Located on the hills of Settignano, overlooking the city of Florence and the Arno valley, the Gamberaia is first mentioned in documents of the late 1300s, when a farmhouse on this site belonged to the Convent of S. Martino a Mensola. In the early 1400s it became the property of Matteo di Domenico, who adopted the surname Gamberelli. Two of his sons, Bernardo and Antonio Rossellino, were among the most important architects and sculptors of the time. The name of the family and villa probably derives from gamberi (crayfish), farmed in fresh-water ponds in the area.
At the beginning of the 1600s, Zanobi Lapi, a wealthy and cultivated Florentine merchant, who had made his fortune in luxury textiles, purchased the villa and began building the main house, in part on preexisting foundations. He and his two nephews also laid out the main areas of the gardens and system of fountains. A century later the property, which by now counted some fifteen farm houses, passed into the hands of the marchesi Capponi. Following their renovations, it soon became known as one of the most beautiful villas of Florence. In the estate map (c.1725-30) and in the etchings by Giuseppe Zocchi (c.1744), one can make out its distinctive elements: the two parallel north-south axes of the cypress-lined entrance road and bowling-green, the perpendicular east-west axis of the cabinet de rocaille, flanked by the boschetti or ilex woods, the upper terrace with its lemon house and garden, and at the south end an elaborate French-style parterre, complete with aviary and rabbit island. Statues, busts of the four seasons, and urns adorned the grottoes and garden walls.
The last, and only modern, intervention in the gardens was the transformation of what remained of the old parterre to the south of the villa by two talented women owners: the Romanian Princess Catherine Jeanne Ghyka, née Kesko, sister of Queen Nathalie of Serbia, who designed the celebrated parterre d’eau (begun 1896-98), and the American-born Matilda Cass Ledyard, Baroness von Ketteler, who gave it the predominantly evergreen and architectonic character that we still see today (c.1925-1935).
Following the partial destruction of the villa during the Second World War, the Gamberaia was acquired in 1954 by Marcello Marchi, whose family had founded important Italian industries and owned other historic properties in Tuscany. Thanks to him and his wife, Nerina von Erdberg, an extensive restoration of the house and the gardens was carefully carried out, immortalised in the photographs of Balthazar Korab (1966). In 1994 the Villa passed to his daughter Franca (†1998) and her husband Luigi Zalum, who has continued the work of conservation and restoration. The Zalum family, noted for its mercantile and banking activities in Livorno since the early eighteenth century, traces its origins to the Serbian principality of Zahlum (now Herzegovina).
Today the Gamberaia continues to attract visitors throughout the year: artists and landscape architects, film makers, and garden lovers from all continents. Prince Charles, well-known for his interests in horticulture, has visited the gardens with Princess Diana, and the villa is a favorite destination of Queen Beatrix of Holland and other members of the royal houses of Europe.