Villa Petraia overlooks Florence from atop a hill in Castello, a few kilometres north of the city centre. Featuring elegant Renaissance architecture and an Italianate garden, a visit to this villa gives visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the world of the Medici.
Easy to get to from Florence, Villa Petraia is an elegant Renaissance mansion that gives us a glimpse of how royalty used to live. The highlights are the frescoes that tell the stories of the Medici family members. With beautiful views and a terraced garden it makes for a relaxing day trip if you need a break from the city.
The Medici were for many years the rulers of Tuscany, and bought and restructured many villas on the hills surrounding Florence. They’d go there to take respite from political scheming and busy city life. So they made sure the views were unbeatable, building gardens in grand style to match the elegance of the architecture. It was in fact the Medici who started the trend of ‘Italianate’ gardens that you’ll also see in Boboli Gardens in Florence.
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Who lived in Villa Petraia?
The Medici family spent their leisure time here at a time when the grand Duchy of Tuscany was a European power. Later the House of Lorena took over Tuscany after the last of the Medici, Gian Gastone, died. From 1865 Florence briefly became capital of Italy. The king Emanuele II chose this villa as a residence for his lover Rosa, ‘Bella Rosina’, who later became his second wife. The furniture and interior decor date back to the 18th-19th century, when the royal residents completely refurbished the villa.
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A visit to Villa Petraia
Walking up through the garden to Villa Petraia is the best way to appreciate the architecture of this splendid villa. The Italianate terraced garden has a geometric design, its bushes creating a series of green frames punctuated by dwarf fruit trees, a feature chosen by the Medici.
The villa is an example of villa con torre, of which you’ll see many around the Tuscan countryside. The 15th century villa incorporates the original Medieval tower .
The frescoed courtyard is wonderfully illuminated by the light that pours through the glass ceiling. This was the room for parties and balls, the glass cover only being added in the 19th century. All around, The Mannerist frescoes depict elaborate scenes of Medici family members showing off their accomplishments.
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Visit the lavish interior
Despite its charm, the villa feels somewhat forgotten. Few visitors venture outside the city centre to come here, and on our own visit we are the only four people walking through these lavishly decorated rooms. They are a monument to opulence, with luxurious fabrics and furniture that the Savoy king brought here from the north of Italy, when he chose this villa as his favourite summer residence.
On the first floor there are halls, sitting rooms and bedrooms, and a deliciously frescoed small Old Chapel. After the other ornately decorated rooms, the chapel has an air of intimacy and simplicity. Another favourite is the vast hall dedicated to all sorts of games, including an ancestor of pinball (basically a wooden table with some holes in it!).
When the keeper opens one of the windows I’m struck by the view of the garden and Florence in the distance. The gigantic Duomo appears on your left. It was meant to be big enough to be seen from everywhere after all. On the right Florence show its less attractive side; the airport and the industrial area in full view. Something the tasteful Medici would certainly not approve of.
What remains from the Medici era?
The style of the architecture and the garden are typical of the Renaissance, but the interior furnishings are more recent and would have looked very different in the Medici era.
The frescoes in the courtyard date back to 16th-17th century, and include many portraits of the Medici. The frescoes by Cosimo Daddi in the Old Chapel on the first floor (1589-94). There are fabulous lunette designs of the villas from the 16th century. And a statue of Venus by Giambologna (the copy is outside, the original is in the study on the first floor).
How to get there – When to go
Do not expect a guided tour; the keeper opens the villa and guides visitors around every hour but there are no explanations of the sights. A leaflet is provided but there’s not much un terms of information in English inside the villa. Our advice would be to read up on the villa before you go.
Opening hours: The villa opens every hour from 8:30am-5:30pm (Apr-Sep), 8:30am-4:30pm (Mar-Oct), 8:30am-3:30pm (Nov-Feb)
Entrance is free.
The Medicean Villas have been a Unesco site since 2013
Bus ATAF 2 and 28 from Santa Maria Novella train station, Stop in Via Sestese. Fifteen minutes walk to the villa, up hill.