Helena Attlee and her photographer husband Alex Ramsay have been visiting Italian gardens, photographing them and writing about them, for two decades. In recent years Helena has been leading garden tours to Italy, arranging for clients to enjoy lunch with garden owners, chat with gardeners and discuss designs with landscape architects. These behind-the-scenes glimpses are the inspiration for Italy's Private Gardens, a book built around conversations with people intimately associated with some of Italy's most intriguing private gardens. Owners, designers and gardeners talk freely about their personal experiences, the problems they have faced and overcome. Each garden is introduced with a brief history. With stunning photographs taken by Alex Ramsay, Italy's Private Gardens takes in 19 gardens in Piedmont, the Veneto, Tuscany, Lazio, Umbria and, unusually, Sicily, and includes interviews with Arabella Lennox-Boyd at Palazzo Parisi, Jane and Francesco da Mosto at their retreat in the Venetian lagoon, Principessa Maria Carla Borghese at Il Biviere and Gil Cohen and Paul Gervais at Villa Massei.
'I wasn't sure that we had really made a garden', the principessa says, 'until I received a call from Clarence House in London to ask if the Queen Mother could visit Il Biviere with some friends.' These illustrious visitors arrived in 1988 and responded to the garden with such delight that the principessa was finally convinced that she had achieved her aim. It had been a long journey. When she and her husband started to plan the garden they had 'no idea' what they were doing. They began by buying two books in California, one on exotics and the other on succulents. 'This gave us an idea of all the plants that would grow in a climate more or less like ours,' she says, 'and from then on we experimented.' There was much structural work to be done before planting could begin. They focused their attention at first on the little stone harbour beside the house. The empty basin was enclosed by walls so ancient that the ropes of moored boats had cut grooves and even holes deep into its surface. The Borghese brought in tons of topsoil to fill the basin, re-submerging the harbour walls once again. They waited patiently for grass to self-seed naturally in the soil-filled basin. They could have sown the area with a commercial lawn seed, or even used turf to achieve an instant verdure. By watering and mowing native grasses, however, they eventually created a resilient lawn that sits naturally in the surrounding landscape.
At this early stage the Borghese chose 'easy' plants for the garden. The tiny, frost-hardy yuccas that they planted against the garden façade of the house have now reached roof height, and so have the cereus and organ-pipe cacti that were placed like sentries on either side of the front door. The ancient harbour walls that just broke the surface of the new lawn were hollowed out and filled with soil and grit, becoming an ingenious plant theatre where the principessa could display the statuesque cacti and succulents that line the boundary of the harbour like a series of impressive statues.
A small door leads from the shady harbour to the dazzling sunshine of the main garden, which covers an area of approximately 2.5 hectares. We process, the principessa, her cat and I, from one remarkable tree or plant to the next. Here is the Parkinsonia aculeata (Jerusalem thorn) that the Queen Mother so appreciated on her visit in June 1988. 'She fell in love with it' Principessa Borghese recalls, 'because it was completely covered in jasmine-scented yellow flowers.' And here is a towering jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) which first displays its vivid blue flowers in spring, but holds onto them until early summer. By then, the double white flowers of the roses (Rosa fortuniana) will be in full swing. A generous flight of steps links this area of the garden directly to the drawing room inside the house. The double doors are generally wide open and the principessa loves this integration of house and garden.
The cat leads us from the upper garden near the house to the open lawns below it. Here the principessa pushes aside the leaves of cycads to reveal a nest filled with female cones that look rather like eggs laid by some passing dinosaur. On sunny, sloping ground, we find a battalion of agaves that she has planted in a formidable row. They are all the more impressive because, like so many of the plants in the garden, they have been given the space to grow unhindered, achieving their full, sculptural glory. By placing different varieties side by side, she has revealed the subtle differences in the turning of their leaves and the shapes of their ferocious spines. She is attentive to their needs. 'I made this little slope for them,' she explains, 'because they can't bear to have waterlogged roots.' Unlike so many gardeners, however, she does not subject her succulents to drought. Given an optimum amount of water, and grown in soil enriched with the remains of millions of aquatic creatures, they achieve an extraordinary stature. Principessa Borghese risks injury in order to take off the dead leaves at the base of each agave so that, like film stars or fashionable politicians, they always look their best. There are some Agave ferox in her collection, with blue-green leaves, A. americana - the century plant - and the massive A. salmiana which is justly named 'the giant agave'. What a desperate thing it is to love a monocarpic plant. To cultivate and coax it towards the flowering that will end its life. 'They grow quite fast here,' the principessa says. 'It has only taken twelve years for the Agave salmiana to reach this height.' Twelve years to throw out this wonderful curved rosette of grey-green leaves. Twelve years to arm itself with lethal spines. And then comes the climax, the floral candelabra that endures for months, leaving the mother plant desiccated and lifeless.
Palm trees form the core of the garden at Il Biviere. Phoenix canariensis, with their lovely cross-hatched trunks, grow beside the swimming pool, and elsewhere there is the Brazilian Cocos plumosa, the Queen palm, producer not of coconuts, but of dates. The principessa's passion for palms began 30 years ago when a friend gave her a Washingtonia robusta in a pot. She planted it out and today she refers to it as 'the mother of all palms'. As it grew and flourished the palm dropped seeds all over the garden. She let the seed germinate and grow in naturalistic groups wherever it fell. The palms appreciated Il Biviere's rich soil and tolerated the frosts that occasionally strike the garden. A cluster of four or five have been allowed to grow beside the swimming pool, creating a strange earthen groin between their stems. This naturalistic approach is the principessa'a trademark. By planting mixed stands of exotic and native trees she helped to integrate the new garden into the surrounding landscape. She is particularly fond of the carob trees (Ceratonia siliqua) that are endemic to Ragusa and the surrounding area. In the wild they often grow on parched and stony ground. It pleases the principessa to offer her own tree an easier existence, and it repays her by producing countless clusters of heavily scented, tubular flowers that emerge directly from its stems. The flowers will be followed by carob pods. 'Every seed in the pod is of equal size,' the principessa explains. 'This has made them very useful as weights. The Arabs used them to weigh out gold, and that is where the word 'carat' comes from.'
Principessa Borghese has been careful not to eradicate this strange landscape's memory of its past. She has preserved one of the iron boats used by fishermen for cutting canes on the banks of the lake, and the garden is scattered with the water-worn lumps of porous rock that once lay on the lake floor. One of these rocks has been subjected to intolerable pressure by the blunt and gargantuan foot of the aptly named Yucca elephantipes. The base of the trunk, with its finely sculpted toenails, has pressed down so hard on the rock that it has split in two, an image that seems to convey the determination of this robust community of exotic plants and trees to make their mark on the Sicilian landscape.