|Mediterranean Garden Society|
The Italian Branch of the MGS
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.