THE FLOWERING CITY

9am on 23 March finds me crossing the river along Ponte alle Grazie to Via de’ Bardi, a long, dark narrow street of tall palazzi where, at No. 1r, I enter an unremarkable building to take a morning walk in the Giardino Bardini, which stretches up the terraced hillside behind. The Judas trees are in bloom: deep magenta flames, all the more striking against the pale, soft greys and greens of early Spring. The first white Banksia roses catch the morning sun, a row of bluebells and another of pink geraniums (the delicate sort that I first saw creating subtle pools of colour under the trees in the garden of Delacroix’s house, in Paris). There are also Bergenias in flower, a deep plum colour, different from the candy pink I’m used to in England and green tufts of what may be Armeria Marittima, though they have not flowered yet.
A few hours ago, when I set out from home in the centre of Florence to take my son, Marco to school, it was bitterly cold, but here on these terraces, facing towards Fiesole and the sunrise, the sun has had a good few hours to penetrate and it is pleasant enough to sit on a sun-warmed stone bench and listen to the birdsong. A piece of paper under a roof tile beside me contains a message : “Mom – I got cold and went to sit inside XOXO”. These unknown visitors must have come in the afternoon, for this is a morning place, just as the Knight’s Garden at Boboli is for the afternoon: it gets the full benefit of the late sun until the gardens close. Knowing such subtle but important differences is what distinguishes you as a resident of this city, rather than someone just passing through with limited time at her disposal.
The other day there was snow on the hillsides of Fiesole and up at Piazzale Michelangelo and there would have been no thought of lingering here. But now, in the sun, with the trickle of water from the fountains, the city’s roof-tops so close you feel you could touch them, but insulated from the bustle and traffic, it is a timeless world, full of joyful expectancy. Invisible gardeners have been at work: there are neat rows of well-tended bedding plants in the freshly dug soil, showing that in the coming months there will be begonias, irises and hydrangeas in flower.
These gardens offer a seductive combination of formal structure, time-worn beauty and mysterious wilderness. A central axis lined with irises dissects the hill and gravel paths with rows of flowers leading to walled fountains radiate out from it. There are stone and terracotta urns and crumbling statues on low walls that frame shifting views over the city as you walk up the hill. Other paths curve up the slopes. One slope is covered with cypress and holm oak and has violet blue speedwell and laurel growing freely in their shade. There is a field with daffodils and buttercups growing among the tall grasses and young ornamental cherry trees just beginning to blossom dotted among
them. Only I and a black and white cat are here to enjoy this moment. The cat rolls around in the gravel, stretches itself in the sun and follows me up the steep hill. There are espaliered apple and pear trees against terrace walls. Climbing roses have also been trained against the walls and their labels promise that they will flower as apricot yellow “Crépuscule” and “William Robinson”. So the garden provides food for the mind and the imagination suggesting future pleasures: apricot roses against grey stone. Higher up there is a long pergola covered in climbing wisteria over a row of hydrangea bushes. At present the wisteria is just an unkempt corridor of gnarled grey trunks and branches, but I can imagine the splendours to come when it is in flower. There will be a mass of lilac lanterns spilling over your head as you walk through; the dappled light that filters down will just touch the glowing hydrangeas and through this curtain of colour you will be able to look down upon the golden, red roofed city.
There is more to see at this season: sweet scented old roses planted amongst silvery olive trees; scarlet and white camellias behind the Belvedere; hellebores flowering by a winding stream, but overall there is a sense of preparation for those heady days in April and May when azaleas, roses, irises, wisteria, peonies and hydrangeas compete for our attention in the city’s public gardens: the Giardino delle Rose below Piazzale Michelangelo, the Giardino dell’Iris to the side of the Piazzale, Boboli Gardens and the Giardino Bardini and we remember that the original name for this city is “Fiorenza”: the Flowering City.

Rea Stavropoulos April 2007