden is always open and worth a visit. It is certainly one of the most fascinating Medici gardens, if only for its collection of 500 citrus plants descended from the ancient Medici varieties. During your guided tour this will be the perfect place to discover the 'citromania' of the Medici, or their infinite passion for citrus plants that were collected in impressive numbers and the rare and bizarre varieties created by gardeners at the service of the Medici! A definitely unique family hobby!
Not all Medici villas were built near Florence, from the XVIth century onwards the power of the Medici, by now becoming Grand Dukes, expanded to the point that they needed residences in other territories, then well distant from the headquarters of the Medici power.
We come to the Villa di Cerreto Guidi, a hunting lodge wanted by Cosimo I near the Padule di Fucecchio, an area rich in birds. It is located about 40 km from the center of Florence and it is the place where a terrible blood event took place. Here Isabella died, the favorite daughter of Cosimo I and Eleonora of Toledo, strangled by her jealous husband Giampaolo Orsini even if there are rumours who claim that Isabella died of illness ... the mystery still lingers in the splendid rooms of this villa!
Closer to Florence is the Medici villa of Fiesole, privately owned, but whose gardens are open to the public. They will offer you a breathtaking view of the city center! This was the villa where the greatest thinkers of the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent met, such as Pico della Mirandola, Agnolo Poliziano and Marsilio Ficino. It was here that the Pazzi conspiracy was originally to take place to kill Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano. And what about the Medici villa La Ferdinanda in the province of Prato, commissioned by Ferdinando I and called 'the villa with a hundred fireplaces' which even hosted Galileo …. .Part of the Medici villas are also those of Trebbio and Cafaggiolo. They are even older than the ones so far mentioned and that is why they recall more a castle than a Renaissance villa. Both are located in Mugello the area of origin of the Medici family. Moving away from Florence, in Quarrata (Pistoia) we find Villa La Magia where the son of the unfortunate Francesco I and Bianca Cappello stayed and then the Palazzo di Seravezza on the slopes of the Apuan Alps, where Cosimo I used to stay when he visited the quarries of marble. Finally, less accessible, but still noteworthy are the Villa of Careggi still closed for restoration and that of Poggio Imperiale now home to the Female School of the Santissima Annunziata.
Most Medici villas are open to the public and easily accessible, while privately owned villas are open by appointment.
Each villa is linked to one or more characters of the Medici family who have left their indelible mark here. They are places full of bloody events, unwavering loves, mad jealousies or more simply places of meeting of brilliant minds. My advice is to choose a guided tour of the Medici villas in order to better grasp the distinctive elements and discover all those family stories that make these places so fascinating and full of history. Depending on the time at your disposal, you can easily visit the villas that interest you most with your guide and thus discover lesser-known corners of Tuscany!