Villa del Poggio Imperiale

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thumb Villa del Poggio Imperiale (English: Villa of the Imperial Hill) is a predominantly neoclassical former grand ducal villa in Arcetri, just to the south of Florence in Tuscany, central Italy. Beginning as a villa of the Baroncelli of Florence, it was seized by the Medici, became the home of a homicidal and unfaithful husband, and a lavish retreat for a Grand Duchess with imperial pretensions. Later given to Napoleon's sister, it was reclaimed by the hereditary rulers of Tuscany before being finally converted to a prestigious girls' school. During its long history, it has often been at the centre of Italy's turbulent history, and has been rebuilt and redesigned many times.

Medici era

thumb The Villa was once the property of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany — the Medici. However, the documented history begins in the 15th century when a small villa on the site known as "Villa del Poggio Baroncelli", was built by the Florentine merchant Jacopo Baroncelli The villa was sold to Bartoncelliu's creditor in 1487, and in turn to Pietro Salviati in 1548. The Salviati were an ancient Florentine noble family. Pietro embellished the property, and added Andrea del Sarto's Assumption of the Virgin to the villa's chapel. In 1565 at Pietro's death the Salviati property was confiscated by Cosimo I, who gave the villa to his daughter Isabella de' Medici who was married to Paolo Giordano Orsini, duke of Bracciano, who made an occasional appearance. At this favoured retreat Isabella held her stylish and intellectual court. Following Isabella's murder by her husband in 1576, the villa passed to her son Don Virginio Orsini, duke of Bracciano.

In 1618 the villa was purchased from the Orsini by Archduchess Maria Maddalena of Austria, wife of the future Grand Duke Cosimo II, and was completely rebuilt between 1622 and 1625 to the design of the architect Giulio Parigi. The villa was doubled in size with a large corps de logis flanked by two canted lower wings. The interior of the villa was decorated to the Grand Duchess' requirements by the artist Matteo Rosselli. It was at this time that the Villa was linked to the city by a monumental tree-lined avenue and given its "Imperial" title "Villa del Poggio Imperiale" — Maria Magdalena was the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II.

The building work was very costly, as was the near simultaneous work at the Palazzo Pitti. The Medicis' finances had deteriorated since the time of Cosimo the Elder, and the Grand Duke's decision to close what few branches remained of the Medici Bank at this time meant that the people of Tuscany were forced to pay increased taxes to finance the building projects. Following the death of Cosimo II and the joint regency of Maria Magdalena and her mother-in-law Christine of Lorraine, the extravagances and unprecedented luxury of the court at the Villa del Poggio Imperiale and the Palazzo Pitti severely depleted the Medici finances.

In 1659 the estate was acquired by Ferdinand II and his wife Vittoria Della Rovere, who had the Villa further enlarged and embellished with marbles and intarsica. However it was to be under the successors to the Medici, the House of Habsburg-Lorraine that the Villa was to reach its zenith.

Habsburg-Lorraine era

thumb segmented pediments above the windows survived the 19th century rebuilding.]] The Villa was again redesigned and renovated in 1776 by Gaspare Maria Paoletti for Leopold II. The work was prolonged over 15 years and included much stucco and plaster work to the interior. Extra wings were created and various secondary facades were redesigned in the neoclassical style; only the principal facade remained unaltered.

The Villa was always a secondary home for Tuscany's ruling families, favoured during spring and autumn. Conveniently close to the court, which resided at the Palazzo Pitti, and surrounded by an estate of 17 farms, it was a rural retreat from the city. However, it was always only one of several villas and palaces available to the Grand Ducal family, and its popularity and use waxed and waned. At the end of the 18th century, Grand Duke Ferdinand III leased the villa to King Charles Emanuel IV of Sardinia. Charles Emanuel lived here for just a month from 17 January 1799. It was at the Villa that on meeting Count Vittorio Alfieri (companion of Louise Stuart, wife of the "Young Pretender" Charles Edward Stuart, claimant to the British throne), Charles Emanuel uttered the much-quoted phrase "Voici votre tyran!" (Behold your tyrant).

The present monumental principal facade was created in 1807 for the newly elevated Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Elisa Bonaparte. The architect chosen was Giuseppe Cacialli, who designed the great facade using drawings by Paoletti's admirer and imitator Pasquale Poccianti, an architect better known for his later work the Cisternoni of Livorno.

thumb Neoclassicism was a style which evolved as a contrasting reaction to the more ornate Baroque and Rococo styles which preceded it. It was not a trend to make pastiches of classical designs but a force creating a new form of architecture based on simple but rational forms with clear and ordered plans. Milan became the centre of Italy's neoclassical architecture. The works of Leopoldo Pollak, in particular his Villa Belgioioso, and Giuseppe Piermarini, was similar to the neoclassicism found from London to Munich. However, in Italy, outside Milan these new ideals were often more pronounced and more severe than in northern Europe. Florence was for once the birthplace of a new architectural form, and the facades of the Villa del Poggio Imperiale are austere even by the standards of Italian neoclassicism.

The facade is severe and plain, the only variation and ornament being the five-bayed projecting central block. This block has a rusticated ground floor pierced by five arches leading to the inner courtyard. On the first floor is a glazed loggia, also of five bays. This block of only two floors crowned by a low pediment is flanked by two symmetrical wings of even greater severity. Each of two floors with a low mezzanine above are the same height as the central pedimented block, which is given extra prominence by raised parapet behind the pediment.

The severities of the exterior of the Villa were compensated for by the exuberance of the interior. A series of large salons were decorated with plaster work in the classical styles. The chapel, frescoed by Francesco Curradi, remained unaltered from the 17th century.


thumb arcade which surrounds the principal courtyard]] thumb

From 1849 the political history of Florence and Tuscany became troubled. Leopold II, the last ruling Grand Duke, was replaced by a republican constitution. The Grand Duke, although later appointed a constitutional head of the republic, was forced to abdicate. On 27 April 1859, the Grand Duchy ceased to exist and the last ruling Grand Duke of Tuscany and his family peacefully quit Florence. It had been a bloodless overthrow and the family left with "respectful farewell greetings of the people." Tuscany now became part of the short lived United Provinces of Central Italy.

On March 5, 1860, Tuscany voted in a referendum to join the Kingdom of Sardinia. This was an important step in the unification of Italy (Risorgimento) which was to follow shortly. In 1865, Florence became for a brief period the capital of a united Italy. The Palazzo Pitti became the Italian royal palace. The new King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, with many palaces at his disposal and an obligation to travel across Italy in the interests of the unification, had little need for a second large palace, such as Villa del Poggio Imperiale, in such close proximity to the Palazzo Pitti.

The unwanted and, by now, fairly neglected villa, now in the ownership of the state, became an exclusive girls' boarding school, the Istituto Statale della Ss. Annunziata. The school had been founded under the patronage of Leopold II and his wife, Maria Anna of Saxony in 1823 to provide education for the daughters of the Florentine nobility. Its original home in the "Via della Scala" in the centre of the city was required for government offices, so in 1865 a simple exchange was made. The school has occupied the building ever since. In January 2004, the school's use of the villa was formalized in an official government announcement that granted the school free use of the state-owned property in perpetuity. Only the state rooms, some of them with frescoes by Matteo Rosselli, are open by appointment to the public.




  • dal Lago, Adalbert (1969). Villas and Palaces of Europe. Paul Hamlyn. SBN 600012352.
  • Vaughan, Herbert M. (1910). The Last Stuart Queen: Louise, Countess of Albany, Her Life & Letters. London: Duckworth.
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