Florence, start of restoration of animal cave sculptures at Villa Medicea di Castello

With a 300,000-euro grant provided by Publiacqua, the restoration of the sculptural groups in the Grotto of the Animals at the Villa Medicea di Castello in Florence is starting.

Three hundred thousand euros from Publiacqua S.p.A. to finance the restoration of the sculptural groups in the Grotta degli animali (Cave of the Animals ) at the Villa Medicea di Castello in Florence: these are the resources made available by the company through the Ministry of Culture’s Art Bonus tax credit, which will give new life to the sculptures in what can be considered the first of the Medici gardens. Described by Giorgio Vasari as “the richest, most magnificent and most honored garden in Europe,” this place, recognized as a prototype of the 16th-century Italian garden, is part of the UNESCO serial site “Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany.”

The project, promoted by the Regional Directorate of Museums of Tuscany, has scientific advice from the Department of Architecture of the University of Florence for documentary research and historical insights. The new intervention includes the restoration of the sculptures with fountain animals that populate the inner basins of the Grotto, adorned with decorations in sponges and shells, and of the architectural elevation that overlooks the garden and the Citrus Plan. The interventions envisaged by the project will complement the second batch of works still in progress and nearing completion, conducted with innovative methods of investigation and diagnostics and aimed at the recovery of the ecosustainable recirculating water supply system of the fountain system and the Grotto.

The Grotto, in fact, has long been the subject of a long cycle of restoration works, in particular those started from 2019 under the direction of the ABAP Superintendence of Florence, according to a project co-financed by the Region of Tuscany for 70% with EU funds POR FESR 2014-2020 and directly by the Mibact (now MiC) for 30%, whose conclusion is expected by 2022. After more than two centuries, the water will return to gush from more than a hundred drop points placed in the vault above the basins, operating the complex system of water games and sounds that has enchanted visitors since the 16th century, immortalized as early as Michel de Montaigne in his Journey to Italy: “In this place, there is a beautiful grotto where, depicted in the natural state, animals of every species are seen splashing the water of said fountains some from their beaks, some from their wings, some from their claws or ears or noses.”

The Grotto of the Animals or of the Flood, located at the end of the main avenue, among the most famous in Europe, was designed by Niccolò Pericoli known as Il Tribolo around 1540. It has a symbolic and central role in the complex and extraordinary iconography of the Garden, created to exalt the pacifying role and enlightened rule over Tuscany of the new government of Cosimo I de’ Medici. Recent studies have highlighted the strong connections between the famous 2nd-century A.D. Grotto of Egeria on the Appian Way, which celebrated the myth of the nymph Egeria and her consort Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. Both return in Medici encomiastica particularly on the occasion of the marriage of Cosimo I and his bride Eleanor of Toledo, advancing the hypothesis that the Garden was also created as Cosimo I’s tribute to his consort, a faithful wife and wise counselor, who takes on an unprecedented role in the Castello context, almost as an inspirational muse. The original design was transformed over the course of the 16th century, with the contribution of other architects and sculptors from the Medici court, including Giorgio Vasari, Bartolomeo Ammannati and Giambologna, and with subsequent interventions and restorations until the end of the 18th century.

The Grotto, the jewel of the Medici garden, is a true theater of waters, an allegory of power in the form of wonder, where the colorful fauna sets up a unique spectacle in a perfect blend of artifice and nature, amplified by the use of real natural elements, such as stages of real horns. A carousel of species embraces theunicorn, the only fantastical creature and symbol of purity, which stands out in the center of the front pool and heals the waters for all the other animals with its horn. The reminder of the legend, known since the Greek world, underscores the return of the Golden Age of Tuscany under the rule of the Duke reflected in the waters that, coming from the nursery of the Apennines, flow through the secret place of the Grotto and then throughout the Garden, distributed through numerous fountains, some no longer extant, up to those of Venus Fiorenza, by Giambologna, and of Hercules (Medici hero) bursting Antaeus, by Bartolomeo Ammannati. Antaeus is a fierce giant from whose mouth comes out a jet 5 meters high, exalting the strength and power of the new Duke.

Inside the Grotto, in addition to the fountain with the unicorn, other exotic species and animals considered rare at the time stand out, such as the giraffe, a symbol of triumph in the classical tradition, originally called the “cameleopard” because it combined features of the camel and the leopard. Julius Caesar brought one to Rome to celebrate his triumphs in Egypt, and it was not until many centuries later that the first living specimen given to Lorenzo the Magnificent by the Sultan of Egypt could be seen in Florence. There is also a gray double-horned rhinoceros that has nothing of the natural features and whose reference model may be a famous print by Dürer, while it is possible to recognize the copy of the Roman model from the Hellenistic period depicting a wounded boar that Pope Pius IV gave to Cosimo I in 1560 reproduced by Pietro Tacca for the Porcellino Fountain. Also a stylized leopard and a monkey, a dromedary and an elephant create together with the others an extraordinary composition with multiple symbolic values.

Thanks to funding from Publiacqua S.p.A. “the world of air” will return to the Grotto with the installation of bronze copies of four among the nine bird specimens attributed to Giambologna: the Owl, the Rooster, the Kestrel and the Dove that were perched on the vaults, fixed on special supports, amidst lush vegetation, amazing for the detail of the plumage that shone under the dripping water. Reproduction from the originals, on display today at the Bargello National Museum, will be possible thanks to institutional collaboration with the owner museum, and laser scanning technology. Finally, the original marble statues depicting two Gladiators by Domenico Pieratti, currently on display at the Medici Villa della Petraia, will be relocated to the exterior niches. One of these statues is a remake of the original Roman one that is itself a copy of a Greek original attributed to Lysippus.

At the end of the work, thestriking, tableau vivanteffect of a menagerie that seems to come alive at the moment when stones of different colors, each imitating the original animal’s skin, are bathed by the effect of the gushes that come out of the floor and vaults, driven by the complex hydraulic mechanism, will be entirely recovered. Finally, on Saturday, April 2 and April 9, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., there will be special guided tours by Marco Mozzo and Giulia Coco, director and curator of the Castle Garden, which will offer the public an opportunity to rediscover this extraordinary green space and its fascinating history, while also admiring the magnificent spontaneous spring flowering of the meadows. To participate in the visits, reservations are required by writing to the following email address: firenzemusei@operalaboratori.com. There is also a free special opening of the Garden on April 18, Easter Monday, and April 25, Liberation Day. From May, openings to the public will resume with a monthly schedule that will be defined and made available in the coming weeks.

Florence, start of restoration of animal cave sculptures at Villa Medicea di Castello
Florence, start of restoration of animal cave sculptures at Villa Medicea di Castello

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