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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of the Buontalenti Grotto in Florence

What is the Buontalenti Grotto?

The Buontalenti Grotto is a 16th-century artificial cave decorated with artworks and sculpture.

Buontalenti Grotto

sonofgroucho, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Buontalenti Grotto History

Entering the Buontalenti Grotto is like stepping into a fairy tale, with its fantastic themes, imaginative features and, in previous centuries, optical illusions. In 16th-century Tuscany it was usual practice to enhance palaces and grand villas with impressive gardens and installing a decorative grotto in these was a popular choice. Artists would recreate ‘natural’ spaces, often to the point of using real limestone concretions removed from actual caves. These grottoes would typically be embellished with frescoes, fountains, and sculptures, and usually feature magical or allegorical symbolism, as the Buontalenti Grotto does.

This area was originally designated a plant nursery by Giorgio Vasari; however, in the 1580s and ‘90s it was transformed by Bernardo Buontalenti into the grotto you see today. Commissioned by Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici, it’s located here in the far north of Florence’s famous Boboli Gardens. There are two further smaller caverns in the gardens: the Madama Grotto, the first to be built, and the Grotto of Adam and Eve, dating from the 19th century.

The grotto’s façade features stalagmites and stalactites together with statues in niches that depict the ancient gods Ceres and Apollo by Baccio Bandinelli. There are also plaques featuring signs of the zodiac and the Medici coat of arms. The grotto has three chambers, the first dedicated to nature and metamorphosis, the second symbolising the four elements – air, earth, fire and water – and the third, oval in shape, symbolising the egg, in which all transformations take place.

The first chamber has sponge-like rocks, shells and stalactites as a natural cave would, but on closer inspection you will also see goats, sheep and shepherds. In the chamber’s four corners are copies of Michelangelo’s unfinished Prisoners (or Slaves), installed here in 1585 (the originals were moved to the Accademia Gallery in 1908). In earlier centuries, light filtering from a skylight would have created optical illusions, reflecting the shadows of the fishes and flowing water that were once a feature of the space.

The second chamber is square, with walls displaying scenes from the Trojan War. Sculptures by Vincenzo de’ Rossi depict Paris and Helen in a fatal embrace, a gift from the sculptor to Grand Duke Cosimo I.

The oval third chamber is decorated with wall fountains, and at its centre is a beautiful sculpture of Venus by Giambologna, celebrating the life-giving power of nature and also universal love. The ceiling is painted to resemble a sky with birds in flight.

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