The Boboli Gardens

Dan Brown sets a long scene in Inferno in Florence’s Boboli Gardens. Although Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks have extensive adventures there, you never really get a good description from Brown of this fantastical, almost surreal garden complex that includes entrances to passageways that lead to the Vasari Corridor, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Uffizi.

Zadie Smith offers a nice word picture of the Boboli Gardens in an essay in the November 7 issue of the New York Review of Books. Excerpts are below:

In the morning, we set out. We had the idea of reaching the Boboli Gardens. But many people set out from a Florence hotel with the hope of getting to a particular place—few ever get there. You step into a narrow alleyway, carta di città in hand, walk confidently past the gelato place, struggle through the crowd at the mouth of the Ponte Vecchio, take a left, and find yourself in some godforsaken shady vicolo near a children’s hospital, where the temperature is in the 100s and someone keeps trying to sell you a rip-off Prada handbag. You look up pleadingly at the little putty babies. You take a right, a left, another right—here is the Duomo again. But you have already seen the Duomo. In Florence, wherever you try to get to, you end up at the Duomo, which seems to be constantly changing its location. The heat builds and the walls of the alleys feel very high; the thought of a green oasis is tantalizing but last time you remember seeing grass was that little strip in front of the train station. Will you ever see it again? …

I remember this small geographical insight coming over us both as a revelation: there was, after all, a way out of this oppressively beautiful warren of streets, and it led to higher ground. Height being the essential sensation of Boboli. Climbing toward it, we felt ourselves to be no longer British rats running around a medieval Italian maze—no, now we were heading up into the clear, entitled air of the Renaissance, to triumph over the ever-moving Duomo once and for all.

Through formal gardens we passed, each one more manicured and overdesigned than the next, our cameras hanging dumbly from our necks, for Boboli is a place that defeats framing. As an aesthetic experience it arrives preframed, and there’s little joy to be had taking a picture of a series of diametric hedges. “It’s not much like an English garden, is it?” ventured Harvey, confronted by Bacchus sitting fatly on a turtle, his chubby penis pointed directly at our foreheads.

In one lake, Neptune stood naked about to stab a trident into a rock; in another, a fellow unknown to us reared up on his horse, as if a sea that had once parted for him now intended to swallow him whole. I remember no ducks or wandering fowl, not a leaf or pebble out of place. In Boboli you don’t really escape the city for the country, nor are you allowed to forget for a moment the hours of labor required to shape a hedge into a shape that in no way resembles a hedge.

No, not like an English garden at all…though perhaps more honest in its intentions. It speaks of wealth and power without disguise. Boboli is Florence, echoed in nature. As a consequence of this, it is the only garden of which I can remember feeling a little shy. I would not have thought it possible to feel underdressed in a garden, but I did—we both did. Clumsy tourists dragging ourselves around a private fantasia. For though Boboli may be open to the public, it is still somehow the Medicis’ park, and the feeling of trespassing never quite leaves you…

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