Florence, Italy: Remembering The Bardini Gardens

Note: I wrote this piece before COVID-19 brought so much devastation to Italy and the rest of the world. For weeks, I debated if posting this would be appropriate. How can I justify telling a story about a place you won’t be able to visit for a while? About a country that went through and is still going through so much? But then I remembered a concept that’s so important to us as humans—especially in times of crisis. And that’s escapism. So, with that in mind, I decided to go ahead and publish a narrative about a perfect day I had in Florence last year. I’m doing this in hopes that, maybe, it’ll give you something to look forward to. Or a mental diversion. Or a fantasy. Worst case scenario, it might lead you to a live stream of some gorgeous wysterias in bloom. 

My legs are screaming at me—the way they did back when I ran my first 10K with little to zero prepwork (let’s just say I’ve had better ideas). But now, I’m not running. In fact, this barely counts as walking. It’s a slow, and desperate crawl up the steep Costa dei Magnoli (which later changes to Costa S. Giorgio and is on the other, less crowded side of the Arno) that looks like every manual license holder’s version of hell. I look up to the endless road, and feel a fresh wave of horror. Where are we going? In the pursuit of wandering, and relying on our guts for navigation, we decided to follow a random road. Turns out, you should never trust a prosciutto-filled gut. It’s so happy, it’ll agree to anything.

Oh, did I mention? I’m wearing heeled boots. (Not ideal. Definitely not ideal). But of course, I can hardly be mad—or upset, even. I’m in Florence. Like, Florence, Italy. Even in my pained ascent up this road, there’s so much charm begging to be noticed. The buildings around me are painted in apricots and russets, with old flakes of color crumbling and peeling. There’s a lot of beauty in seeing the people who live here go about their day. To see unread newspapers fanning out of mailboxes. To hear the sudden creak of a window opening, and flooding a home with light. You can almost hear that light, too. 

How far were we going to keep going? I ask myself, and just a few minutes—if not seconds—later, we spot a sign by the side of the road. Bardini Gardens, entry: 10 euros. I have to remind myself that I have no internet outside of our airbnb, and unlike what I’m used to back home, I can’t Google Bardini Gardens before shelling out 10 euros for the experience. Anton and I look at one another with the same thought that could only mean one thing: Well, we came this far, so why the hell not? 

After paying the entry fee in a lobby lined with books dedicated to the place, we push the glass door open to a breathtaking view to our left. Before, we were eavesdropping on the lives of locals. Now, we are eavesdropping on the city itself. The entirety of it. It’s here. It’s heaving. It’s alive. There’s a calm that descends on us at that moment. We watch another couple pose in front of the panorama, and we follow suit. You can’t blame us—it’s not every day we stumble upon something like this! Someday, we’ll flip through the photos and remember this day. We breathe in the views one last time, before deciding to move on to the rest of the gardens. I’m often worried about whether we’ll have time to see everything. But not today. Today, we’ve left it up to chance. And I’m glad to say the prosciutto belly was right after all. 

Meandering through the winding, climbing paths, our ears prick up to the sounds of nature. This is somewhat of a rarity, especially on anyone’s first trip to Italy, which feels like a mad dash from one museum to another, from one masterpiece we “absolutely must see” to another. You’re only here for a limited amount of time. Everything feels like a rush. 

The greenery is studded with beautiful sculptures everywhere we look. We do also notice the fact that unlike most works of art in Florence, these sculptures aren’t as well-maintained. That’s all for a reason. The Bardini Garden was only opened back in 2005, after a major, 12-million-euro restoration. That might not feel like too long ago (after all, a place that’s been open for 15 years in LA might already be called “historic”) but in comparison to every other attraction in Florence, it kind of is. Which is why there’s barely anyone here. Which is also why I’ve been debating publishing this. Shouldn’t a secret stay a secret? 

* * *

The garden, which to us, feels like a surprise found off the beaten path, is actually a part of something much larger. (I’ll preface this by saying that you are more than welcome to skip ahead to the next section if you’re not a fan of Medieval Italian politics.) Back in the 13th century, a handful of wealthy and influential families moved into an area that was, in large part, plagued by poverty. It’s also worth mentioning that there was also a period when the Guelphs and Ghibellines (factions supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, respectively) were constantly butting heads. 

Enter Jacopo di Cambio Mozzi—a Florentine army leader, whose properties were destroyed after the (temporary) defeat of the Guelphs. But the Mozzi had clout, which is why the city reimbursed them for their troubles, and the family swiftly built a palace in Oltrarno. Little harm, no foul. Aside from being soldiers, knights, ambassadors and overall prominent folks, the Mozzi were also bankers, and were referred to as “treasurers of the pope,” as they often tended to the pope’s estates, taxes and more. So it’s safe to say, the Mozzi and the church were in cahoots—anytime any important religious figure passed through the area, they would stay at the Palazzo Mozzi. 

In 1273, the Palazzo Mozzi received an important guest for the summer: Pope Gregory X and his court. Enamoured and inspired by his surroundings during his stay, he decided to bring the two Guelphs and Ghibellines together. Afterall, the pope wondered, how can a place this beautiful be plagued with so much conflict? So, at the nearby Ponte alle Grazie, at the behest of the pope, they kissed and made up. This was pretty short-lived, and just five years later, the Palazzo Mozzi received Cardinal Fra Latino Frangipani, who also tried to mend relations between the two factions. That didn’t work, either. All to say, a lot of peace-making efforts went down at the palace. 

So what does this garden have to do with the casa? Well, this plot of land was the “back garden” of Palazzo Mozzi, which the family purchased in the 16th century, transforming it into an olive grove. By the 17th century, the Mozzi family sold the complex to Dowager Princess Carolath Beuthen, although it did pass through several hands after that before it finally landed in Stefano—gasp—Bardini’s in the middle of the 19th. It’s obvious at this point, of course, that Bardini had some, if not major, influence on the space, with it being named after him and all. 

Stefano was an antiquarian. He was also an artist, and had a soft spot for restoring old masterpieces. He was good at it, too. A lot of works of Renaissance art that we see and know now have probably gone through his hands. Some he worked on, others he just collected. The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., for example, houses close-to 20 works whose provenance can be traced to Stefano. The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds eight.

In 1881, Stefano—being the restoration enthusiast that he was—decided to buy the church of San Gregorio della Pace facing the Piazza dei Mozzi. The church, which was built back in 1273 to commemorate “the peace” Pope Gregory X attempted to bring between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, became a place where Stefano would live and work on his restoration projects. In 1913, he acquired the Palazzo Mozzi and, ultimately, the garden. 

He changed the olive grove into a garden, and decorated it with statues and works he’d saved from the demolition of ancient buildings. It was in Stefano’s time that additional elements were brought in to decorate the land, like the loggia and grandiose staircase. This is why the garden is so special. It brings together many styles and pieces from different points in history—starting from the Middle Ages right down to the last century. All thanks to Stefano’s love for antiquities. 

* * *

We turn the corner, and reach what’s arguably the best and most scenic part of the entire gardens. (Or the “belvedere” terrace, which is Italian for “fine view” and generally refers to the open, roofed feature of a building, designed to look out upon a beautiful view). There’s the Duomo right there, with its exquisite, gothic facade. There’s Palazzo Vecchio. There’s San Miniato al Monte, and the Piazzale Michelangelo. There are the raised fingers of Florence’s beautiful and numerous bell towers. We identify them like familiar faces in an old class photo.

Look down, and you’ll see a steep Baroque staircase—punctuated by statues—that reminds us of just how high up on a hill we actually are. I think I spoke too soon when I praised that first view. Never call anything “the best” in Italy, because chances are, you’re going to stumble upon something better and eat your words soon enough. 

We’re so arrested by the view, and so thrilled by the fact that we only share it with two or so more people, that we barely notice the cafe. Sure, there are benches. And standing is an option, too. But why do any of those things when you can hunker down on the patio, order an espresso and survey the landscape and the gorgeous blue sky that way? 

All too soon, our excitement about finding this place fizzles for one reason, and one reason only: mosquitos. We hear the dreaded faint buzz, and every few seconds or so start smacking, flicking and swatting at our exposed body parts. I know what we’re thinking: let’s avoid the Bahamas fiasco, shall we? (On a trip to the Bahamas a few years ago, I was attacked by a clan of No-See-Ums, which are part insects, part satan’s apprentices. They are so small that they are hardly visible, hence the name. My leg ballooned so much I couldn’t walk without help). All to say, when it comes to ruining travel, mosquitos are on the top of my list—along with lost baggage, a bout of flu and food poisoning. 

Meandering slowly, with the purpose of finding an exit, we walk through the gorgeous pergola, a tunnel that drips with wisteria and explodes with color around late March all the way through late April every year. Even though green is the only shade we’re seeing today, we begin to visualize what it’ll look like next year, and with that, start fantasizing about our next visit to Florence. 

So to the people who read this and decide to visit the gardens after all of today’s crisis is behind us, please remember to just hit the pause button (on everything) when you’re there. Visit quietly and with purpose. Maybe even put your phone away for the time you’re there. And most importantly—I mean it—layer up on mosquito repellent.