Villa Salviati near Ponte alla Badia
If we wonder off north, into the hills of Florence, and follow the Via Bolognese, the world around us slowly changes. The red and yellow colours of the Florentine palazzi, and the busy noisy streets, are slowly being replaced by small roads with walls surrounding lush gardens, tall trees peeking over enclosures, and soft rolling hills. After a little while, the high roof of a large building shows up on our left-hand side. Walking through the gate, a villa comes into full view. Built in the fourteenth century as a small castle, and made into a countryside villa by the patrician Alamanno Salviati in 1445, the building now houses the Historical Archives of the European Union. It was recently renovated, and beautifully restored to its former sixteenth-century glory.
Courtyard of the Villa Salviati
The main entrance leads us to an open courtyard; a rectangular space with a gallery on three sides. The space above the round arches is filled with sgraffito decorations. We can distinguish the imprese of the Salviati and Medici families. Jacopo Salviati (1461-1533), a rich Florentine merchant and banker, had inherited the villa in 1490. He was married to Lucrezia de’ Medici, and their union is represented in these decorations. Jacopo also commissioned the sculptor Giovanfrancesco Rustici to create sixteen tondi in terracotta for the same courtyard.
Ceres and Triptolemos, tondo by Rustici and the cameo from the collection of Lorenzo Il Magnifico
These tondi, made between 1518 and 1526, deserve a closer look. All sixteen represent either a mythological scene or gods from antiquity, and are modelled after existing gems or cameos. Interestingly, the images are not plain copies of their, sometimes antique, examples, but seem to be re-imagined by the sixteenth-century sculptor. One of the tondi shows Ceres and Triptolemos. We know this relief was modelled after a cameo commissioned by Lorenzo il Magnifico de’ Medici (1449-1492). This image was copied more often, in different media. We can find it, for example, on the title page of Francesco Rosselli’s book on Ptolemy, published in 1480 in Venice, together with copies of other cameos from the Medici collection. It also shows up in a famous painting by Gerard David, the diptych The judgement of Cambyses from 1498. Here it is placed on the wall behind the ruler, together with an image of Apollo and Marsyas.
Detail of the frontispiece of Francesco Rosselli’s Ptolomy and Gerard David’s The judgement of Cambyses
Another example is Rustici’s tondo with Bacchus and Ariadne. This scene is based on an antique gem, named the gemma mantovana, from the collection of cardinal Giovanni Grimani (1506-93). It is very probable that this gem was once part of the collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and came into possession of the cardinal much later. This same gem was also used as an example by the artists that designed the tondi for the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence (probably made in the workshop of Donatello after 1465). For the tondo in the Villa Salviati, Rustici slightly adjusted the image.
Tondo with Bacchus and Ariadne in the Villa Salviati, the gemma mantovana, and tondo with Bacchus and Ariadne in Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
A further comparison between the courtyard of Palazzo Medici and that of the villa Salviati reveals more similarities, for example the sgraffito decorations between the tondi. Because Jacopo married a Medici, we can be certain he was familiar with the decorations of Palazzo Medici. When Rustici was commissioned by cardinal Giulio de’ Medici in 1515 to create a sculpture for the same courtyard, he must have seen these tondi first hand as well. It is very likely, therefore, that Jacopo Salviati was inspired by Palazzo Medici and its specific decorations, and decided to recreate this in his own villa. It was a deliberate choice, and he was aware of the connotations. By emulating the Palazzo Medici, he was able to show that his family, the Salviati, was equally important, or at least able to compete with the Medici.
Courtyard of Palazzo Medici Riccardi
During a raid in 1529, the villa, and the nearby Villa Careggi of the Medici, were set on fire by a group of young men from Florence. Although the Medici family had been driven out of Florence two years earlier, the aversion against this family and their potential return to the city had a group of angry anti-Medici patricians fired up. They gave full vent to their resentment of the Medici and all who were affiliated with them. This, of course, included Jacopo Salviati and his wife Lucrezia de’ Medici. Jacopo was in Rome at the time of the attack. When the news reached him, he was extremely worried about the damage to his property. Unable to leave Rome, he sent his son Alamanno di Jacopo (1510-1571) to inspect the villa. It took him some time, but on 12 November 1530 Alamanno finally wrote to his father that he inspected the house and had reported a lot of material damage. The courtyard had suffered the most. In his famous Le Vite (1564), Giorgio Vasari even wrote about the incident. According to him, Rustici’s tondi were almost completely destroyed: ‘intorno al cortile molti tondi pieni di figure di terra cotta, con altri ornamenti bellissimi che furono la maggior parte, anzi quasi tutti, rovinati’ (‘in the courtyard there were many tondi full of figures, made of terracotta, and other beautiful elements, that were for the large part, or almost completely, destroyed’). This description does make one think: did Vasari really see the courtyard with his own eyes after the fire? Because today, when we visit the villa, we can still find most of the original tondi on the wall of this beautiful, and politically charged, villa in the Florentine hills.