Florence’s Central Park
Once Greeted by Queen Victoria, today Le Cascine is almost forgotten but still worthy of a visit
by Marine Le Canne
Not many foreign residents know that in Florence there is a big park next to the city center: it is Le Cascine and it’s an important part of the history of the city, its origins dating back hundreds of years. With its meadows, winding paths, and fountains, Le Cascine can be a nice, quick step away from the city’s fast pace, fifteen minutes away from the Dome.
The history of the park, which began in the Medici era, is quite interesting itself. The name is derived from the Italian word casci, which refers to the cows that five centuries ago were wandering around the park and that produced butter and cheese for the Medici. Though, Le Cascine was not mainly meant as a grazing ground. The first part of the park’s grounds were, in fact, acquired under Alessandro de’ Medici in 1531, but it wasn’t until 1563, under the rule of Cosimo, that the area was opened as a hunting and farming estate for the Medici, who planted rare and exotic plants to embellish their estate and use for scientific purposes. Many of these plants are still at Le Cascine.
When the Habsburg-Lorraines took control of Florence in 1737, the park began to be used recreationally, even though it remained a property of the ruling family until 1776, when, thanks to Peter Leopold, it was donated to the Municipality of Florence.
From 1807 to 1815, Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister and Grand Duchess of Tuscany, re-conceptualized the area in a more modern way by organizing and enlarging the park and opening it to the public. After becoming public, the park had the ‘benediction’ of Queen Victoria. In her lifetime, the queen came to Florence three times, (in 1888, 1893, and 1894), the first two of which she took a stroll in the park. It was during this period, at the end of the XIX century, that the park began hosting horse races (even today there are two hippodromes, one for harness racing, still open, one for gallop races, recently closed).
Characteristics of the park include the statue dedicated to Rajaram Cuttiputti and the School of Air War. Cattiputti was an Indian maharajah who died in 1870 at the age of 20 while in Florence. The special permission to cremate him on the banks of the Arno that his retinue had requested was, surprisingly, granted by the Italian Government. Many Florentines attended this cremation, by which they were so touched that they erected a statue – built four years later by English artisans – in his honor. The school, however, is now a military training center of aeronautics and was finished in 1938 on property that had been a gift from the comune. Its location was chosen so it could be camouflaged by trees.
Inside the park, which covers 160.000 hectares with about 19,000 trees, are a few buildings, most dating back to the 18th century and designed by Giuseppe Manetti. These include the Palazzina Reale (now a part of the faculty of the University of Florence), the pyramid-shaped ice house, the Abbeveratoio del Quercione fountain, the amphitheater, and the Pavoniere. Shaped like neoclassical temples, these Pavoniere were originally constructed as ornamental peacock cages. The most famous building in Le Cascine is the Narcisus Fountain, which served as inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ode to the West Wind in 1820. Shelley was one of the prominent English Romantic poets who traveled throughout Italy with his family and Lord Byron, staying in Florence for about two months before moving on to Pisa.
Finally, the last attraction is the park’s traditional market, the largest open-air one in Florence, hosted every Tuesday. Products sold are not just food-related but can be of any kind, which is why this market is favored by locals. It is another good reason for which Florence’s green lung is worth a visit!