The Best Gardens in Italy; A Traveller's Guide

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2011-05-24
  • Publisher: Frances Lincoln
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Italy's gardens speak to us all. In the history of gardening they are the bridge between our world and the ancient world. Their harmony, symmetry and serenity are at once inimitable and universally copied. During the past few years Italy has awoken to a realization of its gardens. In a gardening renaissance, interesting new gardens are being created all over Italy, and there has been exemplary restoration of some historic gardens. In this pioneering new book, Kirsty McLeod and Primrose Bell celebrate over a hundred of the finest Italian gardens open to the public. They take the reader with them on a journey to these gardens: they explore their history and context, and we meet the owners, hear the stories behind the gardens, and learn how they were made and how they are maintained.


Isola BellaThe garden was begun in 1631 and built over forty years. Neither Count Carlo Borromeo III, who commissioned it, nor the Milanese architect Crivelli, to whom he entrusted the design, lived to see its completion. Count Carlo was the nephew of the cardinal-saint Carlo Borromeo and husband to Isabella d’Adda, after whom the island – originally Isola Isabella – was named. To Crivelli, a relative unknown, fell the preliminary hard labour of levelling the rock, and building massive vaults to support the terracing. Bishop Gilbert Burnet, who visited Isola Bella in 1685, reported that, ‘The whole Island is a garden . . . and because the figure of the Island was not made regular by Nature they have built great Vaults and Portica`s along the Rock . . . and so they have brought it into a regular form by laying earth over these Vaults.’ Tons of this earth, as well as tufa, pink Baveno granite and enormous blocks of dressed stone, all had to be shipped in by boat. When Carlo III died, his son Vitaliano Borromeo took on the project, bringing in experts such as Carlo Fontana and the Milanese church architect Francesco Castelli. The garden`s progress is chronicled by letters between Vitaliano and his brother Cardinal Giberto, who wrote anxiously from Rome about details such as the size of the statues. To a certain extent, the lack of plants seen in dal Re’s 1726 engraving of Isola Bella must reflect his own eighteenth-century taste. In 1663, Borromeo records tell us, one hundred terracotta pots bearing the family crest were ordered for the garden, while citrus, box, cypress and, more unusually, elegant vegetable plots were planted. By 1739 when the Burgundian scholar and politician Charles de Brosses came, pots of flowers had appeared on the balustrades, while the terraces sported trellises hung with oranges, jasmine and pomegranates. Baedeker in 1882 noted the addition of cedars, magnolias, laurels, ‘magnificent oleanders and other luxuriant products of the south’, and by the time Edith Wharton visited at the turn of the century, every path, every balustrade, every stairway was wreathed in flowers. Today, the garden, one of the best kept in Italy, still guards a heritage of magnificent trees, including at the entrance a huge, ancient camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora), partnered by Cinnamomum glanduliferum, the false camphor. Without overwhelming the dramatic architecture, rare and tender plants crowd the lower terraces. A wall of camellias is underplanted with showy Bletia hyacintha; Mimosa pudica, the sensitive plant, is interestingly placed beside a path. Cannas and Musa add their spiky exoticism, and tamarind, myrtles, mimosas and oleander bloom in lush profusion.

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