The solemn, bearded man of the Colosso dell’Appennino sits hunched on the ground, his gaze fixed on the still water. It’s a pose that he has held for more than 400 years, and one that he will keep for many years to come.
Indeed, his story started in 1569 when Italian architect Bernardo Buontalenti began work on an elaborate villa. It was to be the home of Francesco I de’Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and the nobleman hoped that the grand property would impress his mistress, Bianca Capello, a famous beauty of the time.
In fact, the resulting Villa di Pratolino in Vaglia, Italy, became known for its wonderful gardens, which were built in a classic Mannerist style. They included many features designed to delight and entertain guests, such as cooling fountains that sprayed over visitor’s heads and the various other ingenious water-operated machines.
Chief among its most celebrated features, though, was the giant statue known as the Colosso dell’Appennino. And although the villa itself was demolished long ago, this striking sculpture still remains.
What’s more, the incredible ancient statue’s stalactite-coated exterior hides a mysterious network of hidden rooms that few know about today. Indeed, carved out of its back as well as into the mound on which it sits are a series of tunnels and chambers.
A nondescript door located at the rear of the statue is the only clue to the wonders hidden within. In the past, visitors would have climbed through the dark opening and emerged amazed in a magical, grotto-like space.
Certainly, the rooms within the Colossus were designed to add a whole new level of excitement and adventure for visitors to the gardens. The walls were adorned with shells and semi-precious stones, for example, while some of the chambers featured beautiful painted frescoes.
Additionally, there appears to be more to this awe-inspiring statue at every turn. In fact, as well as the obvious, external fountain that spouts water from a serpent’s head, there are two further secret fountains hidden inside.
One of them is dedicated to Thetis, a Greek goddess of the sea. At the time of its construction, this space behind the fountain’s head was originally designed to house a small orchestra, which must have been an incredible spectacle.
Another chamber, meanwhile, features a fireplace and is built into the space behind the Colossus’ head. When a fire was lit, smoke would billow out of the statue’s nostrils and no doubt amaze unsuspecting visitors down below.
For the lucky few able to gain entry into this enchanting wonderland, then, the magic never stopped. Just imagine being in here when an organ powered by water would play music to its guests, surprising them with jets of water.
The entire structure, though, was built in 1580 by the famous Flemish sculptor Giambologna. It is also known as the Appennine Colossus and was constructed from brick and stone on top of vaulted rocks overlooking a small lake. Indeed, it towers over the gardens at 35 feet tall.
Interestingly, the artist Giambologna was one of the Medici family’s most highly regarded assets in the mid-16th century. In fact, he was barred from ever leaving Florence, Italy, and was responsible for creating many of the city’s most famous artworks. But it is the Appennine Colossus that is renowned for being one of his more curious creations.
The statue, for instance, is thought to serve as a visual representation of the complicated relationship between nature and man. Its great size is believed to indicate the colossal importance of that relationship, one that some might say is bigger than reality itself.
Over the centuries, though, the Colossus has seen many changes in the gardens it watches over. Indeed, after Francesco died in 1587, the Villa di Pratolino fell into disrepair.
And by the time the 18th century rolled around many of the gardens’ sculptures were relocated to the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, the villa began to work its charms on the latest generation of aristocracy.
Certainly, the Tuscan Grand Duke Ferdinand III, inspired by its romantically overgrown state, decided to knock down the villa and transform the grounds into an English-style landscape garden. Later, the grounds were sold to the Russian Prince Pavel Demidov, who built the Villa Demidoff di Pratolino out of some of the ruins.
In 2014 the statue reopened to visitors after having been closed for renovations for three years. The stone was cleaned to look as it would have when it was first built and the exterior fountain was restored to working order.
Today, the gardens are owned and operated by the city of Florence and open to visitors from May until September every year. But just how many of the guests who admire the beautiful Colossus have any idea about the secrets that lurk inside?
Unfortunately, guests can no longer venture inside the statue and must content themselves with observing the statue from the outside. But for visitors to Florence wanting to explore somewhere a little different, this gentle giant has plenty to offer.