In the Oltrarno, Firenze, Villa Bellosguardo, Villa dell’Ombrellino and Villa Mercedes

Unusual  Florence, just a walk south of the Arno, along the country lanes among  the many Renaissance villas  which hosted at the end of the  19th and 20th centuries many British and American expatriates. A gorgeous approach uphill in the Oltrarno. From piazza San Francesco di Paola one can get along via di Bellosguardo up to the Villa Bellosguardo whose tower,  the oldest part of the  building, dates back to the thirteenth century.

A long story nice to tell. In the sixteenth century the tower was enlarged into a villa by the Marquis Michelozzi Roti, who had its entrance hall frescoed by the painter Bernardino Poccetti.
In the30s of the nineteenth century it became the  glamorous meeting point of European  scholars, under the patronage of the Baroness Marion von Hornstein Franchetti.
Today it  is  a four -starred hotel  with a fascinating view, almost unknown to the ordinary tourist. The landscape is here amazing. Many residences of famous  English and American intellectuals, as from the plate, next to the entrance of the  Villa dell’Ombrellino. “Qui, dove la grazia del cielo e del colle innalza la qualità dell’arte, vissero ed operarono i  figli di patrie diversi”. (here, where the joint grace of sky and earth  enhances art, people  from different countries lived and worked). A noble forerunner, Galileo, who used to live in this villa from 1617 to  1631   before moving to Arcetri,  paved the way to next inhabitants.  At the end of 19th century the American writer Eliot Norton was here a real ambassador  to American scholars interested in the culture of Tuscany. Norton,  Berenson’s art history professor at Harvard, set up in the villa  a refined artistic milieu, made up of top-rank characters such as the Brownings or Ruskin himself. Bought at the beginning of the 20th century by George and Alice Keppel the villa became a glamorous place  to be in.  Alice, a multitasking lady, could be both loving wife, keen  mistress of the King of England Edward the 7th and ,Francis Poulenc, Arthur Rubistein , Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf mindful mother of  Violet Trefusis who would become  a successful writer with a wide circle of acquaintances ranging from musicians such as Francis Poulenc, Arthur Rubistein or writers like Marcel Proust, Vita Sackville-West and  Virginia Woolf. The garden of  the Villa dell’Ombrellino, perfectly tuning in the features of the surrounding landscape, was commissioned by Alice Keppel  to Cecil Pinsent, the garden designer very active in Tuscany between 1909 and 1939 for the British speaking community.

Don’t miss  another residence rich in literary references, the Villa Mercedes known also as Villa Belvedere al Saracino or Villa Castellani much loved by the American writer Henry James. In his novel Roderick Hudson, Villa Mercedes is the model on which he shaped Villa Pandolfini, the fictional  residence of the Hudsons when moving here from Rome. James indulges on its description. ”It offered to the outer world a long rather low façade coloured  a dull, dark yellow….The garden was a charming place. Its southern wall was curtained with a screen of orange-blossoms, a dozen fig trees here and there offered you their large leafed shade, and over the low  parapet the soft grave Tuscan landscape kept you company”. Villa Mercedes seems also   to have inspired to him the residence of one of the main  characters of “The Portrait of a Lady”, Gilbert Osmond who ensnares the young American woman, Isabel, into a disastrous marriage, “getting ground in the very mill of the conventional”. The writer in the description of the house is overwhelmed by his cherished  memories of the villa he directly knew.” A rectangle with the straight dark definite cypresses that usually rise in groups of three or four….. beside it a narrow garden productive chiefly of tangles of wild roses and other stone benches mossy and sun-warmed”.

What better homage to the Oltrarno by one of his most faithful guests, Henry James, one of the pilgrims from foggy lands fallen under the spell of Tuscany  so difficult to escape from?

If you are interested in spending few days in Florence have a look at the accommodations offered here by Tuscany Holiday Rent.

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