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.
I’ve sorted them, and they’ve moved seamlessly into these categories:
1. Views out
2. Views in
(and then later, in Part 2 of this blog post)
4. Green planting
5. Detailed flowering
6. ‘Specials’ – individual plants and building detail
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.
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.
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.
Further north, sailing on Lake Como presents wonderful blends of water, trees and mountains.
South of Livorno I relish green grass, old buildings and the sea.
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.
Sometimes here – and elsewhere where a garden adjoins open country – the plantings are open and a bit wild,
sometimes they are shaded,
more often they are built around formal box hedging, as at the wonderful Castello Ruspoli at Vignanello,
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.
For me La Landriana, south of Rome, does it even better.
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
or in long lines beside roads and fields.
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,
tower into the sky, their foliage making a strong statement at the top. Fastigiate cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) punctuate the landscape,
especially fields, fences and driveways, in a series of deep, dark green exclamation marks. The stone pines and cypresses also 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
and setting off the colour of 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.
[Categories 4-7 of green planting, detailed flowering, ‘specials’ and people, in Part 2 coming soon]