A visitor almost seems to expect to smell the scent of lemons in the air as one walks through the sprawling gardens of the Limonaia Capponi in the heart of Florence.
The 321-square-metre villa was purchased by the American entrepreneur Bruce Fernie and his wife, the interior designer Katherine Walsh in 2007, and restored to its former glory by 2010, the year Fernie and his family moved in.
Built as a long, narrow, single-storey structure with a square tower in its centre, this particular villa’s history spans back to the 16th century. Interestingly, the Limonaia has ties to the fabled Medici clan, which ruled the city-state throughout the golden years of the Italian Renaissance. In 1579, the Florentine politician Jacopo Salviati, son-in-law to statesman Lorenzo de’ Medici, bought the property and built himself a substantial estate with a garden featuring rare trees and plants as well as halls housing precious works of art. The elegant residence would become both an artistic showpiece as well as a venue where the grandees of Italian society would congregate.
The Limonaia changed hands over the centuries. In 1698, the Salvatis sold the villa to the Capponi family whose name it bears to this day. It was the esteemed Senator Alessandro Capponi who was mostly responsible for the many changes wrought upon the estate as well as a number of the architectural and botanical features that continue to be among the properties’ highlights today. The Florentine politician aimed to create a structure that would serve as a palatial residence as well as a gathering place where local assemblies and exhibitions could be held.
Between 1706 and 1730, Capponi had teams of workmen led by Pratolino-born artisan Bartolomeo Nencioni revamping the Limonaia. Salviati’s garden would be enclosed by walls and transformed into an aviary for the owners’ enjoyment; a Bacchino—marble sundial—would also be placed as a practical and decorative accent to the green space.
Capponi spared no expense for the beautification of the villa, having brought in stone and sand from the banks of the Arno river, natural sponges, and marble from Florentine and Tuscan quarries. He would, likewise, hire prominent sculptors to craft ornaments for the garden.
THE BEAUTY OF THE GARDENS
The estate takes its name from the fact that its gardens were originally designated as a citrus orchard; its façade, in keeping with lemon orchards at the time, faces south to catch the sun. Later on, lemon cultivation expanded to the care of an extensive collection of rare and delicate botanical specimens.
The villa serves as the northern border of the Palazzo Capponi’s gardens on Via Gino Capponi, just a short distance from Il Duomo di Firenze. The entryway to the original botanical gardens planted by Jacopo Salviati is accessible via the Via Laura.
Salviati’s gardens followed a traditional format with regular flowerbeds interspersed with graceful marble statues and fountains glittering in the sun. The main entrance was embellished with sculptures made by Niccolo Tribolo, and was highly ornate. This area has become part of the central arcade of the modern villa.
One particular feature of the Limonaia gardens is the Uccelleria, a stunning artificial grotto that serves as the focal point of a ‘secret’ garden created as a sanctuary where the original owners could escape for peaceful moments from their lives in politics. Throughout the years, this area has also doubled as an aviary as well as an open-air gallery used by botanical societies to show off priceless blooms.
The Limonaia’s primary courtyard and its overall layout were constructed based on geometrical composition and in symmetry with the central axis of the upper level upon which a white marble sundial stands. Eight marble busts separated from each other by six vases adorn the roof while a statue in white marble stands atop the main building. There is a balustrade and two decorative obelisks rendered in the Florentine region’s famed pietra serena, the fine grey sandstone favoured by Renaissance-era sculptors; the exterior likewise features a mosaic surface featuring both tiles and locally-sourced seashells. The beautiful, varicoloured mosaics
are made with white Carrara marble tesserae, green marble tiles from Prato, red marble chips from Monsummano, along with bits of terra cotta.
THE MODERN VILLA
From its origins as a statesman’s palace and a place for public gatherings, the Limonaia has since become a private residence but has nevertheless retained its aura of old-world elegance with a touch of modernity with regard to its interiors.
The villa is a natural for entertaining as it has four elegantly laid-out bedrooms with en suite baths as well as two well-appointed reception areas, an excellently furnished kitchen, and dining room. It also incorporates a fully furnished independent apartment, which was originally built as a personal studio for the owner’s artistically inclined daughter.
The Limonaia’s primary living areas sport polished plaster walls, calling to mind traditional Italian wall treatments. The floors, on the other hand, ar e tiled with dark Tunisian limestone. The structure’s primary entrance is flanked by several sets of double French doors that can all be thrown open to create a pleasant illusion of outdoor living indoors.
If the villa’s exterior is a throwback to the High Renaissance, the interiors are sleekly modern. The high-ceilinged family lounge has a rather dramatic fireplace that makes it perfect for cosy, casual gatherings. The kitchen is, likewise, a spacious affair and a marvel to look at with its visually appealing mix of old and new elements: wood furniture paired with leather, chrome, and stainless steel.
Thanks to its most recent owners, one of the villa’s newest features is a loft-style mezzanine with a stylish curving staircase sculpted out of concrete and plaster. In addition, the Limonaia boasts parking space for four cars—a rare luxury in this part of the world.
With its nuances of both the old and the new, the Limonaia serves as a touchstone and a throwback to the grandeur of Florence’s storied past as well as a strong link to an aesthetically enlightened and progressive future.