The Gardens, behind the Pitti Palace, the main seat of the Medici grand dukes of Tuscany at Florence, is one of the most familiar formal 16th century Italian gardens. The mid-16th century garden style incorporated longer axial developments, wide gravel avenues, a considerable "built" element of stone, the lavish employment of statuary and fountains, a proliferation of detail in semi-private and public spaces that were informed by classical accents: grottos, nympheums, garden temples and the like. The openness of the garden, with an expansive view of the city, was unconventional for its time.
The Boboli Gardens were laid out for Eleanora of Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I de' Medici. The first stage was scarcely begun by Niccolo Tribolo, who died in 1550, then was continued by Bartolommeo Ammannati, with contributions in planning from Giorgio Vasari, who laid out grottos, and in sculpture by Bernardo Buontalenti. The elaborate architecture of the Grotto in the courtyard that separates the palace from its garden is by Buontalenti.
The primary axis, centered on the rear facade of the palace, rises on Boboli Hill from a deep amphitheater that is reminiscent in its shape of one half of a classical hippodrome or racecourse. At the center of the amphitheater and rather dwarfed by its position is the Egyptian obelisk brought from the Villa Medici at Rome. This primary axis terminates in a fountain of Neptune (known to the irreverent Florentines as the "Fountain of the Fork" for Neptune's trident), with the sculpture by Stoldo Lorenzi visible against the skyline. At the top are the panoramic views of Florence. A long secondary axis at a right angle to the main one leads down through a series of terraces and water features.
The gardens have passed through several stages of enlargement and restructuring work. They were enlarged in the 17th century to their present extent of 45000 square meters. The Boboli Gardens have come to form an outdoor museum of garden sculpture that includes Roman antiquities as well as 16th and 17th century works.
In the first phase of building, the amphitheatre was excavated in the hillside behind the palace. Initially formed by clipped edges and greens, it was later formalized by rebuilding in stone decorated with statues based on Roman myths such as the Fountain of the Ocean sculpted by Giambologna, then transferred to another location within the same garden. The small Grotto of Madama, and the Large Grotto, was begun by Vasari and completed by Ammannati and Buontalenti between 1583 and 1593.
Despite the fact that it is currently undergoing restoration work, the Large Grotto's statues continue to be remarkable examples of Mannerist architecture and culture. Decorated internally and externally with stalactites and originally equipped with waterworks and luxuriant vegetation, the fountain is divided into three main sections. The first one was frescoed to create the illusion of a natural grotto, that is a natural refuge to allow shepherds to protect themselves from wild animals, and originally housed The Prisoners of Michelangelo (now replaced by copies), statues first intended for the tomb of Medici Pope Julius II. Other rooms in the Grotto contain Giambologna's famous Bathing Venus and an 18th-century group of Paris and Helen by Vincenzo de Rossi.