The English Travels of Cosimo III

Apologies to regular readers for the false alarm about a post yesterday. I’m afraid there was a slip of the editorial finger when instead of saving the draft of next week’s piece I hit “publish”. It happens even to the best of us but you should have known it wasn’t Saturday morning!

Between 1667 and 1669 Cosimo de Medici,  the 26 year old heir to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, went on two long trips around Western Europe, which included a three month stay in England.   Arriving in Plymouth he travelled by carriage to London calling at  places of interest  on the way, and later visiting several other towns including Cambridge and Oxford.   Despite pretending to travel incognito he had a large retinue, including an artist to record the places he visited and a leading young Florentine scholar,  Count Lorenzo Magalotti, who acted as secretary and wrote an account of his journeys.

Now  in the Laurentian Library in Florence  the manuscript  relating to the trip to England became a popular port of call for the more erudite English visitor on the Grand Tour in the 18thc. As a result 200 years ago in 1821 it was translated into English and published. Copies of the illustrations were made by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and these  are now in the British Library.  While some parts of Magalotti’s journal are mundane others make fascinating reading and gives an extremely rare narrative insight into the everyday life of the post-Restoration court circle, and well as giving first-hand account of several gardens while  making occasional comaprisons with Italian ones.


Cosimo was to be the penultimate Grand Duke of Tuscany, succeeding his father in 1670, just a few months after on his return from England, and reigning until 1723. During his extraordinarily lengthy 53 year  reign  the Florence economy, already nearly bankrupt at his accesion, collapsed along with its political and military power to an all time low.  Hardly prepossessing in the first place he was bought up by his mother to be an extremely pious, and towards the end of his life, moralistic and dogmatic,  Catholic. He was melancholic and rarely seen to smile in public.



A disastrous dynastic marriage to an extravagant French princess  Marguerite Louise d’ Orleans  was what led his father Grand Duke Ferdinando to send Cosimo on these long journeys  in the hope of distracting him and also perhaps to allow him to indulge his passion for art.

The first trip took him first into Austria in  October 1667 with an entourage of  18 people and 14 carriages, accompanied by six cooks and his secretary. From there they took  a barge which sailed down the down the Rhine to Amsterdam, where he bought paintings and met Rembrandt.  He also visited the Botanic gardens at Leiden.

Cosimo travelled on to Hamburg, where he met  Queen Christina of Sweden before returning  to Florence the following  May.

However Magalotti did not accompany him and instead went to London where he was introduced to members of the Royal Society, including Robert Hooke, Henry Oldenburg, Robert Boyle and IsaacNewton.  He stayed in touch with many of them and in 1709 was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.



No sooner had Cosimo got home than hostilities with his wife  resumed and in a matter of months he went travelling again,  this time taking 27 in his entourage, including Magalotti. The party  sailed from Livorno [then Leghorn to the English] to Barcelona in September 1668 and travelled around Spain for several months before crossing into Portugal. In March 1669 the party embarked  at La Corunna  on an English ship, the Portland,  and headed for London.  This was probably arranged by Sir Robert Southwell, the English minister in Portugal, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society and was to go on to be President in 1690. He  had also travelled extensively in Europe and  had met  Magalotti who had been to London before.

Arriving at  Plymouth  the Tuscans took carriages to Exeter, being met and welcomed en route by all the local gentry. This was to be the pattern for their whole stay as all their theoretical attempts to be incognito were effectively ignored.

On the 9th April they reached Hinton St George  the seat of the Poulett family where “His highness amused himself in the morning with riding in the park, and in the afternoon with walking in the garden.”

Hinton House had been rebuilt in the early-16th century and Magaolotti described it “an ancient irregular building, …of a noble appearance, good, and spacious.” He also includes a description of the extensive gardens “both for utility and pleasure. One of them contains every kind both of culinary vegetables and fruit that grows in this climate : in the other there is a parterre very different from the common style of English gardens ; these are, usually, walks of sand, made perfectly level, by rolling them with a stone cylinder, through the axis of which a lever of iron is passed, whose ends being brought forward, and united together in form of a triangle, serve to move it backwards or forwards; and between the walks are smooth grass-plats covered with the greenest turf, without any other ornament. This of my Lord Paulet is a meadow divided into several compartments of brick-work, which are filled with flowers. Round the house is the park, three miles in circumference, surrounded by a thick row of trees, between each of which is a terrace of turf; and where the trees begin to shoot out branches; these, intertwined together, form, along with the earth of the terraces, a fence of the strongest description.” There was also a large deer park with upwards of  600 red and black deer, one hundred of which are hunted every year. “Near the house is a wood for pheasants, with its walks cut with the greatest exactness, which greatly enhances its pleasantness.”

They did not take a direct route from there to London.  Instead they turned south visiting Maiden Castle on the way to Dorchester before  turning north again to visit Stonehenge and Wilton, the seat of the Earl of Pembroke.

There “his highness went down into the garden, and entertained himself a long time in conversation with the earl alone; and as it was nearly sun-set, he walked about the garden, through the centre of which flows a river called the Nadder, which passes under a bridge on a level with the ground, and produces trout in abundance. His highness went to see the grotto, rough-cast with pumice stone and cockle shells; several fountains that play in different ways;  some rooms newly built, as well for pleasure as  for the convenience of a foundry; and the maze park.”

From Wilton it was off to Basingstoke, where “his highness …walked on foot through the town, which is wretched…so that the gratification of his curiosity did not compensate for the fatigue of walking even a few paces.”

The next major stop was  Syon House  which for some strange reason was not drawn.  Nevertheless “within the circuit of the exterior walls, is inclosed a very large meadow which serves as a court; the parterres and pleasure grounds, after the English manner, are not wanting, and extend as far as the Thames, which has the appearance of a canal running through the gardens. The modern building is new and not yet finished; on the roof there is a very fine walk, covered with plates of lead.”

By this time Cosimo had attracted a large number of attendants who had come to pay their respects, including members of the court, local dignitaries, Italian merchants based in London, as well several other “curious” on-lookers.  Reverting to his plan to enter  the capital “quite incog…. he desired all these gentlemen to set out before him for London, which they accordingly did.”  However, as he himself was leaving another  host of courtiers arrived in two royal carriages with an offer from Queen Henrietta Maria for him to stay at Somerset House. He declined in order to preserve “his incog” but nonetheless as he arrived in London “a numerous crowd of people were assembled, on foot, in carriages, and on horseback to see him pass” on his way to stay with Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans in St James’s.

From there he began to explore the city. His first outing was to  the queen’s chapel at St James Palace, and then the park which was “enclosed on every side by a wall, and containing a long, straight, and spacious walk, intended for the amusement of the Mall, on each side of which grow large elms, whose shade render the promenade in that place, in summer, infinitely pleasant and agreeable; close to it is a canal of nearly the same length, on which are several species of aquatic birds, brought up and rendered domestic — the work of the Protector Cromwell; the rest of the park is left uncultivated, and forms a wood for the retreat of deer and other quadrupeds.”

There is an interesting account too of the social parade known as “The Tour” or “The Ring”,  in Hyde Park where Cosimo goes to meet the Duke of Ormonde, the Viceroy of Ireland.  He “waited upon the duke, and then walked in Hyde Park, where were the king and queen. His highness went in a carriage and pair, that he might avoid, by this delicate caution, every appearance of publicity. Hyde Park is a large and spacious meadow, in which many carriages of ladies and gentlemen assemble in the evening, to enjoy the agreeableness of the place; which, however, was greatly diminished by the Protector Cromwell, who, in order to render the vicinity of London more open, cut down the elms which were planted there in rows. The king and queen are often there, and the duke and duchess, towards whom, at the first meeting, and no more, all persons shew the usual marks of respect, which are afterwards omitted, although they should chance to meet again ever so often, every one being at full liberty, and under no restraint whatever; and to prevent the confusion and disorder, which might arise from the great number of lackies and footmen, these are not permitted to enter Hyde Park, but stop at the gate waiting for their masters.”

Cosimo spent three months in London  attending court and often meeting the royal family. They met artists including Samuel Cooper who painted his portrait, and  John Michael Wright from whom he bought pictures.

He and Magalotti also met members of the Royal Society and other intellectuals including Isaac Newton, Samuel Morland and Samuel Pepys who described him  as “a very jolly and good comely man.”

Charles II invited  Cosimo to the races at Newmarket, and on the way the Tuscan party stopped at Audley End arriving  by “a spacious avenue, planted with elms of considerable height, which terminated at the mansion.”

“The entrance is into a quadrangular court, whose sides are surrounded by porticoes of stone, which, extending with perfect regularity to the distance of several bowshots, inclose a large meadow.” After a description of the interior Magalotti goes on: “Upon the roof is a gallery, in the midst of which rises a small cupola, containing a clock, the sound of which proclaims to a great distance, the magnificence of this vast fabric; and from the top of this is an infinitely diversified prospect of gardens, meadows, hills, woods and vallies, which appear at different distances in the most beautiful points of view. The king is so much delighted with this place, that he is in treaty with the earl for the purchase of it, and they say that some time ago the price was agreed upon, but as it was not paid, the earl still retains possession.” Charles did eventually pay, £50,000 for the house but it was returned to the Howard family in 1701.

After Newmarket they visited Cambridge where “the ancient buildings are not much to be admired” and then Northampton before turning south again.

They took  “a view” of “the royal villa of Holdenby, a square palace, situated on the highest part of an eminence”…

which stood in “country, for the most part uncultivated, abounding in weeds, which surround [it] on every side… It was almost destroyed by the Parliamentarians in the time of Cromwell, but was restored by King Charles the Second, and given to my Lord Arlington, and afterwards sold by him to the Duke of York.”


Next  it was “the villa of Althorp” which  had just been rebuilt 1666-8 for the 2nd Earl of Sunderland.  After meeting the earl Cosimo “went down into the garden, in which, except some ingenious divisions, parterres, and well-arranged rows of trees, there is little to be seen that is rare or curious; as it is not laid out and diversified with those shady walks, canopied with verdure, which add to the pleasantness of the gardens of Italy and France, but of which the nature and usage of this country would not admit.”

Next was Oxford where after touring the university with all the dignitaries,  Cosimo visited the Botanic Garden where they met “the keeper of the garden an elderly man of a fine countenance, and a perfect botanist,” presumably Jacob Bobart the elder,  who showed  “plants of the greatest rarity…  being all noted down and described in a printed sheet of paper.”  However they were not impressed  because “from the smallness of its size, irregularity, and bad cultivation [it] scarcely deserves to be seen.”

On that rather scathing note they decide to return to London .

During the rest of his stay Cosimo regularly went on carriage outings around the city and visits gardens which Magalotti records.

These included Clarendon House on Piccadilly, the newly built grand townhouse of the disgraced Lord chancellor, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon.   They toured the mansion  where “From the inner part you descend into the garden, surrounded, in its whole extent, by walls, which support flourishing espaliers, formed of various fruit-trees; these render the view very agreeable, although the garden has no other ornament, than compartments of earth filled with low and beautiful parterres and spacious walks; over which, in order to keep them smooth and level, they roll certain heavy cylindrical stones, to keep the grass down.”

Another day saw them visit Lambeth Palace which  “contains, besides a commodious but ill-arranged habitation for the archbishop, an extensive library,… and a garden sufficiently pleasant, though not of extraordinary beauty.”  From there “his highness went to see sundry gardens, in which, as is generally the case in England, if we except the disposition and arrangement of the parterres, there is little to be admired, as they cannot preserve from the rigour of the climate those trees which add so much to the beauty of the Italian gardens.”

Next it was the turn of Whitehall which was  was described as “mean” and the gallery “alongside the king’s chamber…, is entirely naked, all its treasures consisting of a prospect of a beautiful meadow, laid out like a garden, planted with trees and beautiful hedges of roses, and having four rows of statues in the middle, part of which are of bronze and standing, part of white marble, and, for the most part, in a sitting posture. In the centre, which is surrounded by the statues, there rises a certain structure encircled by iron rails, composed of many and different kinds of dials of various shapes, so that there are always more than one of them that shew the sun’s shadow.”

Finally there was an invitation to see a deer hunt at Hampton Court with Prince Rupert which led to a garden tour as well. “The gardens  are admirably laid out. They are divided into very large, level, and well- kept walks, which, separating the ground into diff’erent compartments, form artificial parterres of grass, being themselves formed by espalier trees, partly such as bear fruit, and partly ornamental ones, but all adding to the beauty of the appearance. This beauty is further augmented by fountains, made of slate after the Italian style, and distributed in different parts of the garden, whose jets d’eaux throw up the water in various playful and fanciful ways. There are also in the gardens some snug places of retirement in certain towers, formerly intended as places of accommodation for the king’s mistresses…

detail from Abram Booth’s View of Hampton Court c1630-40. Image from The Gardens and Parks at Hmopton Court Palace, by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan [2005]

Cosimo III by Torricelli c1680-90 V&A

The park  is of considerable size, both in length and breadth, enclosing large meadows, where the preserved deer feed. To vary the delights of these beautiful premises, several canals or ponds are distributed in different parts of the park, in whose trans- parent waters quantities of fish are seen sporting, which are reserved for the diversion of angling.”

The Grand Tour in reverse finished in June and the Tuscans made their way through Essex to Harwich where they took a ship to Rotterdam, arriving  back in Florence on 1 November 1669.   As far as I’m aware Cosimo never left Tuscany again.  



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1 Response to The English Travels of Cosimo III

  1. Caroline Holmes says:

    Harold Acton’s The Last Medici is one of the most depressing reads, Cosimo III encapsulates the having everything and nothing scenario, these garden visits are something of an antidote. If a portrait can be said to draw out the character of its sitter, just compare his with the Bronzino in the Ashmolean Museum of his ancestor Giovanni, second son of Cosimo I and Elenora of Toledo. How the mighty are fallen …

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