My first encounter with a garden strongly promoted for its romanticism was in northern Italy – Villa San Remigio. If you have ever been to the Italian lakes district, you will nod in agreement when I say that the whole place seems impossibly romantic. Stresa, Mennagio, Bellagio (the Lake Como one, not the Las Vegas one) – in the right circumstances these are places of charm bordering on enchantment.
Villa San Remigio had a wildly romantic back story – the love affair between a Neapolitan poet and musician and an Irish artist. If my memory serves me right, there was some sadness, earlyish deaths and childlessness. It had the mandatory handsome villa and a particularly lovely old church along with beautiful views across Lake Maggiore. But were the gardens romantic? It was all gentle decay when we were there, especially of the old concrete (and there was a lot of old concrete in larger than lifesize shrine-like constructions and terraces) and whoever managed the place was hoping to get grants for a major restoration. It may have been done by now but competition for restoration money is stiff in a country with such a long history and so many things in need of major investment.
I searched on line and found an article in the UK Telegraph, listing their pick of the ten most romantic gardens. Villa San Remigio wasn’t on it, but the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain and Monet’s water lily garden in France were and I have been to both of those. The Alhambra is an amazing place but the gardens are a modern re-creation. It is the whole package there that makes the romance – the history, the beautiful palaces which are on quite an intimate scale, the light, the view across to the Albaicin (or medina)…. The garden enhances but does not generate the romance. The most recent. modernistic gardens at the Alhambra were anything but romantic.
Monet immortalised his garden in so many paintings which imbues the place with added mystique. An analysis of the garden itself rather belies that. However the water lily garden is loosely maintained and in a naturalistic style which contrasts with his more rigid stripes in the upper garden.
What these gardens have in common is a rich history, age and gentle decay, some solid architecture of note and romantic back stories. The gardens do not necessarily stand on their own merits. And let’s face it, in this country we lack most of the above although some of us can manage some gentle decay. But age is measured here in decades, not centuries.
These gardens – and most of the ones on the Telegraph list – are all well out of private ownership now but the love of romantic gardening dates back to the original visions of private owners, albeit generally ones with considerable personal wealth to achieve their dreams. These days the romance is a product of sophisticated marketing. I am yet to be convinced that an institution or business ownership model is capable of generating a romantic garden.
But private individuals can and do. I would disagree with the Telegraph’s list but that is because I am interested in the modern return to romantic gardening – what is being done here and now, not what was done last century or the centuries before.
We spent a couple of nights in the village of Giverny where Monet’s garden is located. I am quite willing to admit that our delight in the charm of the village may have been influenced by the departure of the daytime crowds, the soft evening light and the consumption of the fermented fruit of the French vine, but we found ourselves more engaged with the village scenes than we were with the star attraction. This was romanticism on a very personal, domestic level. The soft-edged naturalism, often with charming detail, has nothing to do with great wealth, grand vision and power. It is equally within the reach of the individual.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.