Portrait by Jacopo Pontormo
of Cosimo de' Medici.

This autumn Florence and vicinity is honoring the ancient ties between the Mugello, that splendid pastoral landscape north of the city, and the most celebrated family of the Italian Renaissance—the Medicis.

The exhibits represent a wonderful opportunity to gain insight into the fundamental qualities of the Rockefellers of their time. 

In the early 1400s the Medici clan rose out of the Mugellan countryside to become, within decades, not only the most powerful socio-political force in Florence but an incomparable patron of the arts and sciences which were the foundation blocks of the Renaissance itself.

(Opening photo of Villa Cafaggiolo, a Medici residence in the Mugello countryside.)

Palazzo Pitti, once a Medici residence and site
of "The Medicis and the Sciences" exhibit.

Venues for the exhibits include historic buildings associated with the Medicis both in Florence and in small towns no more than twenty miles from the city. 

In town the Palazzo Pitti, in the 1500s a Medici town house, hosts the most extensive exhibit, "The Medicis and the Sciences".

Here have been gathered an extraordinary collection of Renaissance instruments — astrolabes, measuring devices, maps, lifting machines,  etc. — which speak to the passionate interest of the Medicis not only for the visual arts and philosophy but for the once quite interconnected sciences of physics, astronomy, navigation and architectural engineering. One comes away with a renewed sense of the singularity of humanistic endeavor — so different from today's separation of art and science--which characterizes the Renaissance.

Palazzo Riccardi in
the heart of Florence.

If you will follow the trail of the Medicis, you must find time to visit their Florentine residences. The grandest is Palazzo Riccardi, built in city center near the Duomo by the patriarch Cosimo Medici in the 1440s along austere classical lines.  It became the prototype villa of Renaissance Florence.

The family built other "town houses" as well:  Villa Careggi and Villa Medici in the northern suburbs were villas built in and around country gardens.  Within these green precincts Cosimo's grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent sponsored meetings of the Platonic Academy, which fostered philosophical inquiry and freedom of thought.

The Mugello is primarily an isolated valley which separates Florence and Tuscany to the south from the Apennine Mountains and agricultural plain of Emilia-Romagna, whose capital is Bologna, to the north.

The Mugello valley in summer.

Pastoral serenity is the keynote to the Mugello now as it was centuries ago, when its honored sons—the Medicis, the painters Giotto, Fra Angelico and Andrea del Castagno—found their way down to Florence.  Unlike more familiar parts of Tuscany like the Chianti region or the Sienese hill towns, the Mugello remains largely outside the well-trodden tourist paths of Italy.

My recent trip to the Mugello included a tour of four exhibits entitled "Mugello: Cradle of the Renaissance" mounted there by Comunita' Montana, the governmental organization responsible for promoting tourism in the region.  If you are visiting Tuscany this autumn, there is still time to visit the four Mugellan towns, just a few miles apart, where the shows have been located.

Donatello crucifix on exhibit for
"Mugello: Cradle of the Renaissance".

The Museo della Manifattura Chini in Borgo San Lorenzo features images of the various villas constructed at the behest of the Medicis. 

The Palazzo dei Vicari in Scarperia has an extensive collection of armor and armaments from the turbulent times of Medici domination in the region. 

On the artistic side, Museo Beato Angelico in Vicchio gathers together paintings by the great Mugellan artists Giotto, Fra Angelico and Andrea del Castagno.  In San Pietro a Sieve three extraordinary crucifixes by Donatello and Brunelleschi can be compared side by side at the Convento di Bosco ai Frati.

The more I've seen of Tuscany the more convinced I've become that the hot and weary traveller with more than a day or two is best off lodging in the countryside rather than in the crowded urban confines of Florence, Siena, Pisa, etc. 

Given the accessibility provided by good roads and frequent, cheap train travel throughout the province, one can easily locate for a week at an inexpensive bed and breakfast in lovely rural surroundings and still see a great deal of the towns.

Casa Palmira, a rural bed & breakfast
near Borgo San Lorenzo.

On the Mugello trip, for example, I stayed at Casa Palmira, a charming old farmhouse with modern amenities near Borgo San Lorenzo. 

Of course I had the hearty local restaurants and pleasant rural walks of the Mugello right at my doorstep, but by car I could also reach the Uffizi Galleries in Florence in a half hour, cities like Bologna, Lucca and Siena in less than an hour.  The combination of convenience to important sites with a relaxing rural base of operations made my stay measurably more satisfying and less costly on top of it.

Typical Mugello landscape, with
the Apennines in the distance.

The aforementioned exhibits both in Florence and the Mugello are continuing at least through November, although their popularity has argued for extensions which may be forthcoming. 

Check for the latest information on these and other upcoming events at www.firenzeturismo.it. or at www.mugellotoscana.it.  Try the latter website too for information on rural lodgings in the Mugello.  Casa Palmira can be reached at its own web site, www.casapalmira.it.

— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine Europe Editor. Photos courtesy of Mugello Tourist Office, ApT Firenze, and Casa Palmira.