Do you think of Grassina the way I used to think of Grassina? As a place you drive through on the way to the Chianti, but which is otherwise unworthy of consideration? How wrong I was! Grassina hides an architectural gem. The next time you’re there, turn off the main road and putter down a country lane to discover this little-known treasure.
Tucked away on a hillside behind the new buildings that spill to right and left of the via Chiantigiana as it passes through Grassina (comune of Bagno a Ripoli) is Bernardo Vecchietti’s Renaissance estate Il Riposo. Vecchietti was a savvy businessman and patron of the arts, an intimate of the Medici grand dukes, though he is now best remembered as the man who took the sculptor Giambologna under his wing in 1552 and later introduced him to Cosimo de’ Medici.
Il Riposo’s story begins a few decades before Giambologna appeared on the scene. In 1515, the year after Bernardo was born, his father Giovanni acquired two farms on the hills of Bagno a Ripoli, one of which, on Monte Fattucchia, was called Il Riposo. Already as a young man Bernardo liked to withdraw to his father’s farm to get away from the chaos of urban life, and after Giovanni’s death in 1559 he started to transform Il Riposo into a villa, a place of arcadian delights. The humanist Raffaello Borghini described it in a series of imaginary dialogues about art that he set in Vecchietti’s villa. He published the dialogues in 1584, calling the book after the villa, Il Riposo. The word-picture that Borghini draws of Il Riposo is tantalizing. Full of works of art, it included many models and sculptures by Giambologna, and downstairs were workshops for metal-working and turning, where Vecchietti himself practiced these crafts.
Although the house has been modified over time, the surroundings are still rustic enough to give us a good idea of Il Riposo’s original charm. And best of all, one of the most eccentric features of Vecchietti’s estate, the grotto of the Fata Morgana, survives to this day. To reach Il Riposo from Florence drive to Grassina and turn right into via Tegolaia. Continue along the road, which becomes Pian di Grassina, and finally turn right into via delle Fonti. Signs for La Fonte della Fata Morgana mark each change of roads. If you go by bus, catch the #31 or #32 from Florence, get off at Fermata Chiantigiana 15, walk straight for a few paces and then turn right into via Tegolaia. The walk is 2.2 kilometres long and will take you 30-40 minutes.
Via delle Fonti leads directly to the grotto of the Fata Morgana, a bizarre construction erected over what Borghini described as a “spring of crystalline water.” An inscription carries the date 1571, and the design is traditionally attributed to Giambologna. When I explored it in 1995 it was overgrown with a tangle of vegetation and presented a haunting sight. After the grotto was bought by the comune of Bagno a Ripoli, the Soprintendenza per i Beni Architettonici per le Provincie di Firenze, Pistoia e Prato began a restoration project, completed in 2002. For guided visits (cost €2,60) call the Cooperativa per i Servizi Culturali Megaton at 055-480489.
Passing through the grotto’s rusticated door, you enter a cool, dark room with painted walls and a mosaic floor. Across from the entrance is a fountain flanked by two doors. In Vecchietti’s day a white marble statue of Morgan le Fay, posed as though she were emerging from a cave, stood on top of the fountain. The statue was sold in the eighteenth century to an “old Englishman” visiting Florence and no more was heard about it until 1989, when it turned up in a Christie’s sale. It is now in a private collection. We know from Borghini’s description that the grotto also contained tanks full of fish. Upstairs was a kitchen where meals could be prepared on the spot whenever Vecchietti and his guests wished to dine in the coolness of the grotto, serenaded by the gurgling waters. The spring was so abundant that more water flowed into a deep basin outside, for the refreshment of passers-by and their horses. Further on the water filled another basin where women could wash clothes, and finally it flowed into a canal from which sheep and other animals could drink.
Borghini described in great detail how, on the hill above the grotto, Vecchietti planted a grove of 784 laurel and ilex trees for the sport of fowling. Attracted by the evergreen leaves, the songbirds would be caught in the trees, sometimes with nets, and killed for food. Songbirds roasted on a spit between pieces of bread are still a delicacy today, served in country restaurants at certain times of the year. If you like your food crisp and crunchy, then this is the dish for you.
Upon leaving the grotto, you can see Villa Il Riposo (private) on the hilltop to the left, from where Vecchietti will have enjoyed a splendid view over his entire estate.
This page last updated: June 3, 2006.