As my Florence trip continued , I met up with my friend Irmy, whom I met in London in 2007. She was the site coordinator for a Study Abroad program there, and immediately adopted my friend, Barbara, and me, helping us cope with dozens other students less than twenty years of age (younger than our own children), most of whom had never lived away from their parents. She invited us to her home in Jesi for a visit during our spring break, near where she taught languages in Ancona, a major Adriatic seaport. Since that time, Barbara, Irmy and I have connected in both Italy and in San Diego, where she supervises other Study Abroad programs for European students during her own summer school vacation.
I left Anne’s house to meet Irmy in Piazza Repubblica, one of the principal piazzas of Florence, where we took advantage of a “happy hour” offering of a €5 glass of wine, accompanied by an endless buffet of antipasti (our “no stress, no cook” dinner). We crossed the Trinita’ Bridge over the Arno, just after the sun had set, and I took advantage of the great light for a photo from the bridge. Across the river, Irmy stopped for a gelato, and then we were soon on the bus and heading for Irmy’s apartment for the night.
The next morning, after a quick espresso and croissant at a bar on her usual route, Irmy took me to her school nearby, only a five-minute walk from her apartment and not far from the Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking the city of Florence. It was a Saturday morning, without any students present, and Irmy made the excuse to the front desk guard that she had forgotten something in her classroom, and then took me through a breathtaking series of hallways and grand rooms.
The “Villa Medicea del Poggio Imperiale,” the site of Irmy’s school and a designated UNESCO “World Heritage Site,” comes with a very impressive history. It was built in the 1400s, owned by a Florentine noble family and later seized by Cosimo de’ Medici, who gave the Villa to his daughter, Isabella de’ Medici. After her murder by her husband, the property was sold to Archduchess Maria Maddalena of Austria, wife of the future Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici II. She and Cosimo II enlarged the Villa, connected it to the Arno River and Florence with a wide, tree-lined avenue, and gave the villa its “imperial hill” title, the “Villa del Poggio Imperiale,” since Maria Maddalena was the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II.
Following the death of Cosimo II, the upkeep of the Villa del Poggio Imperiale and the Medici family’s nearby Palazzo Pitti nearly depleted the family finances, and Ferdinand II acquired the estate, further embellishing and enlarging the Villa. After the Medici reign, the House of Habsburg-Lorraine brought the villa to prominence, occupied as a secondary home by Leopold II and a succession of Grand Dukes and the King of Sardinia. When the last Grand Duke, Leopold II, was replaced by a constitutional republic in 1860, Italy joined Sardinia under King Victor Emmanuel II, and the villa became unnecessary, especially so close to the royal Palazzo Pitti. An exclusive girls’ school for the daughters of Florentine nobility was moved to the Villa in 1865, and in 2004 the school was granted free use of the estate in perpetuity.
I found the dining hall particularly impressive, and it was difficult for me to imagine high school students there surrounded by lush trompe l’oeil frescoes and carved marble decorations on nearly every surface of the room. We were welcomed by one of the kitchen workers, who invited us to look around and encouraged me to take photos.
Heading back to the front desk, Irmy made several inquiries to see if she would be allowed to show me the “Sala Bianca,” the “white room” on the second floor. Finally, granted official clearance to go upstairs, I understood why Irmy had been so persistent—it was a stunning, all-white ballroom, with an enormous crystal chandelier. After taking me around for a few minutes there, we were on the way back to Irmy’s apartment nearby, and our visit together came to an end.
I had NO IDEA that such a splendid historic site was where Irmy works each week, teaching languages in the only unadorned room I saw on my visit (there are probably many more like it, but I was only shown her classroom). What a wonderful surprise it was to see the Villa on a quiet Saturday morning, with Irmy as my guide. I’ll never forget the splendor I saw there, and cannot help but think that the students are probably so accustomed to the sights I saw for the first time that they hardly recognize the stunning art and rich history of a villa where they go to school every day.