the main villa
Located in the hills of Settignano, in a splendid panoramic position overlooking the city of Florence and the Arno valley, Villa Gamberaia stands on the site where documents of the late 1300s attest the presence of a farmhouse belonging to the convent of S. Martino a Mensola. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the farm was bought by Matteo di Domenico, whose sons, Bernardo and Antonio Rossellino were among the most famous architects and sculptors of the time. The name of the area, can probably be traced back to the name ‘gamberi’, fresh-water shrimp caught in nearby ponds or streams.
At the beginning of the 1600s, Zanobi Lapi, a wealthy and cultured Florentine merchant, who made his fortune in the manufacture and trade of luxury fabrics, bought the villa and started the construction of the main house, exploiting, in part, existing foundations. It is to him and his two nephews that we must also attribute the principal areas of the garden and the ingenious system of water conduits and fountains. A century later, the estate, which now comprised about fifteen farmhouses, passed into the hands of the marchesi Capponi. Thanks to the renovations and embellishments they carried out, the villa soon entered the list of the most beautiful Florentine villas. In a contemporary plan of the estate (c.1725-30) and in the engravings of Giuseppe Zocchi (c.1744) we can clearly see the elements that still characterize the villa: the two longitudinal axes, oriented from north to south , the entrance drive lined by rows of cypress trees and the long garden avenue, the bowling-green, the transversal axis, running from east to west, through the cabinet of rocaille (rustic cabinet), flanked by groves of oaks, the upper terrace with its lemon-house and, at the southern end, the sophisticated French parterre complete with aviary and “garenna” or “island of the rabbits”. Adorning the grottoes and walls of the gardens are statues, busts of the four seasons and urns.
The last intervention in the garden, and the only one carried out in the modern era, was the transformation of what remained of the old parterre de broderie located south of the villa thanks to two talented owners: the Romanian princess Catherine Jeanne Ghyka, née Keşko, sister of Queen Natalia of Serbia, who designed the famous parterre d’eau (started in the period 1896-98) and the American Matilda Cass Ledyard, baroness von Ketteler, who gave the garden the predominantly “evergreen” character and the architectural forms (c.1925-1935) that we can still admire today.
After its partial destruction during the II World War, in 1954 the villa was bought by the Italian industrialist Marcello Marchi, whose family owned other historic residences in Tuscany. It was he and his wife Nerina von Erdberg who undertook the enormous task of rebuilding the house and restoring the gardens, immortalized in their renewed glory in the photographs of BalthazarKorab (1966). In 1994, the ownership of the villa passed to their daughter Franca († 1998) and her husband Luigi Zalum, who continued the work of conservation and restoration. Formerly from the Serbian principality of Zahlum (today Herzegovina) the Zalum family is known for its mercantile and banking activities in the city of Livorno since the early 1700s.
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