Culture in the Riccardi Vegetable Garden at Gualfonda
Richard Goldthwaite (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore), Allen Grieco (Villa I Tatti, Firenze)
Renaissance gardens have all too often been seen in terms of pleasure gardens quite separate from any economic function, and this despite some cautionary remarks (Lazzaro, Lillie). The present paper wishes to contextualize a famous pleasure garden owned by the Riccardi family and used for the festivities in honor of Maria de’ Medici’s marriage to Henry IV to show the importance of its economic function.
Food historians have long known that one of the major changes between Medieval and Renaissance food consumption is in the realm of vegetables (Flandrin). The mostly post fifteenth century interest in such foodstuffs that made their growing in specialized “orti” a more than viable economic undertaking, is not attested in earlier periods. While by no means the only orto within the city walls, the garden of Valfonda, part pleasure garden tended by one gardener and part orto tended by several ortolani, offers a particularly well documented example of a “productive” vegetable garden over a period of some seventy years beginning in the mid sixteenth century. These are the years from when it belonged to the Bartolini family to the 1620s when the Riccardi were the owners and used it for prestigious cultural events.
The focus of the present paper will be on two closely connected topics: the economics of the garden and its produce. In the process we will not just examine the income and expenditures derived from the property but also take a close look at what was grown at Valfonda, mostly the fashionable “new” vegetables that appeared in the course of the sixteenth century (artichokes, cardoons, asparagus) following horticulturally innovative and labour intensive practices (for example the blanching process). To what extent these were “high end” vegetables quite unlike the ones associated in the Middle Ages with the diets of the poor (cabbages, leeks, etc.), becomes apparent thanks to the treatises on “salads” published in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Soderini, Massonio, Felici). That in the process these vegetables had been invested with a new cultural dignity also emerges in the still lives of the period where these vegetables appear in a conspicuous role.