“Botanical gardens are institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purpose of scientific research, conservation, display and education” (1).
The Renaissance was the Golden Age of the botanical gardens: created for the cultivation of medicinal plants, the so-called “simple herbs”, the Gardens of Simples or Horti Simplicium thrived all over Italy. They were – and are – hive of activity and open air schools, with the didactic purpose of knowledge, conservation and divulgation.
Tuscany was the cradle of two of the first historic botanical gardens of Italy: Pisa (1543) and Florence (1545).
Nestled on the Appennini hills between Florence and Pisa, and crossed by the limpid Ombrone river, lies Pistoia, the Italian capital of arboriculture, a paradise for plants and flowers hunters, topiary’s fans, and nature lovers.
Let’s start our verdant journey through the best botanical gardens and nurseries between Florence Pisa and Pistoia: ancient herbals, exotic plants and trees from the New World, famous botanists, and scented flowers are waiting for you!
A little history of botanical gardens
Botanical gardens were created for the cultivation of medicinal plants, the so-called “simple herbs” (Horti Simplicium – Garden of Simples). The origins of botanical gardens in the world hark back to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Mexico, and China. Physic gardens were cultivated by Greeks, like Aristotle in the Lyceum at Athens, and by monks in monasteries during the Middle Age. The first precursors of the botanic gardens in Italy were the Minerva’s Garden at Salerno, in Campania region, laid out by Matteo Silvatico, and the private botanical garden of the Popes in the Vatican Gardens (13th cent.).
The Renaissance in Italy was the rebirth of classical antiquity and arouse the curiosity for science: these were the first steps to the scientific revolution of Galileo Galilei (Pisa, 1564 – Florence, 1642) on the following 17th century.
The Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519 – 1574) was the most significant promoter of botany, science, technology, and garden art in the 16th century. He was inspired by the great model of Pope Leo X, who founded the first chair of botany, “lectura simplicium”, at Rome University in 1513.
Botanical gardens were hives of activities, usually flanked by a “spezieria” (spices distillery) and a “fonderia” (foundry), as well by workshops where artists could copy the plants and dedicate to the botanical illustration and treatises.
Since the past, the botany’s treatises were embellished with series of illustration with botanical purpose, at the service of the pharmacy and the medicine. The famous “De Materia Medica” by Dioscorides was probably illustrated by Crateva; the “Naturalis Historia” written by Pliny the Elder was provided with sketches. It was translated in Florence about 1472-74 by Cristoforo Landino and was a source of inspiration for Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci.
The “herbarium” (a collection of dried herbs, accurately marked with their own names) increased in the 16th century in Florence: Luca Ghini was a pioneer of the “herbarium”, followed by Michele Merini and Andrea Cesalpino.
The physician Andrea Cesalpino was the author of the “De Plantis Libri XVI” in 1583: he was a precursor of plants classification, two centuries before the binomial nomenclature of Carl Linnaeus.
The Grand Dukes Cosimo I, Francesco I and Ferdinando I de’ Medici were promoters of expeditions and passionate collectors of plants, seeds, and bulbs coming from every corner of Europe and the world, especially from Orient: tulips, gladioluses, fritillaries, irises, lilies, narcissi were the most beloved flowers to show and to draw.
“Many marvels of nature – such are rare birds and mammals, mineral samples, exotic artifacts, and poorly known species of plants – reached Europe as gifts and continued to circulate in this form as they became customary in princely aviaries and menageries, cabinets of curiosities, and botanical gardens. The practice of giving and receiving such offerings was an integral part of early modern social, political, and scholarly culture” (2).
In the 16th century, flowers and exotic plants collections became a mean of self-representation.
The Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici cultivated the maize or Indian corn in Castello garden and grew from a seed a guanabano tree; his son Francesco I had a small private botanical garden in the courtyard of the Casino of San Marco, in Florence. Niccolò Gaddi and Antonio Salviati owned cabinets of curiosities in Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini and Borgo Pinti in Florence, where they displayed bizarre specimens from all other the world, mixing works of art and works of nature. The Franciscan Francesco Malocchi was employed for the Medici family as a curiosity hunter.
The Italian botanical gardens on the podium are:
– Pisa Botanical Garden, founded in 1543;
– Padova Botanical Garden, founded on July 31st, 1545;
– Florence Botanical Garden, founded on December 1st, 1545.
Pisa Botanical Garden
Tuscany was the cradle of the first Italian botanical garden: Pisa, the oldest botanical garden of the world. It was founded in 1543 by the naturalist, physician, and botanist Luca Ghini (1490 – 1556) from Imola. It was supported by the Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici.
The first location of the Botanical Garden was on the Medici Arsenal in Pisa; it was transferred in 1563 and again in 1591 to the present-day seat at Piazza dei Miracoli, between Via Santa Maria and Via Roma.
It was enlarged and nowadays it spreads over 3 hectares and boasts plants from the 5 continents. The works were completed by Lorenzo Mazzanga and the Flamish artist Joseph Goedenhuitze (known as Giuseppe Casabona) in 1595. In the 17th century, a workshop was opened in the Botanical Garden, where artists could train in botany painting: one of the most famous was Jacopo Ligozzi.
The Botanical Garden was compartmentalised in quarters: the square for the earth, the circle for the heaven, the triangle for the fire, the reservoirs for the water. Plants species were set in eight square-shaped beds, divided in small geometrical sections and symmetrically laid out around eight fountains. In the 19th century, the original lay out was transformed in the more functional aspect of the modern botany promoted by Darwin, Linnaeus, and Tournefort.
Luca Ghini was a leading naturalist: he introduced to the Botanical Garden of Pisa the colocasia from Southeast Asia and the styrax, which he received from Crete, under the possession of the Venetian Republic.
Florence Botanical Garden or Garden of Simples
It was founded by Luca Ghini on December, 1st, 1545 promoted by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. It was built on the plot of the Dominican monastery of San Cafaggio by Niccolò Pericoli il Tribolo. The original octagonal lay out was focused around the octagonal water basin. In 1718, it was ran by the director Pier Antonio Micheli, the founder of the Florentine Botanical Society and the protagonist of a renewed golden age for the Botanical Garden. In 1783, the Florentine Botanical Society was incorporated into the Accademia dei Georgofili, founded in Florence in 1753. It consists of various areas dedicated to: medicinal plants, Oriental medicinal plants, hydrangeas, Italian ferns, palms, food plants, poisonous plants, Tuscany medicinal plants, ornamental plants, mesophilus plants, gymnosperms, oaks, zelkova crenata, coak oaks.
It features a secret garden, an Italian garden, a Japanese garden, and a little greenhouse, built in 19th century by Teodoro Caruel. Micheli’s European yew is the oldest tree in the Botanical Garden, planted by Pier Antonio Micheli in 1720.
The green city of Pistoia, queen of nurseries and arboriculture
The advantageous position and the temperate climate have been the key to success for Pistoia since the mid-19th century, when the tradition of arboriculture started.
Pistoia in numbers: 90.000 inhabitants, 42 km from Florence, and 2000 firms specialized in arboriculture. If you are travelling by car from Pisa to Florence, you will glimpse from the highway a luscious series of clipped trees, curious box spirals, animals and geometric shapes pruned in laurel or yew. This is the green business card of Pistoia and the green soul of the city.
The ars topiaria has ancient origins: coming from the East, it was not only a favourite tenet of the ancient Roman gardens, but a constant thread along Italian garden history, in the Middle Age, in the Renaissance, and in the Baroque age. Ancient Romans pruned their trees and evergreen shrubs in shape of animals, humane figures, busts, statues or alphabetical letters. The word “topiarium” means artificial garden; it derives from “topion”, meaning countryside. The “topiarius” was the word for the gardener.
Pistoia offers a huge variety of nurseries. Pick your favourite one among the following list and don’t miss the chance to visit the center of Pistoia, with its most beautiful highlights: the San Zeno Cathedral with the façade decorated by Andrea della Robbia; the Belltower; the Baptistry with the chair by Giovanni Pisano; the Marino Marini Museum; and the Museum of Embroidery.
A list of Pistoia’s nurseries in alphabetical order:
GIORGIO TESI GROUP
With 500 hectares of production and 362 hectare of open fields, they are one of the top companies for the production of ornamental plants, topiary, roses, olives, citrus fruits, fruit trees, climbing plants, perennial and aromatic herbs in the whole Europe. They export in 60 countries all over the world under the motto: “The Future is Green”.
INNOCENTI MANGONI VIVAI
1500 plants variety, 320 hectares, 3 generations: these are the numbers of the nursery, specialized in landscape architecture and garden centres. 933 shrubs variety, 66 palms variety, 159 conifers variety, 96 fruit trees variety… since 1950.
Rose Barni provide exclusive top quality roses since 1882. Get lost in the lovely delicacy and the best quality of their roses and plants: hybrid tea, floribundas, climbers, shrubs, fruit trees, magnolias, hydrangeas, herbaceous and ornamental. Rose Barni is specialized in the multiplication and commercialization of ancient roses and modern roses. They create their own roses as well: “Le Farfalle” (The butterflies), and “Le Toscane” (The Tuscans).
A leading nursery since four generations, MATI 1909 takes care of the production of all size of ornamental plants, the design and construction of large and small gardens, and the promotion of a green culture and Tuscan farm food. In 2012, they established the Italian Garden Academy which offers courses, seminars, and workshops for fans and professionals.
Vannucci started their business in 1938. Their nurseries offer today 3000 plant variety and are designed to have a minimum impact on the environment and focus on the use of natural resources. They handle a lot of projects: the Pistoia Nursery Campus, where students and professionals can train and study all the aspects of the green industry, and the Nursery Park, designed and built by Vannucci Piante, a keen promoter of the eco-friendly approach. They are the suppliers for the creation and maintenance of royal gardens like the Buckingham Palace Gardens at London and the King of Jordan’s London Royal Court in Amman. Their watchword is: “More plants, more life!”.
“The Green Boutique” is the nickname of this nursery which provides trees for garden centres (small or manageable, with round, pendulous, compact or natural-shaped foliage); instant-effect trees; fruit trees and dwarf fruit trees; deciduous and evergreen shrubs; topiary art; a Japanese and Italian bonsais; a collection of Japanese maples; a collection of Bambusa and Fargesia; a collection of Cornus (dogwood); palms and vines.
They offer a wide range of plants: forest trees, garden plants, ornamental plants, and indoor plants (from conifers, shrubs, to perennial herbaceous), and topiary, which is the constant tenet of the nursery. Their society MGF Garden provides garden design services and maintenance services. Their catalogue is extremely useful for those people who would like to improve their knowledge in arboriculture: they could meander from profile to profile and discover a great deal about acacias, maples, junipers or mulberries.
Since 1953, the nursery offer trained plants (espaliers, topiary, Japanese bonsais, mopheads) and crops in open fields or in pots. Princess Grace and Prince Ranieri of Monaco visited the nursery.
Green guided tours between Florence, Pisa and Pistoia
Are you deeply passionate for botanical gardens and nurseries? Me too!
Visit the online section dedicated to my Garden Guided Tours and contact me for your tailor-made Garden Guided Tour!
I will be glad to personalize my garden guided tours for you, between Florence, Pisa and Pistoia.
Tchikine, Anatole, “Gardens of Renaissance Europe and Islamic Empires”
APGI, Touring Club Italiano, “L’Italia dei giardini. Viaggio attraverso la bellezza tra natura e artificio”. (Lavis: L.E.G.O., 2017).
Clauser M., Di Fazio L., Grigioni A., Luzzi P., “Orto botanico di Firenze” (Signa, Firenze: NOVA Arti Grafiche, 2008).