FLORENCE -- Difficult though it may seem to top Isabella Stewart Gardner in the eccentric collector department, Frederick Stibbert seems to have done so.
Like Gardner's faux Venetian palazzo on Boston's Fenway, the villa Stibbert built on the hilly outskirts of Florence is pure 19th-century eclectic fantasy. The grounds are full of architectural follies, "Roman" and "Egyptian" temples among them. Tombstones from old cemeteries decorate the exterior; inside, the most stunning room is a medieval-style knights hall filled with suits of armor on equine mannequins. You come upon it suddenly -- it appears the horses are going to charge and mow you down. It's the kind of startling theatrical moment that Gardner also loved to create for her guests.
Half-Italian, half-British, Stibbert was all acquisitiveness -- and had the wealth to indulge it.
"He had no prejudice whatsoever about any form of art," says Kirsten Piacenti, director of the Stibbert Museum. In other words, he would buy anything, from the largest collection of Islamic arms and armor outside Topkapi to Japanese erotica. Like Gardner, he adored playing dress-up. He had his own suit of armor made in Paris, and he bought the ornate embroidered robe Napoleon wore to crown himself king of Italy. Yes, Piacenti says, Stibbert did indeed like to wear it.
No one knows if Stibbert (1830-1906) and Gardner (1840-1924) ever met. The comparison of the two is inevitable, though, not only because both invented their own idiosyncratic "Italy," but also because Gardner, too, has a presence in Florence just now. The Gardner's first-ever traveling exhibit is ensconced through June 15 in the city's Bargello Museum.
"Raphael, Cellini, and a Renaissance Banker: The Patronage of Bindo Altoviti" pairs Cellini's monumental bronze busts of Altoviti, owned by the Gardner, and Cosimo de' Medici, owned by the Bargello. In life, the two men were enemies. Altoviti, depicted by Cellini as sage and contemplative, wanted to see Florence return to republican rule, out of the grasp of the tyrannical Medici. Cellini's Cosimo, meanwhile, is portrayed as a Roman general, belligerent and aggressive.
It's an interesting exercise to create a Florentine itinerary that reflects how art-loving 19th-century foreigners -- including Gardner, American writers Edith Wharton and Henry James, and a slew of James's characters -- saw the city. You can visit palaces still owned by ancient families, gorgeous gardens in the hills, and, of course, I Tatti, the villa where Bernard Berenson, the legendary art historian and dealer, plotted his purchases for Gardner and himself.
A surprising amount of this "hidden" Florence is open by appointment, if you know whom to contact.
The only information you need to visit the Stibbert is that it's there -- which very few foreigners know. On days when long lines of people wait for admission to the Accademia so they can ogle Michelangelo's towering "David," next to no one will be in the Stibbert.
No crowds either at the Palazzo Corsini, where the Principessa Giorgiana Corsini unlocks the gigantic front doors and pushes them back while they creak in complaint. Inside is a 17th-century world of Baroque flourishes -- and great art. The Principessa points out a frescoed ceiling that she calls "a family resume" because of all the Corsini in it, and various paintings of St. Andrea Corsini.
"It's very good to have a saint in the family," she notes, "much better than a pope." The Corsini have one of those, too: Clement XII, who was old and frail by the time he ascended to the papal throne, in 1730. His wooden wheelchair, upholstered in fading tapestry, is still in the palazzo.
The palazzo has one enormous salon after another, but none grander than the state bedroom. It's a category of room that no longer exists, designed for receiving guests while the host is still in bed. In this case, it's a bed on a platform surrounded by voluminous theatrical curtains pulled back by putti, herms, and angels, all in stucco.
Gardner's art purchases were often long distance; Berenson would send her photographs and they would cable back and forth about the picture's merits and its monetary value. She did visit Florence several times, first in 1886. So enamored of the city was she that she purchased dozens of black and white photographs of its art and architecture, pasting them into 73 pages of her travel album.
In Gardner's day, the most important dealer in the city was Stefano Bardini, and in an 1897 visit, Gardner bought huge amounts of architectural material from him -- columns, capitals, brackets, windows -- that now fill her museum's cloisters and courtyard. She also became obsessed with a particular shade of blue on the Palazzo Bardini walls.
"I want the exact tint," Gardner wrote to Berenson. "Perhaps some little person can paint it on a piece of paper." As usual, she got her way. That vivid azure hue is still on the walls of the museum corridors.
Another stop on the 19th-century visitor's itinerary might have been the Antico Setificio Fiorentino. By the time Gardner arrived in Florence, this silk-weaving company had been around for more than 200 years. It got underway in the mid-17th century, when the great Florentine families pooled their resources to set up a single silk workshop instead of having individual, smaller ones in their own palazzi. (This seems to be a rare case of cooperation among the city's famously belligerent clans.)
The workshop and store are thriving even now, and when the Gardner Museum needs to replace silk upholstery, this is where they get it. The company still uses pre-industrial looms, including one designed by Leonardo da Vinci. All training of weavers is done in-house. The course takes five years, and finishes with the making of a particularly complex pattern, which becomes the graduate's diploma.
Antico Setificio's workshop and adjacent salesroom, in an ancient neighborhood of artisans, are heaven for textile-lovers. This is the only place where the public can buy the company's fabled fabrics, either by the yard or made into cushions, frames, handbags, shawls, and passementerie, the braided silk trim for which Florence is famous.
So rich and varied are the city's attractions that it's hard to pull yourself away for a venture into the nearby hills, where Renaissance Florentines built their vacation villas to escape the summer heat. Do make time to meander up to Fiesole, a short drive from the center of the city. The views are spectacular, with Filippo Brunelleschi's great golden dome atop the cathedral blazing on sunny days. And do visit the grand terraced gardens of the 15th-century villa built for Giovanni de' Medici. As avid a botanical collector as Gardner was, he exchanged bulbs and plants with other European horticulturists, and imported citrus fruits from the South, a first for Florence.
In those same Tuscan hills is I Tatti, the villa that Berenson and his wife, Mary, bought in 1900 and turned into a 20th-century version of a Renaissance court, a meeting place for notables in literature, art, politics and other fields. For the most part, the grounds are laid out formally, with paths bordered by spiky cypresses, pools surrounded by low hedges, and classical sculpture and an enclosed lemon tree garden, the residue of Giovanni de' Medici's successful citrus experiment. Inside the house are treasures not only of the Italian Renaissance, but from Asia and Egypt as well.
Gardner visited I Tatti only once, in 1906, on her last European journey. She fell in love with the place and with what the Berensons had done with it, from creating their salon, where the foremost members of the intelligentsia of the day met to discuss lofty topics, to the way pictures often were hung against textiles. Gardner assembled a salon in Boston, and she, too, liked to hang pictures against fabrics.
What she couldn't do, of course, was import Tuscan weather. Complaints about the frigid temperatures in Boston are an ongoing theme in her many letters to Berenson. For those lemon groves, olive trees, grape vines, and all the other bounty this part of Italy enjoys because of its temperate clime, the imperious Gardner had to go there, just like the rest of us.