Anne LatreilleA garden tour of Italy

If you’re lucky enough to have experienced a high-quality garden tour in Italy, during the wonderful (mostly) sunny month of May when landscapes and gardens are burgeoning with new growth, how do you best share it with others? Do you document it garden by garden, plant by plant? Or do you convey its broad message, and rely on images as much as words? I’m going for the second option, because after a lot of travel I have hundreds of photographs to work with. And seen as a whole, they speak to me about themes rather than specific places.

Early morning mist at Pienza

Views out: Early morning mist at Pienza

I’ve sorted them, and they’ve moved seamlessly into these categories:
1. Views out
2. Views in
3. Trees

(and then later, in Part 2 of this blog post)
4. Green planting
5. Detailed flowering
6. ‘Specials’ – individual plants and building detail
7. People

A long view out appears as the mist lifts

Views out: a long view out appears as the mist lifts

Views out takes me first around Tuscany – where there are seven world heritage sites, including the wonderful town of Pienza where we stayed for four nights – before heading to Rome via the region of Lazio, then to Milan and Lake Como, then to the coast below Livorno.

Looking out from the room of our Pienza hotel through early morning mist is magic, even more so once the mist lifts.

Grapes and green countryside

Grapes and green countryside

Driving through green countryside to historic old villas not only reacquaints me with grapevine planting (so typical of this part of Italy!) but provides perspective that is amplified by the shape and detail of the palace and villa gardens (see categories 4, 5 and 6 above) that we visit, and of the houses.

Views out: from a window, Castello di Potentino

Views out: from a window, Castello di Potentino

Here’s a view out from the stone bathroom window at the Castello di Potentino.

And a vista from Villa la Foce that shows how, every now and then, the broad landscape can be a cityscape – framed with fine trees this is really special.

Views out: landscape and cityscape, from Villa La Foce

Views out: landscape and cityscape, from Villa La Foce

Further north, sailing on Lake Como presents wonderful blends of water, trees and mountains.

Views out: water. trees and mountains, Lake Como

Views out: water. trees and mountains, Lake Como

South of Livorno I relish green grass, old buildings and the sea.

Views out: green grass, old buildings, the sea, south of Livorno

Views out: green grass, old buildings, the sea, south of Livorno

Views in has a focused perspective, with equally magical shades of green. If you want to climb up the hair-raisingly steep walkway to the church building behind the Villa Cetinale, you begin with a relaxed flight of stone steps.

Views in: relaxed steps, Villa Cetinale

Views in: relaxed steps, Villa Cetinale

Sometimes here – and elsewhere where a garden adjoins open country – the plantings are open and a bit wild,

Views in: open planting

Views in: open planting

sometimes they are shaded,

Views in: shaded planting, Palazzo Farnese

Views in: shaded planting, Palazzo Farnese

more often they are built around formal box hedging, as at the wonderful Castello Ruspoli at Vignanello,

Views in: formal planting, Castello Ruspoli

Views in: formal planting, Castello Ruspoli

which has been in ownership of one (broad) family for many centuries.

Sometimes they exude the finest design skill and plant knowledge – as with two 1960s gardens by landscape architect Russell Page. San Liberato, north of Rome, has plantings that give a new sense of perspective.

Views in: planting with perspective, La Landriana

Views in: planting with perspective, La Landriana

For me La Landriana, south of Rome, does it even better.

Ancient olive trees at La Landriana, Italy

Ancient olive trees at La Landriana, Italy

Page once said:

‘The art of composing a garden is first of selection, then of emphasis.’

Trees – wherever we travel they’re amazingly repetitive; dramatic stone (or umbrella) pines, tall slender cypresses, inviting olives. And stunning, whether they stand alone

Trees: stone pine stands alone in Rome

Trees: stone pine stands alone in Rome

or in long lines beside roads and fields.

Trees: a row south of Livorno

Trees: a row south of Livorno

This stone pine (Pinus pinea) – introduced into Italy by Benito Mussolini in the 1920s to become a symbol of the Mediterranean – defines each place. Tall strong trunks, bare yet richly textured with bark that is fire-resistant,

Trees: fire-resistant bark of the stone pine

Trees: fire-resistant bark of the stone pine

tower into the sky, their foliage making a strong statement at the top. Fastigiate cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) punctuate the landscape,

Trees: punctuation with pines at Villa Cetinale

Trees: punctuation with pines at Villa Cetinale

especially fields, fences and driveways, in a series of deep, dark green exclamation marks. The stone pines and cypresses also come together.

Trees: stone pine and cypress come together

Trees: stone pine and cypress come together

Then there are multitudinous olive trees – these were Italy’s keynote before the stone pines arrived. Most are carefully down-sized to allow easy harvesting, their grey-green leafage and tiny white spring flowers softening the broad landscape

Trees: olives soften the landscape

Trees: olives soften the landscape

and setting off the colour of flowering plants.

Trees: and set off flowering plants

Trees: and set off flowering plants

And I can’t fail to mention three (to me) ‘specials’ – Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum), sometimes in private gardens, sometimes lining streets; the spring-flowering Australian white cedar (Melia azederach); and tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), their lush green leaves proliferating as the ivory/lemon flowers open up.

Trees: flowers and foliage of Liriodendron tulipifera

Trees: flowers and foliage of Liriodendron tulipifera

[Categories 4-7 of green planting, detailed flowering, ‘specials’ and people, in Part 2 coming soon]

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Anne Latreille

About Anne Latreille

Writer, editor and journalist. Author of 'Garden Voices' (about Australian garden designers past and present, September 2013), 'Garden of a Lifetime' (Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm), 'Kindred Spirits' and 'The Natural Garden'. Melbourne, Victoria.

12 thoughts on “A garden tour of Italy

  1. Gosh, this has really taken me back to early last June, when I spent a wonderful few days in Tuscany. The sense of place in this region is just immense, with the olives and pines and cypresses. All with such amazing structure, they don’t need fussy details around them. I really must get to Lake Como some time soon though…it’s very high on my list and getting higher with seeing your photos!

    • Yes, I hope to go back to Tuscany again one day. The last time I was there, in fact, was 1972 (!) That made me feel rather old until I discovered how invigorating is the wonderful undulating landscape with its simple beauty, rich history, quiet energy and fine lines. Yes, Lake Como is really beautiful, especially from out on the water or high up on the hillsides.

  2. carlo gabriele on said:

    I love this collection of pictures: each of them is so inspirational.
    And it makes me feel at home!

  3. Louise McDaid on said:

    Thanks Anne, for the pics that transported me back to the countryside around Pienza (I was there in May and discovered how lovely it is) and those pines in Rome! Loved your thoughts on grouping pics, they’ll help me sort mine into something that makes sense out of the current folder of chaos!

    • Isn’t Pienza the most glorious spot – both inside the town and around it. Glad my sorting of pics may be of help, I have to say that my own head is now (marginally) less chaotic!

  4. Anne King on said:

    Hi Anne
    A very seductive set of photographs! We are currently pondering destinations for travel in 2016, and I’m wondering about the details of this particular tour? So many exciting possibilities its hard to make decisions.

    • We did the tour through ADFAS (Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society) and Academy Travel – check websites. Guides being Trisha Dixon and Philippa Torloni; in 2016 they’re operating further south, in and around Naples. Hope this helps!

  5. Dear Anne,

    Special to see photos of Cetinale. Had the privilege of two private visits there, maybe 15 years apart, and last time it was very run down, as you show in the view up the hill to the chapel. But the other photo shows it is now quite manicured again closer to the house. What an extraordinary villa and garden in such a wonderful broader landscape. Thanks for sharing your photos and I love the line of trees near Livorno.

    • That’s interesting about your previous experience of Villa Cetinale, certainly it is beautifully set out and cared for now, and the wilder parts around the edge are a change of scene that – as you say – adds to the big picture. Thanks for the feedback and I hope you enjoy the 2nd half of the blog!

  6. jimenace on said:

    Lovely Anne,

    I am just back from Sicily and one forgets the extent to which Italians provide wonderful landscapes and gardens with such a limited range of trees, shrubs and flowers.
    But somehow, the limited palette is much, much more!
    And when you analyse what we are looking at – most of it is man-made rather than native flora. i did not know that Mussolini had introduced the Stone Pine and of course, the Olive – that most Mediterranean of plants – apparently came from east of Turkey near Syria somewhere thousands of years ago.
    As Louisa Jones writes – these are evolved landscapes over many millenia.

    Lots of lessons for Aussies!

    Warwick Forge

    • Yes, we learn something every time we change continents/environments/time of year!!

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