Tag Archives: Italian gardens

Mostly Villas d’Este and Adriana – Postcards of Italy 2.

This Italy actually exists

Cliched though this scene may appear, it is not contrived. I just came across the view as we walked from Villa Adriana to the nearest coffee shop five minutes up the road. We wanted our morning caffeine hit before we tramped the ruins. Not only were there red poppies growing wild in the barley crop, the blue chicory and white convolvulus (field bindweed) were flowering alongside the stone wall that edged the road. I probably laughed out loud in delight.

Villa d’Este in Tivoli is known worldwide as one of the great Italian gardens. Built by The Man Who Would be Pope to compensate his thwarted ambition, it dates back to 1560. It was grand then. It is still grand today and water features throughout. His land excavations to achieve this garden would have put Capability Brown into the shade.

Formal but not strictly symmetrical at Villa d’Este

We have looked at some of the great Italian gardens on previous visits and had come to the conclusion that it is the settings, the hard landscaping – particularly the stonework – the history, the handling of space and proportions and the symmetry that makes these gardens endure as monuments to wealth, power and sometimes grace down the centuries. It is not so much to do with the plants or the maintenance. In a moment of profundity, as we walked through Villa d’Este, I noted that the symmetry is achieved through repetition, not through slavish measurement. It is that repetition and symmetry on a large scale that makes them so pleasing to the eye.

Attention to detail is not a strong point in Italian garden maintenance. Plants are not required to be immaculate. Irrigation hoses are often visible. It is okay to have plastic pots visible inside the terracotta pots. Water quality can leave a lot to be desired. Lawns are impossible in their climate. Some coarse grass kept green by watering is the best that one can hope for. The big picture is what matters. But, should you have grand visions of creating an “Italian-style” garden at home in New Zealand, maybe be aware that there is not one skerrick of tanalised timber – be they posts or plywood edgings or pergola beams – in any of these originals. Personally, I do not think that you can be Italianate or even Italianesque and use undisguised tanalised timber as a substitute for stone and terracotta. Ditto modern ‘dragonstone’ urns. And imposing suburban New Zealand values of pristine maintenance and velvet lawns takes such gardens even further away from the originals.

The straw broom brought a smile to our faces. Regular readers may remember me posting about the making of these in China.  Sometimes there is a charm to old ways. Besides, as Mark points out, these brooms work very well. Our first ever visit to Italy was back in the early 2000s when we went on an IDS tour of northern Italian gardens. It was there we first saw the widespread use of leaf blowers and came home and bought one. These days, Mark is using ours less and less. He is a bit of a purist, our Mark, and has become concerned at how dependent we have become on the internal combustion engine to maintain the garden.  If somebody would just make him a few straw brooms, he would be a happy man.

I am sure it takes a great deal of work to look like a modern-day princess, even more so when the temperature is over 30 Celsius and the location requires walking down and then up hundreds of steps. Mark noted that she was also behaving like a princess – the one with the pea under the mattress. I couldn’t possibly comment. Even when I was considerably younger, I do not think I ever managed the princess look.

Real life nymphs at Villa d’Este

I preferred the real-life nymphs. It transpired they were American art students doing an art history semester in Italy. Mark discreetly walked past them as they sketched and reported that they were extremely competent at drawing.

Villa Adriana – just one small view of a huge complex

Villa Adriana surprised us by its scale. It is the Emperor Hadrian’s retreat dating back to 200AD. The word villa encompasses a range of building styles and scale in Italy. The one at Villa d’Este is more akin to a palace. Villa Adriana is an entire small city of largely unrestored ruins encompassing about 250 acres. What is more, you can walk amongst them. I found a Roman toilet and an ancient olive grove that was simply astonishing. More on the olive grove another time. This was the Roman empire but it had an air of abandoned desolation even today, as though the tourist plans and archaeological aspirations of even a few years ago had fallen on hard times.

There was a fair amount of statuary of the armless, legless and formerly white variety but I think most of it was more recent reproduction already in decay. Much of the surviving, original statuary and marble had been raided 500 years ago by Cardinal Ippolito ll d’Este and relocated to his nearby pad but we did not know this when we went around Villa d’Este.

The wildflowers in the ruins of Adriana had a simple charm. In those drought-like conditions, the spring rains must bring a short-lived surge of germination and growth. The plants shoot straight into flower but conditions prevent them becoming invasive problems.

Finally, fields of sunflowers on the road to Ninfa. All facing the wrong way for the picture book image with the house and hills behind. Viewed from the other side, we lost the landscape context.

The light is so different in Italy

A gardener’s pilgrimage to Ninfa

“You must go to Ninfa if you are interested in romantic gardens,” I was told very firmly by One Who Knows. So I obeyed. That was the prime reason we went to Italy as part of our trip just concluded. And because Ninfa has very limited opening days, the entire itinerary was organised around one of those dates.

In the event, that became irrelevant. For reasons too complicated to explain, we ended up on a hot Thursday afternoon entirely alone in il Giardino di Ninfa with the run of the place. We were shown how to operate the exit gate in order to let ourselves out and left to it. To understand the nature of this privilege, I should explain that Ninfa is only open for 17 days a year for a grand total of 111 hours and that casual visitors like ourselves are generally accommodated by a one hour escorted tour.

Herbaceous planting in the rock garden was a delight

Ninfa is often referred to as “the world’s most romantic garden” – a phrase first ascribed to UK garden writer, Charles Quest-Ritson and latterly also taken up, I think, by leading gardening broadcaster, Monty Don. It would not be exaggerating to say that it has achieved international cult status and there aren’t too many gardens in that particular basket. Dating back to the early 20th century, the garden is continued these days by a foundation set up by the originating Caetani family.

It is not your classic Italian garden full of intersecting axis and formal spaces. Not at all. Indeed, it is described as being English in style – a descriptor I have met before in a northern Italian garden described to us as being in the “romantic English style”. By this is meant soft edged, informal design with more focus on plant variety, seasonal change and groupings of plants – more frou frou, as I call it, than the heavily clipped and controlled style of the usual Italian gardens of stature.

The garden of Ninfa is built around the ruins of an entire town that was sacked in 1370 after being occupied since Roman times. The scale of the ruins is nothing short of astonishing to a New Zealander unaccustomed to centuries of visible occupation. To create a garden around such imposing structures is a dream situation. In a hot dry climate, water is even more important and the abundance and sound of flowing water is integral to the magic of Ninfa, blessed as it is with the river of the same name flowing through the garden. Irrigation is necessary to achieve the lushness and growth in what is a harsh, dry environment.

A late blooming rose – most were over

I knew we would be too late for the roses and if you plan to visit this garden, if it is possible to time it right, that would add a great deal. But I imagine in these conditions, peak rose season is measured in a few weeks of May and any garden needs more to it than a short peak season based on a single plant family. And that was the case. Ninfa has a feel of its own. The water views are beautiful. We loved the soft herbaceous plantings of the area called the “rock garden”. The structure of the ruins gives a breath-taking framework. To be alone in this garden was a grand experience.

Most of Ninfa is truly romantic. This new path, not so much.

Is it a romantic garden? Yes, without doubt it is. Is it the most romantic garden in the world? I would not go as far as that but others clearly think it is. Is it flawless? No, but what garden is flawless except a static one? And that is a contradiction in terms. We were disturbed by the new lavender walk which, while well executed, was rather too amenity in appearance compared to the gentle naturalism of the rest of the garden. We weren’t too sure about the blue haze from copper spray on the ruins behind every climbing rose. If the roses had been in bloom, we probably would not have found our eyes zeroing in on that blue background. It adds a certain patina to history if you don’t know that it is caused by spraying.

The blue patina

In terms of planting, Ninfa has a much wider plant palette than most Italian gardens which tend to rely on the repetition of about 10 key plants. By international standards, it is not a hugely remarkable plant collection but in an Italian context, it is and it shows a measure of gardening skill that is not often evident in many of the famous gardens of that country. These are harsh gardening conditions which is why so many Italian gardens rely on structure, design and space for their impact, rather than plants.

The view out to the surrounding countryside

It amuses me that the Italians credit this romantic, naturalistic style to English gardening while the British (and other nationalities) flock to Italy for its romance. It is such a beautiful country. I kept thinking I was in an E. M. Forster novel (though A Room With a View was set in Florence, not nearby Sermonetta). Ninfa sits like an oasis of soft green lushness within an age-old landscape rich in history and possessed of its own natural, harsh beauty. Even the light is different in Italy.

If you want to know more about Ninfa, the official website is http://www.fondazionecaetani.org/ but a general search on Ninfa will bring up a wealth of material. It is located in the area of Latina about two hours south of Rome and requires either hiring a car (!!!!)  or sorting out a taxi transfer.

Look! Just look at the centuries old wall panels in the roofless church which may even be the one where Pope Alexander 111 was consecrated in 1159

The modern orange rose beside the moat worried me but not Mark so much. I just felt that the softer shrub and climbing roses fitted the environment better than this one.

Not Exactly Italy. Despatches from Heroic Garden Festival 2.

“Against the uniform sheet of snow and the greyish winter sky the Italian villa loomed up rather grimly; even in summer it kept its distance, and the boldest coleus bed had never ventured nearer than thirty feet from its awful front.”
Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence (1920)

Coleus, I regret to inform you, appear to be staging a comeback if what I saw in Auckland at the weekend is any guide

Coleus, I regret to inform you, appear to be staging a comeback if what I saw in Auckland at the weekend is any guide


I have done two trips to Italy. The first was a major garden tour in the north, in most elevated international company so it was the full immersion experience where we got to meet head gardeners and, in some cases, garden owners. Why, we even had a reception with the Principe and Principessa Borromeo on Isola Bella. For those not in the know, the Borromeo family have an aristocratic pedigree, wealth, power and influence even today which is beyond the average New Zealander’s comprehension.

Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como

Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como

On my second Italian trip, we were in the south travelling from Sicily to Rome with some incidental garden visiting along the way. The Italian gardening that most of us see is historical and traces its origins to times of much greater personal wealth and power. Yes it is hugely impressive but not, generally, because of the actual plants and gardening. It is the magnificence of the stone structures, the grandness of the villas – which can be very austere – with imposing formality in garden design. Most of it rests on the confident use of space and proportion, delineated in stone. Literally. There is not a hint of tanalised pine to be seen anywhere. The quality of light is also very different to our hard, bright light in this country.

Yes, there tends to be a very restrained plant palette and the same plants are seen in most gardens. I remember writing at one point about the ten plants that show up in every garden. Many of the historic gardens are clipped and groomed to within an inch of their lives and plant health isn’t always great.

Talking to the head gardeners and garden managers, the restricted plant palette is largely climatic. It is not an easy gardening climate, being cold and dry in the north in winter and hot and dry in summer. Further south, it tends to be just dry and dusty. If they could, they would grow a much wider range and that is evident in some fine gardens like Isola Madre and Villa Taranto.

Villa Cimbrone  in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast

Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast

The recently-retired head gardener of Ticino Botanical Park on the Islands of Brissago in Lake Maggiore sought out Mark at the time of our visit. He then stunned us a couple of years later by pedalling in here, unannounced, at Tikorangi. He was biking the country. We really liked Ticino. It was a small island with a villa that seemed more domestic in scale and it had a fine stand of Taxodium distichum growing on the lake edge. His comment to Mark, when he visited here, was: “You must have been very disappointed in Ticino.” He was looking at the range of what we grow compared to the conditions he knew.

So it is a mystery to me as to why New Zealanders, in their quest for “Italian styled” gardens would want to take that restricted plant palette as a mandatory, defining characteristic. This is a country where we can grow almost anything.

The grand historic reality

The grand historic reality

The modern domestic reinterpretation on the other side of the world

The modern domestic reinterpretation on the other side of the world


And can you achieve a domestic version of the grand, historic Italian gardens In New Zealand without the pivotal grand villa and the grace and proportions of a major estate let alone without the historic stonework? I mean, Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como has a genuine Ancient Roman fort in remarkably good condition at the top of the garden. Difficult to top that as a garden feature. And the grand gardens often have landscape vistas of astonishing beauty.

I don’t know anything about contemporary Italian garden design but neither, I suspect, do most New Zealanders. I can say that my limited experience of current domestic gardening in Italy showed a certain leaning towards what they saw as the “romantic English style” – less formal, more frothy and trying the broaden the plant palette.

Not only do New Zealanders on the quest for an Italian-style garden go for a limited range of plants, with the historically questionable exclusion of colour and bloom, they take a simplistic interpretation of hard-edged formal design without acknowledging that this is the garden design of the super powerful and super wealthy Italians in centuries past.

I could suggest that the Italianate gardening that I have seen in this country is to Italian gardening as a dinette is to a dining room, a kitchenette to a kitchen or as marblette is to marble.

All this is because I visited a garden during the Heroic Garden Festival that billed itself as “transport yourself to Italy…”. I don’t think so. It was a beautifully presented, immaculate garden, very hard edged and clipped with “a controlled palette of plants”. The fact that it is not to my personal taste is completely irrelevant. I can respect the determination and focus that goes into creating and maintaining that sort of garden and it was done to a high standard. I am sure the owners are very proud of it.

But Italian, it is not. I think what we bill as Italianate in this country is more Miami hotel-style reinterpretation of Italy. The Italian inspiration is distant at best.

The real deal in Italy

The real deal in Italy

More Miami than Italy in Auckland

More Miami than Italy in Auckland