My name is Maria and this is my grave where I was buried in 1955, the last Demidoff princess.
That name may be familiar to you, especially if you know Bagni Di Lucca where, in 1825, my grandfather, Prince Nicholas, built a hospital for the poor who had come there in search of a cure from the healing thermal waters. The hospital, with its miniature pantheon of a chapel, is still there and now used by the global village.
My family made their fortune from iron and steel. The first Demidoff, Demid Antuf’ev, was a smith from Tula in Russia and invented a gun which was adopted by Tzar Peter the Great for his army and used successfully to ward off a Swedish invasion of Russia. (Tsar Peter’s visit to Woolwich dockyard in London, where he learned how to build effective fighting vessels, also came in useful).
By the nineteenth century our family had become the second richest in Russia after that of the Tsar. If anyone today thinks we simply exploited our country’s serf to build our wealth they are wrong. My forebears did much for health and education in my country, founding several schools and hospitals and giving grants to Moscow university. In addition Prince Nicholas was appointed ambassador to the grand duchy of Tuscany and that’s how my Italian connection began.
My husband, Simon Amabalek Lazarev, became a noted archaeologist but tragically was killed in 1917 in the October revolution, leaving me a childless widow for the remainder of my life.
Our wonderful palace in Florence’s Novoli quarter was badly damaged in the last war and had to wait until 2012 to be restored and converted into flats. Meanwhile, I needed to find a new home and found it in the park of the former Medicean villa at Pratolino.
Of the score of country retreats built by the Great Medici dynasty of Florence Pratolino was the grandest. It was surrounded by formal gardens built along a central axis on which were placed the huge colossus of the Appennines by Giambologna:
The fountain of Jupiter:
And the statue of the river Mugnone.
Francesco Medici, a curious and scholarly person, (rather like my poor Simon), adorned the villa’s parkland with a thousand wonders all centred around the theme of flowing waters. There were fountains which formed watery pergolas, water flowed over the colossus, there was a sequence of ponds which were used as shrimp nurseries, a lake of lilies and, underneath the villa itself, a maze of decorated grottoes and hydraulically powered automatons.
Alas, it was this miraculous water that proved the undoing of the most beautiful of all the Medici villas. In 1821 the building was dynamited as it was decided by the dynasty succeeding the Medici, the House of Lorraine, that the damage caused to the foundations by the water flowing through them was too expensive to repair. The rubble was used to fill in the prawn ponds and the original formal park layout converted into a landscape English garden more in keeping with the new romanticism and certainly easier to maintain.
It was in 1872 that my family bought what was left of this park of wonders. They converted the service buildings into their summer villa and added a stately salon.
This is where I spent the last stage of my life. Every afternoon I would be driven round my estate to make sure that everything was in order. If I came across children from the adjoining village I would distribute candies to them and It was behind the chapel, built by Buontalenti in the sixteenth century and one of the features still remaining from the original park layout, that I requested to be buried.
I am happy that people still remember me, for every year, on my birthday, the priest and choir from Florence’s Russian orthodox church come to my tomb to pray and sing for me.