|Mediterranean Garden Society|
The Italian Branch of the MGS
21 April to 21 October 2017 - Giarre (CT), Sicily
Our recent trip to Piedmont gave us a chance to enjoy its varied and beautiful landscapes, parks and several private gardens designed by renowned landscape architects.
An hour’s drive then to the UNESCO heritage site, Oropa Sanctuary, which is the most important and largest sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary to be found in the Alps, which was to be our lodging for the night. The huge complex is surrounded by mountains and the unspoilt nature of Sacro Monte Nature Reserve and the Oropa Botanical Garden. We visited the garden, which is run by WWF and hosts about 500 species and varieties of plants. The subdivision of wild species made it easy to observe, in a restricted area, much of the spontaneous flora of the reserve. There was also a pretty, ornamental alpine rock garden and a beech woodland. We were rather late for the bulbs and rather early for the summer-flowering plants but spent a delightful hour in the late afternoon sun.
We then drove to the Strada Panoramica Zegna, constructed in 1938 by Ermenegildo Zegna, founder of the Italian luxury men’s clothing empire, as part of his philanthropic vision to create wealth and well-being in his home Trivero and its outlying villages. Zegna imported more than 500,000 conifers and rhododendrons to complete the project. On our return, guided by Laura Zegna, fourth generation descendent of Ermenegildo, we visited her parents’ delightful garden designed by Pietro Porcinai (Florence 1910-1986), renowned as one of the most outstanding Italian landscape architects of the twentieth century. This was a rolling, intimate, luxuriant garden perfectly integrated within its surroundings. Very particular too was the winter garden under glass, featuring walls of cork.
Next, we visited the private Villa Peyrani where we saw the beautiful extensive gardens, decorative orchards and potagers laid out around the villa, again by Paolo Pejrone and the enthusiastic new owners.
We departed for Saluzzo and a guided visit to the 12000 m2 private botanical garden Giardino Botanico di Villa Bricherasio with its creator Domenico Montevecchi. A fruit grower by profession, Domenico has dedicated his passion and expertise to encourage plants from three phytoclimatic zones - mediterranean, cold temperate and continental - to flourish. He favours mixed beds along English lines and they were a perfect way to show off the innumerable species hosted in the garden.
We enjoyed a three-day tour with guided visits to several formal gardens in and near to the capital featuring rich ornamentation including sculptures, monuments and grottoes.
Day one: we started out in the delightful little town of Castel Gandolfo with a lunch overlooking Lake Albano before making our way to Giardino di Villa Barberini. Opened to the public for the first time in 2014 by Pope Francis, the gardens of the papal summer residence boast a scale that only rich and powerful popes might conceive of. The garden featured immense parterres, shady holm oak areas, elegant statues, sweeping views and first-century Roman ruins. As a whole it is a most romantic and delightful garden.
Day two: having survived the crowds and queues that one must endure to get into the Vatican Museum (it attracts over 33,000 visitors a day), we were fortunate to be whisked by our guide into the gardens and a private world of calm and magnificence. The Giardini del Vaticano date to 1279, when Pope Nicholas III re-established the Vatican as the papal residence and it is easy to understand how all popes have enjoyed the sanctuary and solace of this garden which seems to float over Rome. It took a full two hours to walk around the French (roses), English (woodland) and Italian (Italianate) gardens and almost always the imposing dome of St Peter’s remained in view. While the gardens may not have been designed as a whole, the popes who created areas of the garden or built monuments and added sculptures each left a symbol of their character and the gardens provided a unique opportunity to view the Vatican and its history.
After lunch we made our way to Villa Medici which stands on the Pincio hill, above the Spanish Steps, and commands views across the city. Ferdinando de' Medici, cardinal at the age of 13, collector and sponsor, purchased the site in 1576 and asked the Florentine architect Ammannati to build a fabulous palace to mark the ascendancy of the Medici and to assert their permanent presence in Rome. It also served as a museum for his collection of antique masterpieces. A series of grand gardens, recalling the botanical gardens created at Pisa and at Florence by the cardinal's father, Cosimo I de' Medici, sheltered in plantations of pines, cypresses and oaks and included a belvedere and an ornate pavilion. Magnificent Roman bas-reliefs and statues adorn the villa and garden and the gipsoteca is a fascinating repository of original gypsum moulds used to recreate antique statuary. The villa remained in the possession of the Medici family until 1803 when it was sold to France to house the Académie de France à Rome which runs it today.
Day three: In the past high walls would have meant that the Giardini Segreti, Villa Borghese were enjoyed only by visitors to Cardinal Scipio Borghese’s villa, hence the name “secret” gardens. They were designed to awe guests with fabulous rare flowers and exotic fruits while exquisite bird song filled the air. Today the gardens are in the hands of the Rome Council and are rather run down due to underfunding, but our guide, the head gardener, gave us an excellent tour. He was able to take us back in time and explain how the gardens might have been planted in the early 1600s. Delightful parterres constructed with simple terracotta bricks are as the originals and would have been planted with wheat and poppies, sunflowers and other field flowers which today can be seen reproduced in the garlands adorning the walls of the beautiful aviary. Today’s plantings are more varied but are designed to recreate the same effects as in the past and include: Alkanna tinctoria, whose roots were ground to make rouge and lipstick in Roman times, Acanthus, Achillea, alliums, citrus, Cistus, Fritillaria, Lychnis, peonies and roses. The Iris x germanica were still in flower as were the Drimia maritima (syn. Scilla maritima) and, had we been a couple of weeks earlier, we could have seen up to 250 varieties of narcissi and tulips. We walked round to the back of the villa to see the deer park planted with long avenues of holm oak where hunting would have taken place. Finally, in the Valle del Graziano, a beautiful rolling woodland, we saw the oldest plane trees in Rome which date back some 600 years. These are magnificent specimens of Platanus orientalis which originated in southern Europe, rather than the hybrids we are used to seeing which derive from the North American species Platanus occidentalis.
Our final trip was to visit the garden of Palazzo Colonna sul Colle di Quirinale. This is one of the oldest and largest villas in Rome, dating from the 13th century and its magnificent garden was developed in its present form in the late 16th century by Cardinal Ascanio Colonna but has been continually enriched by the Colonna family throughout their 800 years in occupation. When you enter the courtyard with its perfectly clipped citrus trees, you are transported into a private world of magnificence. At the back of the villa, steep steps took us up various terraces planted with olives and citrus, hedged with Pittosporum and shaded by holm oaks. Geometric parterres, gorgeous statues and a delightful fountain run all the way down the steps – the fountain was designed to recreate the larger one at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. After a steep ascent one is rewarded by lovely views across Rome to the Quirinale and the Vittoriano. It really could not be more perfect. After re-entering the palace we also enjoyed a guided visit to the magnificent baroque Colonna Art Gallery.
The tour comprised nine days with visits to 26 interesting and diverse gardens and landscapes.
We then made our way up the beautiful coast to Harold Porter Botanical Gardens, which is a beautiful, secluded garden set between mountain and sea in the heart of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. It consists of ten hectares of cultivated fynbos garden and 190 hectares of pristine natural fynbos encompassing mountain slopes with wind-clipped heathlands, deep gorges with relict forests, flats and marshes with restios, sedges and bulbs, as well as dunes adjacent to the beach with specialised salt-adapted plants.
Next up was a private garden, which was an interesting, totally indigenous and waterwise garden where we learned how rare Proteaceae species are propagated and met a renowned South African botanical artist and teacher who has artwork in collections worldwide.
Day 2 started out at the Stellenbosch Botanical Garden, which is located in the historical centre of Stellenbosch and is the oldest university botanical garden in South Africa. We were shown around the compact garden houses with an enormous diversity of plants, both indigenous to South Africa and some exotics. Then we moved onwards to a MGS member’s garden in the Devon Valley area just outside the town of Stellenbosch where, after exploring, we enjoyed lunch in the beautiful garden. From Devon Valley we made our way to Paradyskloof to visit the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden, a seven-hectare sculpture garden around the artist’s studio in the foothills of the Stellenbosch Mountains which has been developed over the past seven years. The garden hosts upwards of thirty sculptures and has been mainly planted with indigenous plants. A full report will follow.
Day 3 commenced just outside Stellenbosch at Old Nectar Gardens, the creation of Una van der Spuy, doyenne of South African gardening, during the 71 years that Old Nectar was her home. Set among the magnificent sandstone mountain ranges of the Jonkershoek valley and among 200-year oak trees, they extend over two hectares, comprising a collection of individual garden areas, each with its own character. Since 2012, Una’s son Peter has been developing the garden, adding an indigenous garden and a woodland terrace garden. Then we moved on to Babylonstoren, a historic Cape Dutch farm which dates back to 1692 and boasts one of the best preserved werfs (farmyards) in the Cape. The new gardens are laid out over eight acres and have been developed since 2008 by a dynamic young team hired by the new owners. They are divided into 15 sections that comprise fruit, indigenous plants, fragrant lawns, a prickly pear maze, a clivia tunnel, a cycad collection, a newly-introduced rockery and a plethora of trees with historical and botanical importance. So much to see, so many ideas to steal and a really inspiring place.
In the afternoon, we turned back time with a visit to the Rustenberg and Schoongezicht gardens. The wife of the current owner of the Rustenberg Estate undertook to regenerate and restore both gardens. The planting can be described as English, with roses, foxgloves, salvias, agapanthus, sedum, anemones, day lilies and much more - really a plant lover's dream. We were served tea and scones under ancient oaks amid the enchanting old Cape houses and farm buildings.
Day 4. After an hour’s drive, we arrived in Elgin where the cooler climate favours gardeners, and us, and where we visited four very diverse gardens, each distinctive and beautiful.
Fresh Woods is a rambling, romantic garden with major collections of heritage and species roses and many rare trees and shrubs.
Fairholme - a large and many-faceted garden with a magnificent view of the valley. The garden is attached to Fairholme Nursery, which specialises in perennials, grasses and lavenders (if only we had room to take some of them home with us). Keurbos Nursery Garden - a garden designed for birds, with both indigenous and exotic sections as well as a nursery area. Auldearn - a plantswoman’s hilltop garden that skilfully mixes unusual indigenous and exotic plants. Here the planting combinations received our highest praise.
Day 5. In the morning we visited a private garden situated in a dramatic, mountainside setting on a steeply sloping one-hectare site. The use of natural stone, indigenous plants, clipped shrubs and winding paths provided much colour, texture and form and participants were wowed. We lunched at Delaire Graf, an impressive estate where we enjoyed both really delicious food and dramatic views over the Simonsberg mountain and rolling vineyards. The garden has a fusion of indigenous and mediterranean plants, of formal symmetry and wilder plantings, creating a colour-saturated garden of awe-inspiring dimension and effect. Participants chose to walk the kilometre or so along the drive to the exit to enjoy the plantings and views, causing a bit of a traffic jam as our bus followed at walking pace. Our last visit was to a large private garden where many unusual trees, clever plant combinations, water features and mountain views create a special retreat for the family.
Day 6. Our first visit of the day was to Green Point Biodiversity Showcase Garden set in Cape Town's Green Point Urban Park (built for the 2012 World Cup) and boasting a selection of 300 local plant species. Our visit was made special by the talented and passionate designer Marijke Honig, who took us through the ups and downs of creating – and maintaining - the garden. Next came The Company’s Gardens, which takes its name from the Dutch East India Company who started the garden in 1652 for the victualling of their ships that plied the spice trade route between Europe and the East Indies via The Cape of Good Hope. Here in this leafy city garden we walked through the city’s roots and its history.
Day 7 and tour members were able to choose between two walks – either to search for wild flowers in the Silvermine area of the Table Mountain National Park or to enjoy more gentle exercise at the Upper Liesbeek River Garden (ULRG), where Dr Joan Parker is the instigator and driving force behind this hidden gem of a valley in suburban Cape Town. She inspired the residents’ association and gained some sponsorship, and working with the municipality and plenty of sheer hard work, transformed a steep, overgrown alien-covered wasteland bordering residential houses into a beautiful river valley community garden where residents and visitors can meet, share a drink or a picnic under the trees and enjoy the space.
Day 8 and finally the amazing Kirstenbosch National Botanic Gardens, which lived up to its reputation as the most beautiful garden in Africa and one of the great botanic gardens of the world. Few gardens can match the sheer grandeur of the setting of Kirstenbosch, against the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. Lunch was served in the Kirstenbosch Tea Room and we moved on afterwards to visit Soil for Life, which is a Cape Town-based non-profit organisation that assists communities in the Western Cape to overcome hunger, poverty and unemployment through the establishment of community and home food gardens where people are being taught to grow their own food using environmentally sound methods, to understand their own health and nutrition, and to gain skills with which to generate income from gardens. A really worthwhile project.
Day 9 and our last day and the last three gardens of the tour. First up, The Stellenberg Estate, one of Cape Town’s finest country estates from the 18th century. It is an internationally acclaimed garden with its old-world dignity and ancient oak trees, and contains many garden rooms, including a White Garden, Garden of Paradise, Vegetable Potager, Parterre Garden, Aromatic Herb Garden, and many more areas to explore. Then we moved on to Greystones, a historical property which is planted with wonderful collections of “exotics” from abroad in the old colonial way. However, since inheriting the garden, the current owner has gradually also introduced a wide selection of indigenous plants to the established garden. This is definitely a plant lover’s garden.
And finally, a new private garden designed by the owner in collaboration with a landscape architect in a stunning setting. It had parterres, mediterranean plantings, hot-climate roses, and an eco pool with indigenous plantings.
Day 10 - Time to go home and ponder on all the amazing things that we saw. What a fantastic garden tour!
The event was held in Castel Rigone and kindly hosted by Alistair and Juliet Chilton.
We learned a great deal from this experience and now all have very different views on dealing with our own olives in the future.
Johnny has been a resident of the Lazio region in Italy for over 30 years. He is the only Englishman on the tasting panel of the Slow Food olive oil guide and he judges in international olive oil competitions worldwide. He is also a member of EVA - the Extra Virgin Alliance, which represents producers of genuine extra virgin olive oil from around the world. You can read more about them here.
After the formal Branch Annual Meeting, we went into the delightful garden of our hosts and in the sunshine we found plant bargains galore and delicious homemade fig jam, made by Juliet. The event concluded with an appetizing lunch served at restaurant Rosso di Sera in San Feliciano, down by Lake Trasimeno, where Johnny provided specialist olive oils to pair with the different foods.
On the well-cultivated hills which surround the fertile plain of Lucca, scattered among vineyards and olive groves, are over 300 fine villas built by the Lucca aristocracy. Here, between the 15th and 19th centuries on income derived largely from the silk industry, international trade and banking, these wealthy families organised their lands around their country residencies – built first and foremost for agriculture but also to host and show off to dignitaries visiting the Republic of Lucca.
Our group met up in the late morning for a guided visit to the Parco della Villa Reale di Marlia. This property has been enjoyed by the great and the glamorous for centuries and it was home in the 19th century to Napoleon’s sister and Duchess of Lucca Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi. The 16-hectare estate includes numerous gardens as well as majestic buildings created over centuries. We saw the Water Theatre, the Green Theatre (where the composer Paganini often performed for Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi), the Lemon Garden, and the Spanish Garden in Art Deco style. The 16th-century nymphaeum attached to the Villa del Vescovo offered us cool respite as it would have done in the past - hopefully the new Finnish owners, busy restoring the whole estate, will also be able to restore the water games so beloved of the Baroque period.
After lunch we visited Villa Torrigani di Camigliano dating from 1593 and still home to the descendants, through marriage, of Nicola Santini, who remodelled the south façade in the Baroque style in imitation of the architecture of Versailles where he was ambassador of the Republic of Lucca. The garden too was originally Baroque in layout with complex parterres which today have been replaced with lawns. We loved the well-preserved secret Garden of Flora with its Grotto of Winds and the Nymphaeum and marvelled at the symbolism embodied within the statuary.
Moving just up the road we took take advantage of late afternoon sunlight to enjoy a very special private garden which boasts nearly 300 species of roses and over 400 mediterranean natives or adapted plants which was a veritable plant lovers’ paradise. Indeed, several of us came away with plants in hand thanks to the generous owner.
On Friday morning a three-hour city tour comprised a visit to the city’s monumental walls which form a four-kilometre-long perfect ring around the city. At parts more than 25 metres wide, they include several imposing embankments planted with trees which make this a wonderful green space with centuries-old trees and ornamental species. We moved on to the Cathedral of San Martino to enjoy its Romanesque façade and two extraordinary monuments inside – the Volto Santo, a venerated wooden portrait of Jesus on the cross, and Ilaria del Caretto, a marble sarcophagus by Jacobo della Quercia. We finished with a visit to Palazzo Pfanner. This is a valuable example of a Baroque garden set in the heart of medieval Lucca, which has grassy lawns, ornamental blossoms, tall shrubs and lemon trees in large earthenware pots interspersed among the monumental rows of eighteenth-century statues depicting the Olympian gods and the four seasons.
The annual Murabilia Flower show opened its doors at midday and participants made their way to do some plant hunting.
We began our day at Vivaio Salto del Prete, which offers an excellent selection of plants from the Mediterranean or adapted to its climate.
Eugenia Natalino demonstrated how plants adapt to the long summer drought in the mediterranean-climate regions by their shapes, colours and leaf forms. On our way down to the propagating greenhouse we were able to see a 7 x 7 m example of an alternative lawn planted with Zoysia tenuifolia.
Once established, a Zoysia lawn has the following advantages: it boasts low water consumption and has no need of chemicals, it requires less mowing than other grass types (every 21 days instead of every seven), it thrives in heat and does not die in winter, although it will go dormant, turning a golden brown when the first winter frost arrives, it tolerates traffic, wear and shade as well as being resistant to salt and animal waste. It is also excellent for erosion control.
Eugenia then demonstrated how to propagate plants from softwood cuttings. She uses an organic potting mix made up of 50% potting soil with peat, enriched with 20% of a lovely product called La Terra di Gaia, a natural fertilizer composed of humus from worms, and 30% of perlite, granules of expanded volcanic rock which render the potting mix extremely light.
Some tips on taking softwood cuttings: take cuttings when plants are not in flower so that their energy can concentrate on forming new roots, use stems that are near a joint on the main stalk as it is in the “heel” that the most reproductive cells are concentrated, choose young, vigorous plants from which to propagate so that the new plants will be an exact DNA copy of the mother plant.
After our practical lesson a lovely lunch was served in the ornamental vegetable garden.
In the afternoon we visited the beautiful garden of MGS member Yvonne Barton at Panicale, who collaborated with Vivaio Salto del Prete during its construction. Yvonne explained how she drew her inspiration from the surrounding nature, where the spontaneous flora flourishes without irrigation.
In her garden new plants are rigorously selected to survive hot, dry summers and the rather cold Umbrian winters. They are planted small, which makes them much more adaptable to their location and they are planted in the autumn to give them time to put roots down during the winter rains. Those showing signs of stress receive long, deep irrigation every 14 days for the first two summers – after that they are ready to survive with no irrigation.
Plantings over the terraces and slopes of the terrain are in relaxed swathes; here and there a weed shows through, but this only adds to the natural feel of the garden. Many varieties of Teucrium, Cistus, Scabiosa, Phlomis, Santolina, Helichrysum, Euphorbia, Centranthus, Salvia and Achillea blend perfectly under the olives and if we had visited earlier we would have enjoyed the thousands of bulbs which are planted throughout the garden too. To the west, a mixed border of Sambucus, Perovskia, Cornus, Phillyrea, Ceanothus, Cotoneaster, Buddleja, lentisk and large roses delineates the edge of the garden and blends into woodland, while to the east plantings flow out to the surrounding olive groves.
Two splendid features are a marvellous collection of China and tea roses concentrated in the dell just under the house and a large swimming pond covered with water-lilies. Many extremely gregarious frogs kept up their loud and happy chatter while we relaxed over tea in this glorious garden.
Our spring visit was based in the charming seaside resort of Menton. The town was popular in the 19th century with English and Russian aristocrats who built the many luxurious villas and palaces which still grace the town today and with gardeners who were able to create flourishing gardens due to a mild microclimate.
All of the gardens we visited were in fact in Menton or nearby Ventimiglia, but on day one we dropped in to Alassio to see the glorious wisterias at Villa La Pergola. The villa was bought in 1922 by Daniel Hanbury (son of the founder of the Hanbury Gardens) and his wife Ruth, who created a beautiful garden mixing Mediterranean natives with exotic species. No fewer than 28 varieties of wisteria were planted and spring parties were held here to celebrate their flowering until Ruth’s death in 1982. Thankfully, the villa and garden were rescued from property developers in 2006 by the Ricci family. They commissioned Paolo Pejrone to restore the garden to its former glory and today maintain it as the perfect backdrop to the villa, which runs as an exclusive hotel. It is an intimate and beautiful garden and the many wisterias were in full flower.
On day two we were accompanied by Paul Thomson, a former horticulturist and gardener who spent a year working at Hanbury as an RHS intern. We made our way on foot to visit Jardin Exotique Val Rahmeh. This garden was established in the late 19th century by Lord Radcliffe, a former governor of Malta, and it was used to grow subtropical and tropical plants. It passed to Miss May Sherwood Campbell, a rich English lady, and then to France's Natural History National Museum. For all that it is a botanical garden, it retains the feeling of a private garden and boasts more than 3000 plants.
A short coach drive took us back into Italy to visit La Mortola – Hanbury Gardens. This world-famous garden was made by an English family (the Hanburys) on a steep promontory overlooking the Mediterranean. The site is dramatically beautiful, with steps, paths, pools, fountains and garden structures, and the plant collection (now managed by the University of Genoa) is exotic and vast. We enjoyed iris, scilla, cistus, echium, wisteria and Rosa banksia, and the wonderful Rosa laevigata – a fragrant rose with large, flat, white flowers. We enjoyed tea and cake with Carolyn Hanbury, who still resides in the Hanbury villa, and she gave us a fascinating talk on the family’s history.
In the morning of day three we divided into two small groups to enable us to better visit two smaller private gardens:
Le Clos du Peyronnet has been made by three generations of the Waterfield family and is, in effect, an English Arts and Crafts garden transported to the Riviera. Some of the terracing survives from when the garden was a citrus grove. It has a pergola, graceful steps, excellent planting and a stairway of successive pools, of which the last is the ocean. The garden is enchanting and we were guided by the owner, William Waterfield, who impressed us with his plant knowledge and entertained us with his wry humour.
MGS Italy member Alexandra Boyle has built a garden over 32 terraces on a very steep hillside: Le Jardin des Antipodes. On some terraces rare and heritage vegetables and fruit are grown to supply to Monaco’s top restaurants. On others Alexandra has created an outstanding collection of plants from her homeland New Zealand, all benefiting from the microclimate in the bay of Menton. We inspected a variety of micro vegetables beautifully packed on their way to their respective kitchens, and we were served delicious slices of Alexandra’s organic grapefruit – dramatically different from the commercial varieties we are used to eating.
After a really good buffet lunch on the beachfront, we transferred to Serre de la Madone. This is Lawrence Johnston's French garden. Best known for making Hidcote in England, Johnston was a wealthy American. He employed a dozen gardeners to maintain the large plant collection and brought plants from around the world, including from Burma, China and South Africa. As at Hidcote, the garden is divided into compartments with hedges and walls. The climate is exceptionally gentle and sunny so that many tender and exotic plants can survive. We were guided by the head gardener first into a vast shady mediterranean forest banked with swathes of the very tall Iris confusa. Making our way past pools and statues we ascended to the very sunny top terraces where Greek irises, Tasmanian mint, South African proteas and Australian grevilleas were flourishing.
On our last day we departed to Ventimiglia to visit Villa Piacenza Boccanegra. The garden extends over four and a half hectares and expands along sheer terraces leading down to the sea. There are three main areas: an olive grove, a rock garden with succulents and an acclimatization garden which is being enriched with specimens that originate from dry climates with seasonal patterns that are similar to those of the Mediterranean region. The park provides a perfect mixture of spontaneous plants and cultivated plants, and thanks to the variety of Mediterranean species it maintains its incredible charm in all seasons. Winter/spring is however its “moment” according to the owner Ursula Piacenza, who guided us with all her usual charm and gave us exceptional plant suggestions and cultivation tips. Cuttings were taken home.
After lunch locally, we departed for Camporosso for a visit to Vivaio Noaro. This specialist nursery offers gardeners a veritable cornucopia of mediterranean plants. The nursery is normally shut on Friday afternoons, but the mother and son team had agreed to open specially for MGS members so that we could explore the vast and excellent plant stocks which was a very worthwhile final stop.
A group of 25 participants joined the four-day Post AGM Tour organised by Italy Branch Head Angela Durnford. Participants came from Australia, California, UK, France, Greece, Cyprus and Italy.
The tour included visits to Mannerist/Baroque Gardens at Villa Aldobrandini and Villa D’Este, the Roman garden Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa), the romantic garden Ninfa - winner of the 2015 award for the most beautiful garden in Italy - and the impressive and beautiful gardens at Villa Barberini, the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo - opened to the public by Pope Francis in March 2015.
A full write-up by Northern California member and Past President, Katherine Greenberg can be found in TMG 84, April 2016 and here.
We met our guide Jane Zaloga, a Fulbright Fellow who teaches art and architectural history for Syracuse University, in Florence, and walked from the central piazza at Fiesole down the steep Via Vecchia Fiesolana to reach the small wrought iron gate into Villa Le Balze or “The Cliffs”, the Georgetown University property set on a steep hill overlooking Florence.
This is the same door that Charles Strong, the American philosopher who owned the property and who commissioned Geoffrey Scott and Cecil Pinsent as garden designers in 1914, would have used as he was confined to a wheelchair. In the past, all visitors would have entered the garden down steep steps to the magnificent Rosa banksiae pergola that extends for the entirety of one axis of the garden.
The site is long and narrow and is divided into a serious of formal garden rooms and a terrace. You never see the entire garden at one time but come upon it room by delightful room, and this perhaps accounts for the fact that when you leave, you have an impression of a garden much larger than it actually is.
In the two garden rooms nearest the villa, the designers chose to hide the views over Florence to create peaceful, inwardly-focused green spaces perfect for their contemplative owner. It is only from the terraces in front and to the sides of the villa that the wonderful view of the city is fully seen.
Just across the road, we entered Villa Medici. Built in the 1450s for Giovanni de' Medici and inherited by Lorenzo the Magnificent, the villa belonged to various English owners in the 1700s and 1800s. In 1911 it was bought by Sybil Cutting (mother of Iris Origo), who commissioned Scott and Pinsent to direct renovation work. The villa sits in a commanding position on its hillside.
The garden is on two levels, on the first of which there is a limonaia - oranges and lemons are known to have been grown here in the 1450s – where now we find large lawns, two huge Paulownia trees, roses and espaliered bitter oranges. The size of the garden is imposing and grand.
The site is incredibly steep, and Pinsent and Scott linked the lower garden, divided into four beds with lawn, magnolias and box, by another huge pergola of Rosa banksiae.
Villa Gamberaia, described by Georgina Mason as a perfect example of a Tuscan villa garden, is a few miles away at Settignano, surrounded by the still beautiful unspoilt hills of Florence, where olive groves, cypresses and warm stone walls are the motifs.
There was a building on this site in the 1500s and the garden was started in 1610, when Zanobi di Andrea Lapi built the villa. It was owned by the Capponi family in the 1700s and 1800s until it was bought by Princess Ghyka in 1896. In 1910 she commissioned Luigi Messeri and her head gardener Martino Porcinai (father of Pietro Porcinai, the great landscape artist) to create the modern garden at Gamberaia which became a model for many other gardens.
The princess built a water parterre to replace the 18th-century parterre de broderie, a belvedere of cypresses and borders of lavender, iris, lilies, roses and oleanders.
The central element is a great grassy avenue, known as “the bowling green” which ends in a nymphaeum. To one side, a garden room links the limonaia to the wilder areas of the garden, and the limonaia garden has roses and peonies.
This was a perfect day to visit Umbrian gardens - flawlessly sunny, but green after recent rains.
The nursery, which holds the 'Festa della Lavanda' every June, was divided into garden rooms containing different types of lavender, and the fields of lavender stretched away towards Assisi.
The first garden contained ‘English’ lavender, never allowed to become woody, and pruned drastically down (12-16 cm) into the green every year. Grown from seed, the many different kinds of Lavandula angustifolia flowers from mid-May, and they are serious sun lovers.
The ‘French’ lavender, L. x intermedia 'Grosso' (long-stemmed, long flowering) had the strongest scent; this was used for perfume in Provence. If cut down promptly after the first flowering, it could flower twice. Here Gino recommended leaving about 2 cm of 'green' when pruning back. The harvesting time for scent is from the end of July to mid-August; for making lavender bags, you pick the flowers at the beginning of flowering.
Lavandula dentata had been tried, but so far had failed in their soil, possibly due to too much clay and cold winters. The herb and perfumed garden contained many unusual varieties of salvia as well as some unusual colours in non-scented perennials such as Gaura.
A delicious lunch at Spello (Ristorante La Bastiglia) was followed by a most unusual tour to the garden of Editoriale Campi, publishers of Italy's celebrated Almanac Barbanera, which has been in print for more than 250 years. We heard that in the countryside, even where the contadini might not be very literate, the farmers would have and use and swear by the almanac’s advising on the weather and when to plant. The garden is planted and managed according to the principles of the Almanac Barbanera, including the phases of the moon.
First we toured their organic vegetable garden, learning about the importance of encouraging all kinds of insects, with Isabella dalla Ragione, esteemed agricultural historian, as our guide.
The gardens at the Foundation included a wonderful herb garden, as well as a lavender and rose garden. The most spectacular feature was the collection of hydrangeas, including an extraordinary 15-inch white-flowered variety - Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’.
Finally, the Foundation Barbanera’s archivist showed us round the collection of old Almanacs and other interesting ephemera with copies dating back to the mid-1700s. I wondered if it was by chance that the almanacs for 1805 and 1815 had been preserved, and what they had predicted for such momentous years in European history.
We very much appreciated the hospitality and the chance to learn about the plants and their history in both gardens.
Text: Anna Bramwell
A group of 25 of us gathered at the entrance to Ninfa, ‘the most beautiful garden in the world’ according to The New York Times (June 16, 2002), with growing anticipation. We were met by our guide Giulia who led us through a rather small and unpromising gate into the garden where we found ourselves in an entirely different world. First impressions: the absence of all sounds other than glorious bird song and running water and tantalizing 360° vistas of the beauty to come.
The garden was laid out in the 1920s among the ruins of the small medieval town called Ninfa. The name derived from a small Roman temple dedicated to the nymphs which was built near a spring. Today a river runs through the garden from a slightly elevated lake just to the north and it is the abundance and purity of this water that permits this luxuriant and green garden in such a dry climate. Moreover, the rich, well-drained and moist soil makes plants grow extremely rapidly. The incredible height of trees planted as recently as 2000 bears testimony to the fertility of the soil and the mild climate (tempered by the mountains to the north and sea breezes to the east), as does the plant list of no less than 1300 species and varieties from all over the world.
Ninfa has been transformed since the 1920s by three generations of Anglo-American women and the English influence in the garden is clear - it has a free and informal style. The only straight lines one can find are the avenues of cypress trees lining the old town streets and a lavender hedge that traverses the wide open Piazzale dell Gloria, where we particularly admired the rock garden created by Donna Lelia, with its abundant plantings of anemones, verbenas, hebes, salvias, alyssums and eschscholzias.
The whole sits within nature perfectly. As one looks up through the soaring trees, views of the slopes of the Lepini mountains create a soft backdrop so that nothing disturbs the eye. The scale is imposing - understory plantings here are large - we might have them as the canopy in our gardens.
Wending our way back round we came upon the river, just one of many clever watercourses and waterfalls traversing the garden. It has uniquely crystal-clear water - so clear as to be almost luminous – offering reflections of roses, arum lilies and aquatic irises and ruins topped by wisteria, valerian and tecoma.
In all, an achingly beautiful garden that takes one’s breath away.
The garden of Tenuta La Torecchia Vecchia nestles against the crumbling ruins of a medieval village and castle, perched on a volcanic hilltop, and commands spectacular views of the large, unspoilt estate. In 1995, the owners Carlo Caracciolo and Violante Visconti commissioned Dan Pearson to design the 15-hectare garden with the brief of creating a cool oasis to alleviate the surrounding harsh summer conditions. The colour palate was restricted to blue, white and contrasting greens.
Another garden designer, Stuart Barfoot, took up the reins in 1998 and continued to develop the garden, experimenting with a style he calls selvatico-curato, which he defines ‘as the tenuous equilibrium between wild and controlled’ and more colour was carefully introduced.
The day we visited there was no sun, which suited this restrained palette, but there is nothing restrained about the plantings which are arranged in enormous swathes and which benefit from the same fertile soil as Ninfa. Water plays a part here too as it drops down the steep slope of the garden, appearing here and there in the form of a pool, stream and lake all connected by pumps and hydraulics.
We were accompanied by Angelo and Angelo, who worked under both designers and continue to maintain the garden.
La Landriana is to be found just up the coast from Anzio, the site of the famous Allied landings and a huge World War II battle. The garden was started in 1956 by Marchesa Lavinia Taverna, a plantaholic who developed the unpromising site from scratch – including supervising the removal of undetonated mines. In 1967 she invited Russell Page ‘to impose a structure on this disorder’, and his designs still form the basic layout of the garden with hedging dividing a succession of garden "rooms" (30 in all). Each is characterized by original plant groupings chosen for both colour and form.
The Valley of Roses was phenomenal and it is completely under-planted with erigeron, which contrasts wonderfully with the wide variety of old roses - apparently Russell Page would allow his dogs to run around before setting his paths which here are wide and grassy and allow good views of the deep beds.
Lovely too was the immense lake with its vast expanses of Nymphaeaceae and swathes of yellow aquatic iris, and we enjoyed the Olive Garden which had a great selection of mediterranean plants in yellows greys and mauves offset by wonderful old olive trees.
Text: Angela Durnford, photos: Sergio Ungaro
Our visit to Puglia began with a guided visit of the Roman, medieval and baroque Lecce with Fabio Ippolito, Direttore of Orto Botanico di Lecce. We learned some of the history of Lecce and all along the route we looked at flowering balconies and courtyards. We also visited the lovely garden and some rooms of the Palazzo Tamborino Cezzi.
The following day we toured the Parco Della Costa Otranto-Leuca, 56 km of breathtaking coast consisting of different areas of botanical interest: scrubland; dry meadows; sandy and rocky coasts and wetlands. We stopped often to identify native plants flowers (see list of plants identified below).
Afterwards to Salve on the most southern tip of the heel of Italy and Masseria Santu Lasi. This fifteenth-century fortified masseria has been sensitively restored with reclaimed materials. Accompanied by the owner, Professore Vincenzo Cazzato, we toured the garden of olives, walnuts and other fruit, while he explained the history of the farm. Finally, we were treated to the most delicious lunch in the courtyard, made from produce of the farm.
In the afternoon a visit to La Cutura Botanical Garden where the owner, Salvatore Gessi, escorted us around the garden with its many different areas: mediterranean, rose, Italian, aromatic, and a collection of over 2000 succulents and tropicals. He explained that many of the succulents were fasciated (result of abnormal growth with flattened, ribbon-like, crested, or elaborately contorted tissue) producing new or strange forms, but always very fascinating.
On the third day to the Parco Regionale Porto Selvaggio with a walk along a coastal path, taking in all the wild flowers along the way until we arrived at a belvedere looking over the cliffs and coves of the Ionian Sea. We visited the frescoed fourteenth-century Capella Santa Maria de Alto, where we were wandering through the garden filled with classical mediterranean plants.
Then to Nardò where we visited a working farm, Masseria Brusca. Built in the sixteenth century, today the masseria produces organic olive oil, vegetables and dairy products. The owner escorted us around the lush, shady garden called ‘Il Giardino dei Continenti’ for its elegant, feminine statues representing the four continents. Then the farm where we were treated to a demonstration of caseificio where mozzarella balls were made for us to taste. A superb light lunch was served made with produce from the farm.
In the afternoon to Masseria Brancati near Ostuni. Here there are 30 hectares of ancient olive groves where some trees are between 2000 and 3000 years old, including 800 recorded as natural monuments, which are protected by satellite surveillance and are set to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The olive grove was planted by the Romans, which is apparent as they are set out in a grid system. The trees were amazing, like grand old men, some with supported limbs. The owner, Corrado Rodio, explained to us the history of the farm, which dates back to the 16th century, and still has much of its old equipment on site. We were shown how this oil pressing equipment was used in an ancient underground mill, and afterwards we were treated to a tasting of the olive oil.
Finally to a private trullo complex, Casa Tumbinno, near Locorotondo, fully restored and offering a glimpse of an historic trullo site consisting of eleven 'cones'. Here we were treated to a demonstration by Signora Violetta on how to make morbidino, a local uncooked sweetmeat: delicious.
Our last morning was spent at La Lama degli Ulivi near Monopoli. This botanic garden was created in a unique natural setting, in a lama, a karstic depression typical of this area between hills and the sea, created over the centuries by the watercourse which runs through the area. The particular lama where the garden is situated is rich in caves and boasts a rock church dating from 1200.
The garden was designed by the owner and nurseryman Stefano Capitanio as the ideal place to host the different plants from all over the world, collected by him during his travels. We were shown around the garden by Francesco Intini, the garden’s curator, who pointed out the notable examples from some 2000 species of rare palms, cacti, trees, bushes and perennials adapted to a mediterranean climate. There was also a nursery here with many plants to tempt us.
The other wonderful thing about all these days was the amazing and varied food served at lunchtimes and at the local trattoria in the evenings, accompanied by excellent wines - perfect fuel for our strenuous days out.
Wild flower list: Anacamptis pyramidalis, Anthyllis vulneraria subsp. rubriflora (syn. Anthyllis vulneraria subsp. praepropera), Asphodelus microcarpus, Buglossoides purpurocaerulea, Campanula versicolor, Glebionis coronaria (syn. Chrysanthemum coronarium), Cistus creticus, Cistus monspeliensis, Crepis rubra, Dorycnium hirsutum, Euphorbia dendroides, Filago pygmaea (syn. Evax pygmaea), Galactites tomentosa, Knautia integrifola, Malva sylvestris, Matricaria chamomilla, Leopoldia comosa (syn. Muscari comosum), Ophrys bertolonii, Papaver rhoeas, Phlomis fruticosa, Plantago lagopus, Serapias orientalis, Serapias vomeracea, Tordylium apulum, Tragopogon porrifolius, Trifolium incarnatum, Trifolium stellatum, Trifolium campestre, Umbilicus chloranthus, Urospermum dalechampii.
Text: Janice Thompson
Eugenia Conti and Roberto Campanozzi are master gardeners and design professionals with years of experience in creating garden spaces. Gardens and plants are their passion. After years of gardening experience in New York City and London, they both decided to return Italy and base their company in Rome.
We met them on Brent’s large new terrace which was filled with hundreds of plants that he has inherited from friends and acquaintances, but which he had deliberately left in no particular order prior to our workshop. The terrace is large – about 100 m2 divided in two parts with an interconnecting balcony with good views over the city and hills beyond. On one terrace there was a large pergola left by the previous owners and on the other a Jacuzzi.
Robert and Eugenia started by examining the key elements: size, shape, light and shade and Brent’s functional requirements. Then they talked about the hardscaping (paving, structures, pots and planters) and the specific landscaping (trees, shrubs, perennials) that would be appropriate on the terrace. They also talked in detail about planting in containers and aftercare. Participants had lots of suggestions to give on both the structure of the terraces and on plants that work well for them.
Just 15 days after the inauguration of the multi-million-euro Garden of Biodiversity at the Botanic Garden of Padua, MGS Italy visited with a group of about 20 members.
The glazed façade of the great new greenhouse measures 100 x 18m. The building is “solar active”-designed to maintain and transform solar energy; it also incorporates a complex rain- harvesting system and a computerized ventilation- and light-modulation system.
It is a stunning complex from outside and inside where the visitor is led through the evolution of plants on the four continents of Africa, America, Europe and Australia.
However, it was in the historic, walled sixteenth-century garden (Padua has the oldest botanical garden in the world and it is a listed UNESCO World Heritage site) that we found more appropriate plants for our mediterranean gardens among its 6000 specimens. All was well tended and every plant was well labelled. A useful garden to visit through the seasons.
After tea we transferred by tram to the magnificent Cappella degli Scrovegni, where member Dinah Southern, an art historian specialising in Italian Renaissance art, talked us through the highlights of this masterpiece. Then onwards to Treviso for dinner.
Day two was spent at the impressive Nursery Priola in Treviso, undoubtedly a market leader in Italy for perennials, but now also producing grasses, ferns and unusual shrubs. Participants stocked up on plants and participated in the mediterranean-themed day featuring a presentation by MGS member Alessandra Vinciguerra, Director of La Mortella Gardens, Ischia. This is the garden that will host the 2015 MGS General Assembly; over 150 slides gave a magnificent impression of it and its creator, Susana, Lady Walton. The presentation was extremely well received by an audience of more than 100. The popularity of the “mediterranean” seems to be growing.
Lastly, but not at all least, on day three several of us remained to hear a wonderful talk by Lauro Marchetti, Curator of Ninfa Gardens, who highlighted the challenges of caring for “the most romantic garden in the world”. This garden too will feature in the AGM 2015 programme.
Text Angela Durnford
When MGS member, Gary Jo Gardenhire, painter, and his partner Tim Rees, a landscape designer, began to develop the garden at Campitello-sul-Clitunno, they could not find any suitable sculpture. So Gary started to make his own.
The result is an eclectic range of striking pieces of art which give decoration, focus and ‘wit’ to the charming hillside garden. The sculptures are made from ‘found’ objects, such as welded metal tools and discarded bottle caps, or cast cement using kitchen utensils as moulds. The display is not static: sculptures are replaced regularly and coloured pieces get their paint refreshed each year.
Gary walked us round the garden to explain his work, how each piece had evolved, and how he had selected its location and aspect.
Tim then gave a talk about hard landscaping and planting around the garden sculpture, also giving examples of gardens he had worked on in France which had provided inspiration. He illustrated the role of sculpture through the gardening year with changing light and plant qualities, sometimes even with snow.Member Carole Cross then talked about which Mediterranean plant textures and palettes can be effective with different materials. Member David Dickinson, who gardens on a terrace in Rome, told us about a small-scale project. Matteo di Civita gave a talk on wild peonies of the Mediterranean, and Julia Perry told us about a new initiative to use antique Italian tiles in the garden for table tops and decorative features.
The Italian Branch of the MGS visited Villa Trecci, a garden of three hectares created by Adelmo Borlesi and his wife Cinzia Sorlini, and the nearby garden of Steven and Susan Kiviat designed by Adelmo. The purpose was to investigate a structural approach to dry gardening on clay.
Villa Trecci is set among olive trees with an east-facing view of Montipulciano - a fantastic backdrop.
The garden is on a clay/tufa (limestone) base, but Adelmo has completely changed the structure of the soil in order a) to grow a wide range of plants without irrigation in summer drought, and b) to avoid losing plants to poor drainage in wet winters.
The grey garden has been raised by a series of stone walls and the beds are further sectioned by 10 cm irrigation tubes. These are wrapped in tessuto non tessuto and placed at the base of the walls on a 10-cm-deep layer of gravel, then covered with 10 cm more of gravel and covered with at least 30 cm of prepared soil.
The clay soil has been transformed with a mix of 50% soil, 20% manure, 10% small gravel, 10% coarse river sand and 10% garden compost.
The pasteurized manure is a mixture of horse and cow, although apparently horse manure is preferable. The soil ends up with a pH of 5.5 – 6.5. With the exception of the roses, which are given manure every year, Adelmo does not further fertilise or water.
After an enjoyable lunch on the terrace at La Fattoria Pulcino, we were served refreshments by member Luise Gregory in Stephen and Susan Kiviat’s charming garden.
They had planted all the usual grey plants in classic Tuscan style, but lost them three times to poor drainage. Adelmo’s new structure, soil and plant list were installed in the autumn of 2013 and the garden already looks completely established.
A full description by Janet Bell of the soil preparation techniques, gardens visited and plant lists is available from Branch Head Angela Durnford.
“In Taormina one finds everything that seems created on earth to seduce the eyes, mind and imagination.” With Guy de Maupassant’s words in mind, the Italy branch chose Taormina as the base from which to explore the gardens of eastern Sicily.
Our tour leader was Clare Littlewood, author of Gardens of Sicily and long-term resident.
The prospect proved so attractive that the visit was held twice – with 65 participants in all, from MGS Branches in six different countries.
And we were not disappointed. Even the Hotel Villa Schuler, where we stayed, had a sumptuous garden with fabulous views across the sea to Mount Etna.
The programme started at the Catania Orto Botanico with its interesting collection Hortus Siculus, an area entirely given over to Sicilian plants displayed in their native habitats of Mediterranean plants.
Then to cocktails in the secluded monastic gardens of San Domenico Palace Hotel at sunset. A magnificent view of Etna from this enchanted spot, where D.H. Lawrence wrote of Etna: “she trails up in a long, magical, flexible line from the sea’s edge to her blunt cone ... Remote under heaven, aloof, so near, yet ever with us...”
Day 2 started with a visit to the aptly named Villa Paradiso, where Giulia Gravina has created an iconic Mediterranean garden amongst lava formations of an extinct volcano overlooking the Bay of Catania. Here we were treated to home-made candied kumquats.
Then to the 400-year-old estate of Villa Trinità. Here the garden has been coaxed out of the lava bed on which it stands by the passion and hard work of the latest in eight generations of owners, Baron Salvatore Bonajuto. The property also features an ancient Arab system of irrigation canals or saie.
Valeria Ciancio was the next to receive us into her very private garden around her nineteenth-century home, retaining a small portion of the original orange groves and with natural landscaping, which she uses to great advantage as backdrop and base to her many plants, as well as hiding places for her numerous grandchildren.
Nearby was Le Stanze in Fiore, where Rossella Pezzino de Geronimo’s life journey has inspired her to create her garden of interconnecting and informal rooms on the terraces surrounding her neo-classical villa; the result was surprisingly calm and private while only a step away from the traffic noise of Catania.
Day 3 started with excursions to Mount Etna or Taormina, followed by a visit to Villa Cuseni. The Arts and Crafts villa and garden were built by Robert Kitson in 1905 and lovingly tended by his niece Daphne Phelps for over 50 years until 2005, it is now a national monument.
Day 4 saw us at the private estate and garden of San Giuliano, home to the family of the Marquis Paternò Castello di San Giuliano for 800 years. The stunning ‘grapefruit walk’ and collection of cactus were shown to us by head gardener Rachel Lamb.
Our last stop was at Lentini, where Princess Maria Carla Borghese shared her “garden that wasn’t there”. Il Giardino del Biviere has been transformed by the Princess since the 1960s from a drained lake into a lush and exotic garden.
A full description by Clare Littlewood of the gardens visited – and the recipe for candied kumquats – are available from Branch Head Angela Durnford.
Chantal Guiraud, who runs the MGS Seed Exchange, came from France to give us an excellent talk on how seeds can be collected, carefully catalogued and stored, before the appropriate time for planting. She explained how seeds differ in size, texture and requirements, demonstrated the various planting media, pot shapes and sizes, and gave guidance on the immediate aftercare of newly planted seeds.
After the talk, we walked around Dorisanne Henderson Agro's well-tended, lovely garden in the spring sunshine before enjoying the delicious lunch she had prepared.
We then drove to Keay Burton-Pierconti's home in the countryside south of Velletri. Here the garden is to be savoured rather than admired. It has developed over more than 20 years around olive and fruit trees planted long before she moved in, it has a natural feel, and it isn't very tidy!
Our annual Branch meeting was held at B&M Books in Florence. John Werich, who is a professional photographer and proprietor of the bookshop, then gave us a talk on how to improve our photos of gardens, illustrated with many wonderful examples from his own portfolio.
In the harsh sunlight of Mediterranean summers, the key is to go out early, at first light, to get a good balance of shadows and tones. Alternatively, photos can be taken in late afternoon, but then the colour of the light will be different and the mood of the picture will change. John showed us how to compose good pictures and, if necessary, edit them. Some of our members had their own photos subjected to critical scrutiny and we all learned from our mistakes.
In beautiful autumn sunshine, we held our Annual Plant Sale at the garden of Carol and Colin Cross, a wonderful example of a true mediterrean waterwise garden. Carol gave us a tour of her garden, explaining how the garden had developed over the years. She explained that her philosophy for creating a successful garden is contained in three basic rules which have held her in good stead over the years, which is good advice to us all in developing our mediterrean gardens:
Always plant small so that the roots and top growth are co-ordinated, and smaller subjects require less water. Mulching at this time also helps to conserve moisture in hot weather. Carol uses gravel extensively as it also protects against excess wet during the wetter months. If different sizes and colours are used, this can become a pleasing feature of the garden.
There were many wonderful specimens on offer for sale for the keen enthusiast, together with plenty of stalwarts; also gardening magazines, books and jewellery made from 'seeds' were for sale.
The grand Renaissance era of Italian gardens is exhibited nowhere better than in Lazio's attractive Cimini Hills area. Here the gardens of ancient Rome were recreated and redesigned by Renaissance architects on behalf of powerful popes and princes and they were the focus of our visit. Led by Christina Thompson, professor of Italian Garden History at the University of Tuscia, the two-day visit was a real opportunity to understand the garden design, planting, symbolism and spiritual references underlying these magnificent classic Italian gardens and to learn about the intrigues and rivalries of the great families that built them.
Recently MGS members and guests made a rather unusual garden visit. Form and space were the focus rather than garden plants, and we were able to see this architectural concept in the reality of the villa, outbuildings, landscape and gardens of La Foce.
The La Foce that we see today is the creation of Iris and Antonio Origo and English architect and garden designer Cecil Pinsent.
Our guides were Ethne Clarke who has written a biography of Cecil Pinsent, (An Infinity of Graces: Cecil Ross Pinsent, An English Architect in the Italian Landscape) and Benedetta Origo, the current owner of La Foce.
Early in the 20th century, Cecil Pinsent converted a somewhat rundown and conventional country locanda into the attractive complex of buildings that reflect not only the grace and elegance of humanism in architecture, but also the practical validity of its philosophy.
Geoffrey Scott - who was Pinsent's partner in the creation of the villa and gardens of Bernard and Mary Berenson's I Tatti - encapsulated this philosophy in his book Humanism in Architecture, which has become a classic text. Architecture, he wrote, must be designed and built for human use and pleasure. Ornamentation should be added only to accentuate the simplicity and utility of space both in gardens and buildings.
The cortile at La Foce, with its broad and ample arches and its spacious yard that enabled all the human operations emanating from the property to be carried out there, is an excellent example of building for human use combined with elegance of space and form. Today many of us experience the pleasure of the superb acoustics of the cortile during the Incontri in Terra di Siena summer concerts, created by Benedetta Origo and her son Antonio Lysy.
Benedetta, who was born at La Foce and has lived there all her life, took us around the garden. The garden, which was only a sea of mud originally, was the joint creation of her mother, Iris Origo, and Cecil Pinsent. Pinsent gave it architectural grace and form, and Iris chose and supervised the plantings. The variety of “rooms” is a testament to the success of this joint creativity.
The stark geometric simplicity of the box garden, with its baroque fountain to draw one's eye to the landscape over the wall, is a surprise after wandering through the more informal gardens of box, citrus, blue salvia, hibiscus, geraniums and Japanese anemone, to name but a few of the plants now in bloom as we enter autumn. One particular planting was just declining from its late summer glory but deserves a special mention. To the left of the swimming pool area, two long beds had been planted with large green hydrangeas, pink and white Japanese anemone, and in the centre, sky blue agapanthus.
Today's planting is, of course, the creation of Peter Curzon, who has overseen the gardens at La Foce and maintained their beauty for a number of years.
From the wisteria walk, we climbed to the top of the hill through native woodland to sit around yet another baroque sculpture and enjoy a wonderful view of the landscape.
Here we can see the result of the extraordinary work of Benedetta's father, Antonio, who was able to co-opt the farmers of the region to take advantage of a government scheme to improve and make more productive the eroded and poor farmland of the surrounding land. Looking out at this landscape, one sees fields that now sustain good crops, erosion is not apparent and farmland has been reclaimed. When one looks at the bald, white crete senesi on adjoining hills, one can appreciate what a miracle Antonio Origo was able to perform.
It is not often that we are able to see the perfect marriage of architecture, garden flair and landscape reclamation. Too often we concentrate only on “the garden” and yet it is the relationship between these three aspects that provides human satisfaction to us all.
We finished our tour with lunch at the Origo ristorante, Dopo Lavoro, designed by Pinsent, and in which we enjoyed the benefit of vegetables and herbs grown in the adjoining orto – the ultimate pleasure of La Foce.
We are grateful to Benedetta Origo for sharing with us some of her lifetime experience of La Foce and to Ethne Clarke, whose talk based on her deep knowledge of Cecil Pinsent and his work was fascinating and illuminating and gave us a new framework within which to understand the garden.
Text Lynne Chatterton
The Apennine mountains, which form Le Marche’s western border, provide the visitor with a constantly evolving backdrop and are home to some of the region’s most stunning scenery. The Italy branch visit to the area in June was a great success.
The property sits on a small bluff, dropping down on either side, with spectacular views down a gorge and up towards the imposing Sibillini mountains, craggy with sandstone outcrops. The garden surrounding the tower is modern and the owner has used extensive hard landscaping to accommodate the ups and downs of the land. These are executed in materials which blend with the surrounding landscape – reclaimed oak railway sleepers and granite cobblestones for the paths, and stone or marble sets of huge proportions for walls, water features and bridges. As we made our way around the garden, we came across unexpected punctuation marks created with several sculptures.
After walking the garden, we were able to visit the interior of the tower, every bit as unusual as the garden and topped by a circular skylight in the master bedroom positioned to allow the light of the full moon to fall directly on to the bed.
Prati di Ragnolo
Given the weather preceding our walk (there had been snow the weekend before), it was a miracle that any flowers were out to welcome us. Luckily we were able to see enough to give us a taste of one of the richest flowering meadows of the Sibillini mountains and Le Marche and the views were stunning.
The following plants were sighted:
Our guide was a natural scientist, Maurizio Fusari, a certified Guida ambientale escursionistica and Guida del Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini, who also runs his own walking company (www.quattropassi.org). Massimo had with him a good guide book to the wild flowers of the Sibillini, with excellent photos making it easy to identify the plants, the book is called: Il giardino della Sibilla. Guida ai fiori del parco nazionale dei Monti Sibillini [Paperback] by Alessandro Rossetti & Paolo Tescarollo, Massimo Dell’Orso. Member Jan Thompson also recommended Mediterranean Wild Flowers by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson. ISBN 0-00-219901-7 (A & C Black – London) for beautiful illustrations and comprehensive lists.
The first level formal gardens are elegant and in proportion with the imposing Rocca. The contrasting informality of the shady lower garden is deliberate and enchanting.
Lastly we drove over to the Rocca’s working farm with its blond cattle, abundant flowering orto and, if possible, yet more roses for cutting. This last visit of the day allowed us a rather intimate glimpse into the lives of our gracious hostess Elisabetta and her delightful husband Benny and the very hard work and energy that they both dedicate to sustaining Rocca D’Ajello. We thank them for a wonderful visit.
Text Angela Durnford
One of the best decisions I ever made was to join the Mediterranean Garden Society. The MGS serves both educational and social functions, and their gatherings reflect this fact. MGS branches often plan group outings to visit regional gardens of note. These events are quite pleasurable: they are informative, provide an opportunity to meet interesting people, and allow entry into fabulous private gardens otherwise not available to visit.
So it was with high hopes that I contacted Angela Durnford, head of the Italy Branch of the MGS, to see what was on their agenda for May 2013. My husband and I were planning a trip to Italy and hoped we might catch a lecture or garden tour. Eureka! She wrote back inviting us to participate in a branch outing to two gardens in Tuscany near the hill village of Montalcino.
Case Basse Soldera
First stop on the MGS outing was Case Basse Soldera, a small organic winery specializing in growing Sangiovese grapes. Vintner Gianfranco Soldera focuses his attention on the production of the estate's Brunello wine while his wife Graziella tends an extensive garden bordering their home.
Montalcino enjoys a mediterranean climate (Köppen climate designation Csa), but the garden at Case Basse Soldera is not strictly mediterranean in style. Near the house, Graziella has created areas clearly influenced by English gardens, including roses and mixed flowers bordering areas of lawn. She is a rosarian extraordinaire and her collection includes hundreds of roses of many varieties.
Near the winery offices Graziella has created a white parterre garden. The flowers and plant material have been chosen for their white blossoms or variegated leaves.
As one wanders further and further from the home and offices of the estate, one enters areas of the garden that have more of a mediterranean feel. There is a grove of fruit trees underplanted with clumps of irises, there are long passerellas planted in various combinations of plant material, and there are olive trees. It is a remarkable garden reflecting a tremendous level of dedication on Graziella's part.
Castello Di Argiano
I knew the day included lunch, but the meal we were served at Castello di Argiano took my breath away. As soon as we arrived at Giuseppe and Sarah Sesti's property, we were whisked into a restored chapel adjacent to their home. We were served a quintessentially Italian buffet lunch: wedges of fresh mozzarella di bufala, tomato bruschetta, prosciutto, melon, and grilled vegetables, accompanied by a glass of Sesti Grangiovese 2010. Fortunately, our lunch companion, Willem-Jan Kuiper, warned us there would likely be a pasta course. Otherwise we would have left no room. As he predicted, wonderful asparagus lasagna soon appeared.
The food alone would have been reason to categorize this as a memorable lunch, but the setting made it one of the most remarkable lunches we had ever had. The chapel was as charming a setting as one could want, set ablaze by the Murano glass chandelier hung from the ceiling. A painting commissioned by Sarah for Giuseppe's 70th birthday hangs in an alcove and helps creates a beautiful atmosphere inside the chapel. Giuseppe is an avid scholar of ancient astronomy, and the artwork depicts the castle among astrological and mythological symbols. An abstract Murano glass window in the back wall of the chapel evokes the mystery of the universe.
It was in this heavenly setting (pun intended) that the couple’s daughter Elisa Sesti gave us a brief lecture about the winery's biodynamic approach to the cultivation of the grapes and the production of their wine. The information was fascinating and thought-provoking. I resolved to learn more so that I might prune and plant in my own garden with biodynamic principles in mind.
After lunch we were invited to explore the garden according to our own whims. Members set out, cameras in hand, to capture shots of the property and its 360-degree view of unadulterated Tuscan countryside.
Angela walked the garden with Sarah Sesti and shared these observations:
A little distance away sits the Giardino di Orlando, which Sarah built in memory of her son with the help of her other son and architect Cosimo. There are two Os carved out of a steep hillside – the first is filled with olives under-planted with grass and wild flowers – to replace those removed from the surrounding countryside by the arrival of the vineyard.
Down rosemary-lined steps sits the second O which is filled with alliums, cardoons, fennel, cistus, phlomis and roses. The whole effect is of looseness and movement – again and deliberately in contrast to the adjacent vineyards with their regimented lines. Mature trees from the surrounding woodland provide shade. The steep path invites you ever down to a tranquil glade and small pergola which hints at many, many hours of quiet reflection.
The Sesti family has a deep connection to the arts community, Giuseppe having been an opera director for 30 years. Several rooms are available for vacation rental (by word of mouth only), and many of their guests are singers, painters, writers, and musicians.
Once again, membership in the MGS has provided us with a stellar experience not soon to be forgotten. Many thanks to Angela Durnford for including us in the tour and for all her efforts on our behalf (including providing content for this post). The opportunity to connect with her and her branch was very much appreciated.
Text Kirsten Honeyman (and Angela Durnford)
On 19 April the branch enjoyed a good day in Umbria appreciating the season’s first sunshine (with one shower burst). Our morning visit was to Archeologia Arborea, a foundation for rediscovering and cultivating antique fruit varieties located in Lerchi (PG). About 150 species and varieties are present in the 500-tree orchard, some of which have been saved from extinction. Isabella della Ragione was a delight to listen to - she is an authority on the history of fruit cultivation in central Italy. She told us which varieties to grow for resilience, ease, blossom, taste and seasonality, as well as how to treat pests without destroying nature’s balance, leaving aphids, ladybirds and bees to do their work. The Italy Branch of the MGS has adopted a tree in the orchard, the pretty Mela Muso di Bue (cow-face apple). AA has published several excellent books on fruit, and all varieties are for sale from the nursery. TMG No 56, April 2009, has a full write-up by member Carole Cross, and more information is available here.
In the afternoon, Riccardo and Bruna Amerio and Richard Taylor were kind to host us in their hillside gardens, where we saw two very different approaches working successfully.
The 19th Rione of Rome, Rione Celio, is one of the greenest and least populated districts. Roman imperial history is everywhere, and the landscape is strewn with ruins and artefacts which formed a majestic backdrop for our visits to Villa Celimontana and Villa Wolkonsky.
After lunch we walked to the delightful Villa Wolkonsky, official residence of the British Ambassador to Italy since 1947. This villa was originally owned by the Russian Princess Zenaide Wolkonsky, who made her home there in the 1830s. The 5-hectare grounds are dominated by 36 soaring, slender arches of Nero’s Aqueduct built in 54 AD to supply water to his imperial palace from Subiaco, some 50 miles to the east. There are over 200 plants species in the garden, which successfully blends Roman classicism with Russian romanticism, English formality and mediterranean plantings with subtropical accents.
MGS members gathered at Carol Smith’s house overlooking Lake Trasimeno. Before being let loose on the plants available, we took the opportunity to talk about our gardens and the challenges presented by the weather this year, with the aim of understanding more about gardening conditions here in Italy.
Has 2012 been a really difficult year for gardeners?
Indeed, official weather records showed that temperatures had been at record highs throughout Italy for most of the year: the Po Valley had the hottest summer for 200 years. The big exception was February, when arctic conditions swept down the peninsula, bringing snow and temperatures around 10 ° below seasonal norms. March was unusually warm and summer started early in June. Hot, drying winds made the gardener’s life even more difficult. But rainfall patterns were erratic: northern Italy experienced devastating storms in early summer, while central/south Italy was in a prolonged drought. More significant though for many of us was the fact that there had been drought conditions throughout the winter and low precipitation for the previous two years; water table levels were therefore extremely low.
Do we garden in a Mediterranean climate?
How did we cope?
Which plants did best in the Big Heat?
And what about the Big Chill?
So how are we going to adapt in the future?
University Botanic Gardens of Naples
We were met at the main entrance gate by Professor Alessandro Panizza for a guided tour and whisked off to visit the greenhouses before they were closed for the day. (All of us were especially grateful to Yvonne Barton who gave a masterly translation of Alessandro’s stories and descriptions: many thanks, Yvonne.)
From the outset, it became clear that one of the garden’s treasures was its collection of cycads, certainly the best in Europe and almost certainly in the world. All genera were represented and even all species of the genus Zamia. The greenhouses contained the Botanic Garden’s research collections and hence were not open to the public. There were some large clear areas which in winter house many of the large pots kept outside during the summer. The greenhouses were quite extensive and are worthy of a whole book.
They were very successfully growing both male and female plants of Welwitschia mirabilis from the Namib Desert in Namibia and Angola, where they obtain water from sea mists and where specimens more than 1500 years old are known. Kew Gardens grow this plant in their Princess of Wales Conservatory with under-soil heating. This species is a living fossil in its own family and most closely related to Ephedra and Gnetum, and only distantly related to the gymnosperms.
We were shown a plant of Gnetum gnemon from Indonesia, odd in being a tree and not a climber like almost all the other species in this genus, and having normal-looking leaves.
Also present in the greenhouses was a great collection of mangroves from tropical brackish water and hence almost impossible to grow. Several large tubs contained plants of the red mangrove, Rhizophora mangle, in salt water supported by their numerous prop roots and with their hanging viviparous propagules which fall, disperse and fix themselves in the mud and produce a new plant.
Again retreating outside to the cool, we noticed a group of very fine Quercus ilex, evergreen or holm oaks, more than 800 years old and a relic of the original native forest here. However, our tour of the arboretum was interrupted by a visit to another greenhouse with frankincense (Boswellia sacra) and myrrh (Commiophora species). Frankincense is native to the Arabian Peninsula while myrrh comes from the same area as well as Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, and both are collected as ‘tears’ from the bark after slashing. They are presently being over-collected and subject to research programmes.
The doum palm, gingerbread tree or palma dell’Avono (Hyphaene thebaica) was seen growing well in a large pot. This palm, native to the Nile Valley and sacred to the ancient Egyptians, provides fibres for baskets and fruits for chewing and tea-making. An American pawpaw, Asimina triloba,with the largest edible fruits indigenous to the United States, was seen and noted as being cultivated outside in the Berlin Botanic Garden. Although the genus belongs to the family Annonaceae, which gives us the custard or sugar-apple (Annona reticulata) and the cherimoya (Annona cherimola), the popular American tropical fruit Carica papaya is also called pawpaw, the name derived from the Spanish paypaya, but this is a member of a very different family, Caricaceae.
No visit to the garden would be complete without touring the Citrus collection by the Castello (a building restored after the 1980s earthquake and now housing a museum of paleobotany and ethnobotany). A citron (Citrus medica) was bearing fruit: the name medica does not mean medical (although its crystallised peel is used in cooking), but denotes that this species came to the Mediterranean from the land of the Medes and is known from 4000 BC in Mesopotamian excavations, though its real native origin is unknown. We then met the pomelo, or shaddock – named after Captain Chaddock, who originally introduced it to the West Indies - (now Citrus maxima, previously Citrus grandis) with the largest of all citrus fruits, 1—2 kg, and hailing from East Asia. The importance of this species is that it is one of the parents (with Citrus aurantium) of the grapefruit (Citrus paradisi). Citrus aurantium (Seville orange) is itself a hybrid between Citrus maxima and Citrus reticulata (mandarin, tangerine and satsuma). The clementine, grown by Clement in Oran, is a hybrid: a mandarin back-crossed with Citrus aurantium, and it has now been crossed again with a kumquat (Citrus japonica, formerly Fortunella japonica) to give a kucle, a new hybrid citrus gaining popularity.
We worked our way down to the exit through the pinetum, stopping off to admire a young and healthy Wollemia nobilis, the Australian gymnosperm found only in 1994 in a still secret location in the mountains of New South Wales. It is a monotypic genus belonging to the monkey-puzzle family, Araucariaceae. Here, it should form a tree to 40 metres.
We all were extremely grateful to Professor Panizza for his excellent tour and plant stories, and although even after three and a half hours, we were still fascinated by the garden and did not want the afternoon to end, we were all now extremely tired.
Giardini La Mortella, Ischia
All around are tall, strong-shaped trees - just as Russell Page recommended all those years ago, when he was engaged by the Waltons for the design of their garden. Page described the condition of the terrain before he began his work: 'The land was a narrow gulley and a hillside so steep as to be almost a cliff thickly covered with the dark greens of Quercus ilex, ‘Alaternus’ and common myrtle, and the gulley at its foot was a dry, weedy hollow strewn with huge and beautiful weathered chunks of lava spewed out at some period by Nepomeo; the now quiescent volcano whose jagged crater rises steeply a mile away. In those days, Ischia had little water, but the soil in the gulley was good, so I designed a simple framework for a garden in which plants, Mediterranean, Californian, South African and Australian might be expected to flourish in near xerophytic 'maquis' conditions.'
The upper part of the garden, The Hill, was designed later by Lady Walton. It is approached along a path winding up the steepish slope against the cliff planted with a fascinating collection of succulents and cacti. This is more as one would expect of a hot hill garden in the south of Italy - succulents in the arid parts, and lush planting under the trees surrounding the various pools that have been built into the design. This part of the garden reflects many aspects of Lady Walton's life and character. As well as many South American plants throughout the garden, there is a reference to her Argentinean roots in the Sun Temple.
We were most fortunate to be guided by Alessandra Vinciguerra, a close friend of Lady Walton and now president of the Fondazione William Walton e La Mortella. She proved to be hugely knowledgeable about the plants, and we delighted in the recounting of many personal anecdotes of her friendship and working relationship with Lady Walton.
We set off along the narrow paths through the shady and fairly humid valley garden to admire the four fountains laid out by Russell Page. The surrounding plants are now mature and must have been chosen to create a quite enclosed garden. Lady Walton wanted 'a cocoon for my husband'. A surprising note was that almost all the plants had been grown from seed. This meant that in the first ten years of the garden's life, the plants would have been quite small, and a very different feeling would have been experienced there. It proved to be a great decision, as the plants were able to gain a strong foothold in the difficult terrain. There were no trees in the garden when the Waltons bought the property, so it is breathtaking to see the magnificence alone of the trees they planted.
The amount of colour is also carefully considered in this part of the garden. Page suggested that importance should be given to sun, shade, shadows, leaf shapes, and then colour. The advice has been followed and the result gives an elegant flow through a tropical scenario, with delightful highlights provided when the colours are encountered.
We discovered something lovely around each turn of the steps and paths, all cut from rocks on the property, curving upwards above the largest pool to the base of the house. There are pots or huge smoothed stones at each junction, to give a punctuation mark to each part. Even litter bins had been thought of - conical woven baskets which melted into their surroundings. On the way, the planting scheme changed and we saw yuccas, agaves, many succulents and Russelia equisetiformis, including an unusual white-flowered form - could this be a tribute to Russell Page?
As we wandered ever on upwards, we saw what a marvellous gardener Lady Walton had been. She created the upper part of the garden after her husband's death. She considered the rocks in the cliffs as very important in displaying the plants, and so something is growing out of practically every crevice as the path winds upwards.
Further up at the memorial Nymphaeum, we could pay our respects to this extraordinary gardener, Lady Walton, who liked to say that 'green fingers are an expression of a green heart'. One certainly felt that a lot of passion had gone into the creation of this magnificent garden over many years.
As we climbed up and came upon the upper pools, the garden took on an oriental feeling. The crocodile on the cascade had come from Thailand, and so too, the nearby Thai house. The house had arrived in Italy in eight thousand pieces and with no instructions! A first hint of autumn could be seen in the cyclamen flowering along the path edge, the pink-flowered ones are indigenous, and the white introduced. In the pools were Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea, lotus, and finally after many years’ experimentation, Lady Walton's favourite, the night-flowering Victoria water lily.
Il Negombo, Ischia
In the sixties, however, with the advent of tourism on the island and business interests in the North, the duke spent more time away than at home, with the result that the garden reverted to a semi-wilderness. In 1971 his wife Adriana intervened with the construction of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a snack bar and a path to the beach. Her goal was to enable the place to support itself financially and their son, Duke Paolo Fulceri, took charge.
Business at the “water park” flourishes - Il Negombo now has 29 pools, 3 eateries, 2 shops, a hotel and a spa, and in the peak season hosts 2000 visitors a day. But what on earth are we mediterranean gardeners doing there?
We were there to discover a waterwise garden which, from the minute you enter it, is lush and inviting despite being a dry garden. We were there to appreciate how a garden can blend magnificently into its surroundings and, given the 30 °C heat, some of us were also there for a dip.
Our tour guide was Marco Castagna, curator of Il Negombo. He explained how the Mediterranean landscapes that we assume are natural - lemon groves, hillsides of olives or vines, stone terraces - are in fact all results of man’s intervention in nature.
So it is with Il Negombo; however, the crucial thing with this garden is that the landscape’s wholeness and integrity has remained untouched. On viewing Negombo from the surrounding hills or from the bay, one notes no disparity between the woodland vegetation of Mount Zaro and the foliage of the terraced garden that climbs the cliffs of Mount Vico.
As we made our way up shady steep terraces, there were no labels or sign posts – not on the plants nor on the wandering pathways. There was no programmed itinerary of pools one needs to follow - it is up to each individual to choose how he or she enjoys this “living” space.
The park’s dominant feature is its Mediterranean vegetation – carobs, olives, oaks, laurels, mastics and myrtles - but there are plenty of species that originate in other climes: Schinus molle (Peru), Solandra grandiflora (Mexico), many cycads (Japan), many callistemons (Australia), Cestrum nocturnum (West Indies) and the massive Ficus religiosa from India, planted by the duke in the 1940s.
Our olfactory sensibilities were delighted when we crushed the leaves of Cinnamomum camphora (Sumatra), Pimenta dioica (Mexico) – the so-called allspice, because its aroma could be cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves or a combination of all of them - and Cymbopogon citratus (India), wonderful lemon grass.
Water is a continuous presence: from the sea that stands in the bay before the garden to the thermal waters that surge upwards into its various pools, to the waterfalls and cascades that flow down the cliff-side terraces. However, irrigation is kept to an absolute minimum and plants are left to fend for themselves.
Landscape architect Ermanno Casasco (involved in the garden’s development since 1988) largely saw his goal as a question of borrowing things from the landscape. Constructing a garden is a question of opening vistas on to places of particular appeal, and Il Negombo is a garden that extends beyond itself out into the landscape.
We left with seeds of Cycas revoluta and Cascabela thevetia (formerly known as Thevetia peruviana), an evergreen shrub or small tree from the oleander family with Mexican origins. It has smallish, white trumpet flowers (which can also be yellow or apricot) all year. The seed can be saved (at least for a while). It is so hard that prior to planting (in spring or autumn) its surface has to be sandpapered.
Giuseppe Luongo, volcanologist from Naples University, briefly described the formation of the volcano’s structure, which consists of a large cone partially encircled by the steep rim of a summit caldera half a kilometre wide and a quarter of a kilometre deep, which was caused by the collapse of an earlier and originally much higher structure called Monte Somma.
Volcanic activity can be dated back 16 thousand years, but the most famous eruption was in 79 AD and led to the destruction of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing 16,000 people in the process. Vesuvius is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years, with the last big eruption taking place in 1944. Today three million people live on the slopes of the volcano, making it the most densely populated volcanic region in the world.
The drive from Naples took us through extremely verdant forests - mainly of Robinia and Ilex, although we also saw Neapolitan maples (Acer opalus ssp. obtusatum) and alders (Alnus cordata). Large outcrops of twisted lava emerged right on the road’s edge all the way up.
Once we begun our walk, we were up above the tree line and the steep slopes of ash deposit were rather sparsely vegetated, no doubt in part due to a complete absence of rain in the two months preceding our visit.
We first noticed the brooms (Spartium junceum is native to Vesuvius, while Genista aetnensis was imported from Etna in 1906 to stabilise the ash deposits) and valerian, but it is the lichen Stereocaulon vesuvianum which is the first to colonize the cooling lava after any eruption, changing it to grey and giving it a silvery reflection in moonlight.
Seeing the Linaria purpurea, which is native to Italy, group member Maggie Lockett mentioned one particularly beautiful cultivar, ‘Canon J. Went’, which will give a better show in a garden setting. Helichrysum litoreum was in abundance, as was the tart French sorrel, Rumex scutatus, which, according to co-guide Professor Alessandro Panizza, is a popular addition to Neapolitan salads. Lastly, we saw tiny plants of Glaucium flavum wind-borne here a long way from their natural seashore habitat.
On a simmering hot day, 35 of us made our way through the northern Umbrian countryside to arrive at the turn for La Scarzuola for a visit kindly organised by branch members Brian and Lynne Chatterton. After 3 km on a twisting, turning, dirt road, we arrived and parked with little idea of what lay just beyond the walls before us.
We were met by Brian Pentland, our exuberant guide, who has been at La Scarzuola for 23 years. He is part of the team gathered by the current owner, Marco Solari, to restore every detail of the convent complex acquired by his uncle, the Milanese architect Tomaso Buzzi, in 1956.
As well as architect, Buzzi (1900-1981) was an artist, designer and inventor. He was a tireless draftsman: he designed furniture, pottery, lace, lighting and glass - he was artistic director of Venini, the famous Venetian glass manufacturer, for a time. He was a connoisseur and collector of works of art many of which he restored personally. His projects and collaborations included landscape architecture and urban planning. An eclectic talent!
Buzzi lived at La Scarzuola until 1978. In that time, he created his own private perfect world, which in his own words was “an oasis of meditation, study, work, music and silence. A place for socialising or for withdrawing to contemplation and solitude. A kingdom of fantasy and myths outside of time and space where one can find echoes of the past and visions of the future.”
We entered the gates and Brian explained the origins of the structure. St Francis of Assisi had taken refuge on the site in 1218, building his hut with la sarza, a marsh plant. He planted a rose, and miraculously a spring flowed forth. At the end of the century, local noblemen built a small church and monastery to commemorate the saint, and they operated like this for the next 500 years. However, at the end of 1700, the monastery was abandoned and remained that way until a descendant of the original nobility, Marquis Paolo Misciattelli, sold it to Tomaso Buzzi.
He maintained the original structure (the sacred city), but he transformed its purpose. As we moved through the church, there were gasps as we heard that he moved the high altar 20 metres back, painted over the original frescoes and blocked up the side chapel to turn the church into a store room for the building site of his Cittá Ideale. Today the church has been restored to its original form, and in the apse a fresco depicting the Saint in meditation is thought to be the second oldest in existence. A mass is held here once a month.
We then moved out and into the gardens, which Buzzi transformed from humble vegetable plots into labyrinthine hedges meandering around statues and water pools and fountains. The overall impression given is lush, cool, shady with hostas, ivies, cypresses and pergolas of climbing roses (sadly stripped bare by a recent attack by the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar). We were able to drink the ice-cold water from the original spring which flows into an ancient stone trough, and visited a guest house which had an open roof (not very practical) and tiny doors. We learnt that Buzzi had been an extremely small man and proportioned everything accordingly when designing.
An acropolis dominates the honeycomb complex of other buildings of every architectural style, empty inside, but with countless chambers. A very personalised neo-mannerism theme encompasses stairs jutting out in all directions, deliberate disproportion and a few monsters here and there. Fantasy and irreverence meet - allegories and secrets are everywhere. Many of the buildings display indecipherable symbols and bizarre quotations.
The Temple of Apollo, a crystal tower similar to the Gherkin or Shard in London, the eye of Buddha, the Tower of Babel, a homage to the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, a towering totem of meditation, a massive nude female figure (Mother Earth), a triumphal arch merge and tumble over each other - all Buzzi-sized like the doors in his guest house.
Many of the buildings were never finished in Buzzi’s lifetime because he was perpetually going off to design elsewhere. Some the buildings that were completed subsequently collapsed or disintegrated because the building work was unsupervised in Buzzi’s absence. Brian explained how restoration has often been a nightmare, because despite the fact that the entire Buzzi archive is housed on site (a third is categorised and work continues), he left no formal architectural drawings. Rather thousands of designs sketched in biro and annotated photos (in biro again) have had to guide the restorers.
It is undoubtedly a labour of daunting dimensions, and when it is finished, it will at last complete a startling original and inventive “autobiography of stone” for its idiosyncratic and brilliant creator.
The hills south of Bologna are not on the popular tourist route: most people rush past on the A1 motorway on their way to Tuscany. But the area has many natural attractions including the ‘Calanchi’ hills with their distinctive erosional features. The MGS Italian branch went there in search of ‘natural’ gardens and shunned the formal Italian gardens of Bologna city centre.
Museo della Rosa Antica
Giardini del Casoncello
Maria Gabriella’s book I Giardini Venuti Dal Vento (Gardens from the Wind) describes her awakening gardening sensibilities and the birth of her philosophy of embracing “gifts from nature” – seedlings and small plants which establish themselves spontaneously, and in her garden we saw that plants which would be considered weeds elsewhere are allowed to flourish alongside more traditional garden varieties, and the effect was wonderful. Less weeding too!
Dottor Giorgio Forni has a collection of hundreds of roses, mostly classic types, which grow in great exuberance without spraying, pruning or feeding. His secret seems to be having an ideal location with heavy clay, and the roses reward him by growing up to the tops of pine trees and developing into vast shrubs. We arrived at the best possible moment when every plant was in full bloom. Despite the supposed lack of care, this garden felt well planned, welcoming and an inspiration.
Our last port of call was the Parco Cavaioni, where a group of young architects, designers and other professionals are restoring the park and gardens of the abandoned Villa Silvetta on ‘sustainable’ principles for the enjoyment of the citizens of Bologna. The project has been running for only a couple of years, but already there is new life there and we had lunch cooked from home-grown organic produce in the new ornamental vegetable garden.
So do take the time to stop off on your way down the motorway if you are travelling south of Bologna.
The Palazzo Massimo museum is next to the main railway station and most people just rush past, hurrying to catch a train or to reach the historic centre. But it hosts one of the biggest collections of ancient Roman artifacts including mosaics, pottery and inscriptions. The MGS Italian branch went there in search of garden art: a tremendous selection of statuary and ornaments that had graced ancient gardens (this writer bagged a pair of large urns decorated with herons). But the main object of our trip was to see the famous ‘Garden Room’ from the Villa Livia, created by Livia, wife of Caesar Augustus.
The garden room or ‘Triclinium’ was a vaulted underground space that was cool and used for evening dining by the light of torches. The walls are decorated to resemble a garden and they are illustrated with every possible plant, fruit and wildlife known to ancient Rome. The frescoes date from around 30 BC and have been brought for safe-keeping to the museum, where they look as fresh as the day they were painted.
Text: Yvonne Barton.
"I am English – born in Kenya and educated in the UK - and I lived and worked in London for many years marketing for organizations such as Amex, the BBC, the FT and The Economist. I met my husband Sergio and moved to Italy in 1996. In 2004 we bought and restructured our house in Montemarcello (SP) on the west coast of Italy in the bay of La Spezia and I began working on the garden, which is dominated by a magnificent view over the bay and the Montemarcello Regional Park. The plot is about a hectare with half given over to olives, and we produce about 150 litres of punchy, green oil every other year. At the beginning I knew very little indeed, but I was fortunate to receive a copy of Heidi Gildemeister’s book Mediterranean Gardening as a gift, and so began my gardening journey…"