Allison Levy was the recipient of a 2015 IAS Research & Publication Grant, which she used to travel to Florence as part of her work on her current book project, Misfits, Monstrosities, and Madness at the Villa Ambrogiana. The majority of her five-week trip was spent in the Archivio di Stato, paying particular attention to 16th – 19th century inventories of the Villa Ambrogiana in Montelupo.

Levy tells us more about her work:

An imposing though largely ignored villa looms over Montelupo Fiorentino, an idyllic Tuscan hamlet best known for its production during the Renaissance of maiolica, brightly painted tin-glazed earthenware celebrated the world over. Yet ominously punctuating this historic landscape is the fortress-like Villa Ambrogiana, a former Medici hunting compound that also contained a menagerie and a laboratory, which has served without interruption since the mid-nineteenth century as a psychiatric prison. I explore the Ambrogiana as a platform for perverse conquest and experimentation over half a millennium in my book Misfits, Monstrosities, and Madness at the Villa Ambrogiana, which complicates the relationship between the built environment and civilization. Indeed, rethinking the agency of architecture, this project asks how buildings not only affect, or influence, human behavior, but also infect it. The Villa Ambrogiana, located just west of Florence on the road to Pisa, sits at the confluence of the Arno and Pesa rivers. Subject to extreme climatic conditions (namely dampness from frequent flooding and “a wind,” wrote the renowned naturalist Francesco Redi in 1673, “[that] blows there and will blow there for all eternity”), the villa itself has always been something of a misfit.

Remarkably, the Villa Ambrogiana has received little scholarly attention, with only a handful of publications, all in Italian, devoted almost exclusively to the design and function of the building during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Misfits, Monstrosities, and Madness will be the first book-length study of the Ambrogiana in English and the first to study the compound from its inception to the present day. Primary sources and material objects range from ducal taxidermy collections to representations by court painter Bartolomeo Bimbi of the animal specimens collected and displayed on-site (including portraits of two-headed animals); from the writings of Francesco Redi, who directed a studio-museum of natural history in the villa’s loggia, to nineteenth- and twentieth-century ‘cures’ for the patient-prisoners of the Ambrogiana. My analysis draws upon an array of critical theory and seminal scholarship on identity, relationships, spaces, and representations. Art and architectural historians will find an introduction to a remarkable body of work that is virtually unknown within the field. Misfits, Monstrosities, and Madness, positing a concept of ‘prisoner of place’ and calling into question the very meaning of the term madhouse, will also foster new ways of thinking about bodies and the built environment, of interest to colleagues working in anthropology (especially environmental anthropology), cultural studies (including animal and monster studies), history, literature, psychology, and the social histories of science and medicine. Thus, reaching across disciplinary and historical boundaries, this project ultimately attends to such timeless and universal concerns as the fluidity of illness, the ethics of experimentation, and the efficacy of incarceration.

Giusto Utens, Villa Ambrogiana, c. 1599; tempera on panel; Villa Medicea della Petraia, Florence

G.B. Piranesi, after Zocchi; La Real Villa dell’Ambrogiana, 1744; etching; British Museum, London

Bartolomeo Bimbi, Flamingo and Wolf, 1717; oil on canvas; Museo della Natura Morta, Poggio a Caiano

Bartolomeo Bimbi, The Dwarf Gabriello Martinez with Two Cranes, 1690; o/c; Museo della Natura Morta, Poggio a Caiano

Bartolomeo Bimbi, Two-Headed Calf, 1719; o/c; Museo della Natura Morta, Poggio a Caiano

Bartolomeo Bimbi, Two-Headed Lamb, 1720; o/c; Museo della Natura Morta, Poggio a Caiano

Ospedale Psichiatrico Giudiziario di Montelupo Fiorentino, exterior view; 2012

Ospedale Psichiatrico Giudiziario di Montelupo Fiorentino, interior view; 2012

The opportunity to compete for travel grants is just one of many benefits available to members of the Italian Art Society. Join us or renew your membership today!  Visit our website for more information on IAS Research & Publication Grants, including a new IAS Dissertation Research Grant and the new Fogliano/Lester Research Grant for projects concerning art and architecture in Italy between ca. 1250 and ca. 1600. Deadline for the 2016 competition is 10 January.

Posted by Anne Leader

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