A Journey into Life and Death - The Torrigiani Garden
If you ever make it to Florence (Italy) the odds are high you'll be leaving without even having heard about this magical place. And yet walking along all the famous sights of this beautiful ancient city, you are never really more than a mile apart from this hidden gem. Standing on many of the towers and balconies of cupolas of the old town, you might even see it in the distance. And yet you won't see it, like I did not for many years. I must have visited Florence more than a dozen times from childhood until today. And it was only on our recent trip earlier this year that a local friend of ours pulled my attention to what I had been missing all along.
Now this is a rather long entry for a blogpost. So forgive me - and of course skip over the story I have to tell and be amazed by the beauty of the images alone if you prefer. But I promise if you do follow through, you might be learning a thing or two about the cross-section of of ritual magic and landscape architecture. And of course you might change your holiday plans for 2017 - and plan a trip to Florence. That is the magic of the Torrigiani Garden.
May the serpent bite its tail.
The Exoteric Story
Strangely, albeit little known by most, the Torrigiani Garden is the largest privately owned garden within a historic European city centre. It is also still owned by the very family who created this garden in the early 19th century. The story goes that the Marquis Pietro Torrigiani, who inherited the Torrigiani villa and gardens, had spent time at the court of Napoleon and during that visit had fallen in love with the complex landscape architecture so en vogue at the time. Upon his return to Florence he commissioned the famous landscape architect Luigi de Cambray Digny to transform his own garden into an esoteric landscape adhering to the English style.
Digny set out to cleverly combine existing natural features of the twenty-five acres of land - such as the remains of the original city walls built under Cosimo I dei Medici in 1544 - with artificially constructed ones specifically fit for the purpose of his new creation. His work was supported through the fact that the original Torrigiani garden already at that time hosted the first Italian botanical society founded in 1716 and thus had open access to rare and exotic trees and plants.
Following Digny's death the construction of the garden was taken over by the architect-engineer Gaetano Baccani who had recently designed the famous bell-tower of the Florentine Basilica di Santa Croce. Baccani significantly extended the vision of Digny, commissioned the demolition of several houses on the Torrigiani premise and used the debris of these buildings to errect an artificial hill in the centre of the garden. On top of this hill he errected an almost twenty-two metre high neo-gothic tower - the signature piece of the newly created garden that would acquire much esoteric fame in the coming centuries.
This bell-tower housed a secret athanor in its base, hidden deep inside the artificial hill, a library, a collection of astronomical instruments and a terrace from which to study the heaves. A spiral staircase connected the different floors and a mechnical chair activated by pulleys permitted speedy ascent to its top. Architecture didn't get more modern than that in the early 1800s - and yet Torrigiani and his architect Baccani made it serve the most ancient spiritual purposes.
Today the garden is closed to the public, yet private tours can be inquired with the Torrigiani family directly and they will personally guide visitors through their amazing secret gardens.
Walking through this secluded landscape is one of the most special experiences I have made in a very long time. Upon entering the lush and incredibly well maintained gardens one steps into a completely different world. The busy street-life of Florence falls behind, the sound of cars and scooters is replaced with the calls of birds and the calm sound of one's step on the gravel path, while one's vista opens to a truly magical garden filled with a wealth of old exotic plants.
One walks in the shade of huge ancient cedars (Cedrus Libani, Atlantica and Deodora) along the winding paths guarded by oaks, a giant yew tree, horse chestnut, cypress, magnolia, plane trees and a great and rare Fagus Tricolor - one of the most delicate to maintain beech trees whose leaves in direct sunlight create the rare effect of shining in three distinct colors (white, green and pink).
However, as with any living mystery the thing that strikes the eye first and with such breath-taking beauty often is a well-planned diversion. The Torrigiani garden is no exception from this rule. That is why it was such a rare pleasure walking its winding paths together with Mr. Vieri Torrigiani and rediscovering some of the hidden story of this secluded place.
The Esoteric Story
To understand the mysteries this garden invites us to explore we should first familiarise us with its map. The trouble is that no accurate map of its original layout and - more importantly - intended walking routes survived until today. When Vieri Torrigiani took over the gardens from his ancestors he found fallen over stone hands scattered throughout which once had pointed the way. Even the later addition of a Neo-Egyptian statue, holding tablets with vistor-instructions on how to behave in the gardens has now found a new home on the East-side of the large estate.
So while the garden itself is perfectly maintained today, several of its original significant features have been altered or disappeared - such as a complex and completely artificially constructed underground river. This is why for this particular walk or until you'll visit yourself, you will need to trust and follow me. I'll be taking you through the garden on the route that Mr.Vieri and I discussed as the most likely one to be the originally intended. Here is a map of the journey we will be travelling together:
(1) The Gate
The secret Torrigiani Garden is surrounded by ancient brick walls of differing heights. At no place are these walls lower than say nine feet and at some they are as high as approximately 26 feet. Nobody is able to look into this garden from the outside.
On its Northern wall a large gate stands in between the walls. To either side of this gate we find broad, stately pillars. On top of each of these we see the taken off armour, shield and helmet of soldiers. They are arranged in a way that the empty helmets are both looking inwards and outwards of the gardens. Standing below this gate, looking up to the armour made from stone the visitor feels dwarfed by the sight. And that is precisely the effect the architect intended: To cross this threshold one needs to show courage. The courage to don one's armour upon passing into the garden, a place that shall only be accessed naked and vulnerable as a true human, not under the disguise or in the uniform we wear in our everyday lives.
(2) The Wheel of Life
Upon passing through the Gate we step away from the narrow, city streets and enter a large open space flooded by sunlight. Here the garden is arranged in the shape of a huge wheel with four spokes. Each spoke - is emphasised by walking corridors made from low hedges. Walking around the entire wheel the visitor passes by the old statues representing the four seasons which the four spokes are representing. In the centre of the wheel, where the four spokes unite we see a large statue, bright and white in the sunlight. A robed man is introducing a naked young boy to the world as both of them are looking out into the East. The man represents the great philosopher Seneca, the young naked man is a metaphor for the founder of the garden, Mr. Torrigiani himself.
Having entered the secret garden, this place invites us to contemplate the earliest stages of life. Youth and discovery, playfulness and patronage. Upon donning our armour of everyday life we are now naked just like the young boy. We have to learn the very basics of life - the tides of time according to the four seasons, its fourfold dimension according to the directions of the sky, and its fourfold powers according to the elements.
In fact this oldest part of the garden was dedicated to amusements and playfulness in real life even. Horse races were held on the large, round gravel path enclosing the wheel made of hedges. Riders would smash clay targets that had been hung from the status of the seasons and women would circle around the wheel in carriages.
This is how we are welcomed to life as children: naked, all exposed to the sun and untrained for the world's demands, hopefully protected and guided by an elder who cares for us, and yet driven by an insatiable thirst for play, discovery and life.
(3) The Gymnasium
As we walk on westwards we are greeted by what once were long tracks, closed off on one end by a spectators' tribune assembled from white stone and a low building on the far end. Following the first stage of the garden of playful discovery, here we are introduced to a more disciplined approach to learning the essential skills of life.
This was a place for deliberate training of the human body and mind. Adolescents would change their clothes in the gymnasium, and emerge ready for training. On the long tracks they would learn, train, perform and compete under the watchful eyes of spectators. Here playfulness is beginning to find its balance with a sense of perfection, achievement and competition. Pain also is introduced, yet still in a curated form, as part of one's essential physical training.
Where the body of the young boy was completely vulnerable, lean and unprotected it is in this place where we learn to protect ourselves - not through artificial armour but through the life skills we acquire. It is a place meant to make people ready for life's tougher demands, a liminal place in between the sun-flooded wheel of life to its east and the dark, shadowy forest further on to its southwest. Once emerging from this place of training and shaping ourselves ready to move on, we are no longer children. We have learned to steady our body and mind, to tame our desires, to pay a fair price for anything we aspire and to perform our good work under the eyes of the elders.
(4) The Dark Forest
From here we walk southwest-wards following the incline of a hill and are quickly taken into the thick shadows cast by a forest of huge trees. Here the air turns significantly cooler, the sun is shielded by the crowns of the trees high up and our view is blocked by trunks, twigs, leaves and darker hedges. The path is steeper here, it begins to meander, splits and re-unites. Until we find ourselves in front of a large artefact: On a high pedestal stands a large urn or cup carved from stone. Around it a snake is coiling its perfect body.
In this third stage of the secret garden we are confronted with the darker sides of life as we encounter them in adulthood. Life is turning more complex, the sun can seem a distant memory and even the sight of our own path is easily lost amongst the many branches. Then, suddenly, we are confronted with the heart of the matter: Pandora's cup.
It's a truth that takes a lot of unravelling: we don't get to drink from the chalice of life without also drinking from Pandora's cup. They are one and the same, two sides of one coin - symbolised by the snake coiling around the large stone chalice. Its venom is both remedy and poison - depending on how well we learn to handle these powerful forces of life.
A single low stool and chair, both of them unadorned and carved from raw stone, are facing the serpent cup from a distance. They invite us to not walk away from an experience that may seem threatening or fearful. They invite us to rest and stay and with our gaze fixed firmly on Pandora's cup to meditate on our current experience. Why are we here and why is this happening to us? Should we have drunken more or less of the poisonous chalice - or maybe not touched it all? If we walk on, south from here, will we get back into the light or will life take even darker turns?
This is the place where courage is tested. The place where we apply, refine and master the foundational life-skills we were taught in a safe and curated environment earlier. This is where we are turned into adults - at whatever age our physical bodies may be. Some of us get here early on, others maybe never or only on their death-bed.
Some have called this stage in life 'the dark night of the soul'. It is important to remember we are never alone. The serpent on the cup is here with us. And so are the trees. We can hear the wind high up in their crowns and we can smell the warm earth and the sweet scent of pines. Even if the sun is nowhere to be seen, life still surrounds us. And if we quiet our panic and pain, we can still feel and see and smell it all around us. Everything is always present. This is the place where we make our choices in darkness.
Of course there is another interpretation of the serpent cup. Instead of reading it as the cup of Pandora, one could read it as a version of the ancient Gnostic egg. Here the serpent coils around an unbroken egg - and symbolises the powerful forces that breed life itself. It is from that very egg, the myth tells us, that the primordial first god Phanes (Latin, manifestor or revealer) is born. Phanes also is called the seed of gods and men. — A powerful reminder that from the darkest places a new light is born. And no one being gets to travel from one life into another to cross the threshold of death.
(5) The Crypt
Following the path down the hill on the other side, we arrive at the edge of the ancient battlement built by Cosimo di Medici. Here, at the edge of the tall wall made from huge stones, a crypt awaits us. Walking towards it we pass by eight empty pedestals. As Mr.Torrigiani confirmed, once these bases contained busts or statues - but of which men or god is unknown today. Walking past them though, approaching the low portal of the crypt, we can still feel their eyes on us.
Today the crypt is locked by a strong steel gate, which Mr.Torrigiani kindly opened for us.
The layout of the crypt as powerful as simple: to its left and right the practitioner is greeted by portals in the Neo-Egyptian style. The gate to the left is crowned by a four-armed Patonce-cross on its stone wall. The gate to the right is open and disappears into darkness. A huge altar is placed towards the back wall, adorned with angels carrying a braided crown and the lion as the family emblem of the Torrigiani’s in its centre. The roof of the room is formed by a dark-blue perfectly round cupola with a round cut-out opening in its middle. The dome creates the illusion of the night-sky with golden stars still shining from the walling that has already heavily come undone. Towards the entrance the cupola merges into a broad stone arc. Here we don’t find the symbolic night-stars, but instead a geometric pattern of painted, three-dimensional bee-hives. Finally, in the back, to the left and right of the altar, round niches can found. Places originally designed to hold the urns of the deceased.
Mr.Torrigiani confirmed that here in this most secluded place of the garden secret gatherings and rituals once were held. Of what kind and by whom and with which intent his family had forgotten. And yet he did confirm that the main intent of this place was to house the bones and ashes of the builder of the garden, Marquis Pietro Torrigiani. While local authorities never allowed for it to be used as a vault, we can still begin to understand the amazing spiritual apparatus its creator had in mind: after a life’s journey the traveller arrived in this crypt, their place of dying. In the cold, mouldy air an open coffin would rest underneath the dome. Silently the traveller would lay down, cross their arms and keep their gazed fixed on the round opening right above them, the painted night-stars illuminated by torches shimmering in the periphery of their sight. So this was the end. Or was it? To find out, we have to travel on through this magical garden.
(6) The Tower
We emerge back from the dark crypt, pass by the eight empty bases again and walk off the path to the left over a green meadow along the majestic ancient battlement. After a few minutes, to our left, set back deep into the base of the huge wall, we see another portal. A crevice is cutting into the base of the hill, its rising walls reaching up and becoming one with the foundations of the famous Torrigiani tower. Nothing speaks to what is found behind this gate - except for an alchemical emblem carved into stone: two massive spheres at the base of the portal, crowned each by a fiery flame emerging from their tops.
As expected this tower is the most powerful magical device found in this garden. The masterpiece of the its father in spirit, Pietro Torrigiani and the architect who executed it, Gaetano Baccani. Here is its design in a nutshell (you can also refer to the architectural drawings in the photo section below): The fundaments of the tower were hidden deep inside the base of the hill. The hidden gate we are standing in front can only be found if one leaves the paved paths of the garden and walks around the entire base of the hill. Through it, one would have been able to access a secret alchemical laboratory, housing a large athanor with its never ending, constant flame of transformation. The next higher floor, so the first floor of the tower is held by a square frame with four smaller, symbolic towers rounding off each corner. The second, slightly smaller floor is square as well, leading into the third level which is octagonal in shape. The last and fourth floor takes the shape of a round tower itself, encircled by a stairwell leading up to its top.
Now there are many stories to be found about this tower. About the library and the astronomical devices originally hosted in it, about the private observatory, the first of its kind, looking out above the vast garden, as well as about the actual elevator - a masterpiece of engineering at its time - lifting its owner as if by secret hand from the second to the third floor, as close to the night-sky as it got. And yet all these amazing features designed into this tower, fail to acknowledge its essential spiritual purpose that the builder had in mind when designing it.
— Remember we were lying on our deathbed in the crypt, our gaze firmly fixed on the night sky above us. Imagine now death arrived, in ritual or reality. Eyes turn pale, breath recedes and our soul is released. But to our surprise - it does not ascent up into the night-sky. Instead it is pulled into the darkness of the portal to our left. Here we travel on through darkness, as an actual underground tunnel connects the crypt all the way to the secret alchemical laboratory in the base of the tower. And our soul emerges, right in the fires of the alchemical athanor. From death-bed to self-designed purgatory - this must be the shortest route any soul ever took? And so before our soul even left this physical world altogether, it is forced into a finely crafted, final process of sublimation. The heat of the athanor forces it through the phases of the great work - only to emerge in a different light - and to ascent further up through the different symbolic phases of the tower. The elemental phase of its square base, the celestial phase of the octagonal frame and finally the perfected round phase in its highest level. Then we are free. Then we reach for the stars.
Well, in our raw physical bodies the actual journey through this magical garden isn’t finished just yet. But this article is already too long for most readers to have patience for. So I’ll spare you the details of how we walk on from the hidden base of the tower which we now understand as the land of death. Of how we emerge at the back of a bridge over the river of death which we now understand as the passing back into life. And of how we finally arrive at the open dome where the lion slays the bull of Mithras.
If you have read the post about the stunning archeological site of Aquileia you have come across an example of how important the act of ambulating was to the spiritual practice of our Western ancestors. Different to the techniques developed amongst our Eastern ancestors achieving a quiet single-minded spiritual state wasn’t built from the basis of sitting down and surprising all bodily sensations. Quite the opposite. Many examples exist in the West where the body with all its rich sensual stimuli was used as a vehicle to blend one’s mind into the world, to become one with it. Rather than pivoting one’s spiritual experience on the premise of putting one’s outer senses to sleep, our Western gnostic forefathers pursued the opposite path: they placed the mirror of the soul in the outside world, shining bright and open to attract one’s senses and to fully immerse oneself into it. And once one’s senses were fully absorbed by the richness of imagery, symbols, allegories, by the scent of exotic plants and flowers and the contrast of shadow and light, one’s mind would be liberated just as much.
Here is what we have to understand: What holds us back from experiencing true gnosis more easily are all the things we believe to know already - and the constantly running, automated process by which our unconscious mind interprets any new sensual stimuli as a confirmation of existing data. That is what strips all newness, all child-like curiosity, all mystery and even erotism from the world. It’s our unconscious mind’s ability to be first to the sensual data that arrives in our brain - and the automated process by which it dissects it into components that fit into existing drawers and labels. That chattering, rattling process is what made evolution possible by constantly reducing risks and unknowns in our experience of the world. It is a safety-creation mechanism. And it is also the lock that keeps the door to true gnosis tightly shut; unless we find ways to disable it temporarily.
To do this, that automated process has to be interrupted. And there are two essential and ancient ways of doing this: Either to stop any new intake of sensual data and to allow one’s mind to go completely quiet, or to fully overwhelm our mind’s ability to process the rich intake of the unfamiliar. The former path today is preserved in the teachings and techniques of Zen and many modern Buddhist schools. The latter path once had its masters living in the West - and now has almost been entirely forgotten.
So should you ever find the chance to enter the Torrigiani Garden for your own spiritual journey remember this: all its richness and beauty has been created for our minds to loose themselves in it. It is a garden erected for ambulating in our minds just as much as in our physical bodies. And both paths follow an intricate and very deliberate path - one that leads us all the way through life, from childhood to adulthood, into death and out on the other side again. Here is a mystical map turned into a magical garden.