One of my favorite books about gardening and it is so much more than just about gardens, is Italian Villa’s & Their Gardens. Not a novel, or travel writing or purely garden writing this book still stands as a bible for those seeking the essence of an Italian Garden.
I read an original edition of this book whilst at University along with many precious original texts all stored for future generations at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh's Library. It was here that I first read Hortus No. 1 and many old RHS publications with articles by the likes of Vita Sackville - West.
Italian Villa’s does not bother with the tedious detail of how to get somewhere but rather assumes you to are intimate with the owner of each villa and knowledge of location and entry is rather a foregone conclusion. Edith brings to life the essence and it is her narrative which is the books biggest strength. She stresses that ‘ One must always bear in mind that it (Italian Garden Craft) is independent of floriculture’. Her persistent attention to the describing the layout of the gardens she visits and the visitor routes give the book its constant fresh appeal. After all gardens may fade, planting disappear but the spaces and voids remain and the book describes this effortlessly.
When I first read Italian Villas I was also reading Geoffrey Jellicoe’s Italian Gardens, between them they became my guides on my first trip to Italy and I went for 4 months in the summer of 1999.
One villa which has always remained in my mind which I visited more than once is the Villa Barbarigo. Jellicoe called it Villa Donna Della Rose and wrote ‘Consider an amphitheater of hills, the ends linked by a great avenue flung across the valley, and this valley an arrangement of lesser avenues furnished with all the delights of an Italian garden, box hedges, lemon trees, sculpture, pools and fountains, and you have an impression of the gardens at Valsanzibio'. The building was designed by Bernine for Zuane Francesco Barbarigo. The baroque gardens have seventy statues, cascades, fountains and water features’.
Edith Wharton called it Villa Valsanzibio and simply described it as one of the most beautiful pleasure grounds in Italy.
The villa itself dates from the 17th Century and the garden is divided by colossal 20ft High Buxus hedges each room as we would now call them divided between green structures, statuary and water. I don’t remember seeing a single flower here, but this garden stood out for me as a singular joy and lesson in proportion and taste.
The village of Valsanzibio is very near to the City of Padua, not only famous for the Pedrocchi Cafe, a favorite haunt of Byron, Dario Fo and Stendhal but also for having one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world with its original 1545 layout intact. Arranged over a circular format Padua Botanic Garden sets out each plant in its own bed so that the specimens could be observed and catalogued at ease.
When talking about Italian gardens I think I will leave the last words to Edith Wharton
“The traveller returning from Italy, with his eyes and imagination full of the ineffable Italian garden-magic, knows vaguely that enchantment exists: that he has been under its spell, and that it is more potent, more enduring, more intoxicating to every sense than the most elaborate and glowing effects of the modern horticulture.........”