Travelling along Via delle Fonti, in the countryside south of Florence, one comes across an ancient rural architectural structure, virtually unknown and concealed by vegetation.
Looking up towards the hill, among the cypresses one can see the stone tower of Villa Il Riposo, once owned by Bernardo Vecchietti, councillor to Francesco I de’ Medici.
Raffaello Borghini wrote about it in 1584, in his art treatise entitled Il Riposo, in which he presented a series of conversations about painting and sculpture. Rural architecture also featured, in the nymphaeum: an Arcadian locus amoenus, called the Fountain of Fata Morgana, that is, Morgan Le Fay.
The spring on which it was built must have existed since ancient times, but the so-called “rustic-style” architectural structure was built around 1573.
It must have been an incredibly ambitious project for the time, practically involving subversion of the laws of nature. For the construction of the nymphaeum, part of the hill was removed, creating an artificial hollow on the outside, enclosed between the two orthogonal facades, while on the inside the grotto was excavated more deeply. The exterior, with the fountain intended for public use, thus assumed an almost theatrical role. The interior, hidden in the secrecy of the hill, housed the private world of the patron.
There were numerous inscriptions on the outside, as well as coats of arms, including that of the Medici, which were removed before the property was ceded to the local council. In particular, on the back wall there was a bas-relief depicting the face of the Morgan Le Fay, who, above the plaque, personally addresses some lines to the reader:
Io son quella, o Lettor, fata Morgana,
che giovin qui ringioveniva altrui:
Qui dal Vecchietto, poiché vecchia io fui,
Ringiovenita colla sua fontana.
I am she, O Reader, Morgan le Fay,
who, being young, rejuvenated others.
Here at Vecchietto’s, because I myself was old,
I became younger thanks to his fountain.
Inside the grotto there is still a fountain made of pietra serena, on which the marble bust of Morgan Le Fay once rested. At the back, a little staircase leads up to small private rooms and the gallery. The architecture is generally attributed to Giambologna, but the only thing known for certain is that the statue of Morgan Le Fay was executed by him. The statue was removed from the fountain at the end of the 18th century and unexpectedly resurfaced in 1989 at a Christie’s auction in Wrotham Park, London.
There has been much speculation about the significance of this place, which certainly reflected the experimental tastes and tendencies of the ruling class of the time, especially Grand Duke Francesco I, who was known for his alchemical interests. The iconography of Morgan and the inscriptions associated with her may have referred to the cycle of life, just as the vigorous architectural play may have been aimed at exalting the material itself, which at that time was subject not only to artistic but also alchemical experimentation. Indeed, Vecchietti exploited the spring, necessary for the evocative effects devised for his grotto, with that Mannerist tendency to subjugate nature to science, inserting his mysterious nymphaeum in the Florentine countryside.