The statue-filled park behind the Pitti Palace is one of the earliest and finest Renaissance gardens, laid out mostly between 1549 and 1656 with box hedges in geometric patterns, groves of ilex (holm oak), dozens of statues, and rows of cypress. Just above the entrance through the courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti is an oblong amphitheater modeled on Roman circuses, with a granite basin from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla and an Egyptian obelisk of Ramses II. In 1589 this was the setting for the wedding reception of Ferdinando de’ Medici’s marriage to Christine of Lorraine. For the occasion, the Medici commissioned entertainment from Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini, who decided to set a classical story entirely to music and called it “Dafne”—the world’s first opera. (Later, they wrote a follow-up hit “Erudice,” performed here in 1600; it’s the first opera whose score has survived.)
Toward the south end of the park is the Isolotto ★, a dreamy island marooned in a pond full of huge goldfish, with Giambologna’s “L’Oceano” sculptural composition at its center. At the north end, down around the end of the Pitti Palace, are some fake caverns filled with statuary, attempting to invoke a classical sacred grotto. The most famous, the Grotta Grande, was designed by Giorgio Vasari, Bartolomeo Ammannati, and Bernardo Buontalenti between 1557 and 1593, dripping with phony stalactites and set with replicas of Michelangelo’s unfinished “Prisoners” statues. You can usually get inside on the hour (but not every hour, and not at all on Mon) for 15 minutes.