ELEONORA DI TOLEDO, THE DUCHESS WHO WANTED AND TRANSFORMED THE BOBOLI GARDENS: A NEW BOOK BY BRUCE EDELSTEIN TELLS HER STORY 500 YEARS AFTER HER BIRTH
Bruce Edelstein, art historian and professor at New York University Florence, sheds light for the first time on the insights of Cosimo I de’ Medici’s wife into the administration of one of Florence’s main green lungs
Enthroned, accompanied by her second son, in a solemn posture and wearing a luxurious brocade gown: Eleonora di Toledo, Duchess of Florence from 1539 to 1562 and today best known for the portrait of her by court artist Agnolo Bronzino exhibited in the Uffizi, was the most important collaborator of her husband Cosimo I de’ Medici and a model of female leadership.
Born in Spain around 1522 she moved to Naples when her father, Pedro Álvarez di Toledo, was called to serve as viceroy of the city, Eleonora married Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1539. It was she, as Bruce Edelstein recounts in his book “Eleonora di Toledo and the Creation of Boboli Gardens” (pp. 240, Edizioni Sillabe, in English), dedicated to the Florentine duchess 500 years after her birth, who was the real protagonist of the purchase of the Boboli Gardens in 1550 and its transformation into one of the most beautiful parks in the world.
An inspiration for the greatest princely gardens in all of Europe and one of the most spectacular examples of an open-air museum, Boboli was long mistakenly considered to have been accidentally acquired by the Medici family following the annexation of Palazzo Pitti. Three decades of in-depth research now allows Bruce Edelstein to affirm exactly the opposite: what attracted Eleonora and Cosimo’s attention, even before the palace, was the enormous green area behind it, which they transformed with imposing works.
The book reports the testimonies of those who, from the 16th to the beginning of the 19th century, strongly supported Eleonora di Toledo’s central role in the acquisition and management of Boboli: and among the first was the diarist “Marucelli” in his Florentine Chronicle, the poet Benedetto Varchi, the archaeologist Francesco Inghirami, to name a few.
Modelled in fact to meet the needs of the Florentine duchess, who wished to enjoy the pleasures of the rural life while assisting her husband in matters of state, the garden soon became a veritable countryside within the walls of Florence, dedicated to healthy food, clean air and exercise.
The acquisition of the Boboli gardens to be considered the culmination of increasing interest on the part of Eleonora di Toledo in rural life: in fact, one of her first operations was the addition of a roof garden on the roof of the former Palazzo della Signoria, a series of ‘vegetable gardens’ with the aim of expanding the variety of foods available for the ducal table.
The volume then dedicates great attention to the only pictorial testimony of the Medici gardens in those years: the famous series of seventeen lunettes painted between 1599 and 1608 attributed to the Flemish artist Giusto Utens. In addition to the architecture of the villas, it offers valuable visual documentation of the greenery that surrounded them and other elements that would otherwise have been lost to memory.
As a whole, the text bears witness to and reconstructs the genesis of Boboli, which, thanks to the intuitions of Eleonora di Toledo, distinguished itself from previous ‘green’ attempts in the Florentine city, anticipating modern ecological trends and reforms.
The director of the Uffizi Galleries Eike Schmidt: “In Bronzino’s portrait of Eleonora da Toledo in the Uffizi, the duchess had herself depicted in front of the landscape around Pisa, the land she had helped to develop agriculturally. Bruce Edelstein’s book shows how, with the same entrepreneurial spirit, she succeeded in making Boboli not only a place of delights but also a small agricultural centre with areas dedicated to horticulture and other crops, for the needs of the court. In the pages of the book, one discovers Boboli, an example later followed in gardens all over the world, in every aspect: here the enchantment of grottos, fountains, sculptures and hedges is unexpectedly intertwined with a practical vision, which looked after the needs of the table and the health of the family. A true matriarch, this exceptional woman, a foreigner immersed in Florentine life, left to the city and humanity a masterpiece of ecological culture”.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES ON THE AUTHOR
Born in New York and educated between Duke, Harvard, Oxford and Florence, Bruce Edelstein is Coordinator for Graduate Programs and Advanced Research at New York University Florence. His numerous publications focus primarily on the works of painters and sculptors of the 16th-century Medici court, such as Bronzino, Cellini, Pontormo and Tribolo, with a particular emphasis on the artistic patronage of Eleonora di Toledo. He was co-curator of “Miraculous Encounters: Pontormo from Drawing to Painting”, seen at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
“Eleonora di Toledo and the Creation of Boboli Gardens” is the result of his interest in the development of the Medici gardens in the 16th century and in one of the main female figures of Florence in those years, Duchess Eleonora di Toledo, already the subject of his doctoral thesis in 1995 at Harvard University.
Press release from the Uffizi Galleries.