Anne LatreilleA garden tour of Italy (Part 2)

Travelling in Italy, I am constantly – and refreshingly – surprised at the green planting that defines the gardens and the landscape. So much so that when colours crop up, they’re a kind of embroidery, something that focuses the eye – as with this wisteria at Villa La Foce  – but doesn’t immediately attract it.

Colour embroidery, Villa La Foce

Colour embroidery, Villa La Foce

Instead, I find that I look first at the trees and shrubs and the grasses, their shapes and shades of green. The flowers come to my attention later, as do coloured leaves like Acer palmatum dissectum, and Acer palmatum dissectum atropurpureum at Russell Page’s San Liberato garden.

Coloured leaves offset the greener picture, San Liberato

Coloured leaves offset the greener picture, San Liberato

These last are certainly lovely, but they offset the bigger picture. As Claudio, the head gardener there, said:

‘The main aspect of this garden is green. Other colours come later – and they pass quickly.’

In early spring, the greens lead you in – irresistibly. Along pathways (La Landriana),

Greens lead you along pathways

Greens lead you along pathways

under arching trees (Castello Orsini, near Pienza),

and under arching trees

and under arching trees

on sloping land (Castello Guiliano, where we are told that ‘one must respect the nature of the place and the line of the landscape’). Above or within flat geometric open space (Villa La Foce, Villa Cetinale), and offsetting art work (Villa Farnese). Their hues open your eyes so that you start to think about the texture of a garden.

above geometric open space

above geometric open space

or within it

or within it

offsetting artwork

offsetting artwork

providing texture

providing texture

But despite this, can any of us actually do without flowers? Probably not, because in the Italian spring season they take my breath away! Here are some of the close-up stars from my trip. Irises freshly blooming, Wisteria, Clematis, orchids and Callistemon (another Australian!)

Wisteria

Wisteria

Iris

Iris

Clematis

Clematis

Orchid

Orchid

Callistemon

Callistemon

Roses.

Roses

Roses

Roses

Roses

And here are plants seen from further away, which make an individual statement – like this peony – or are thoughtfully blended.

Perfect peony

Perfect peony

I find flowers and plants particularly beautiful when they are set against walls. Like white wisteria,

Walls with wisteria

Walls with wisteria

roses (again), an emerging fig, even weeds. I did observe that almost every garden that I saw had its fair share of weeds flourishing around shrubs, trees, perennials. But the plants are so well-chosen that, somehow, this doesn’t seem to matter.

Roses against a wall

Roses against a wall

An emerging fig

An emerging fig

Weeds against a wall

Weeds against a wall

The walls encourage you to take a second look at other built features. Like steps at Villa Vicobello – these date from the 1500s

Ancient steps, Villa Vicobello

Ancient steps, Villa Vicobello

– and at Palazzo Farnese on either side of an elegant water feature.

Steps at Palazzo Farnese

Steps at Palazzo Farnese

Street paving in the town of Sutri.

Paving on a street at SutriA footpath with stones from the Roman era re-used at Page’s San Liberato garden – and a glorious melange of old stonework and more recent planting by its adjoining Romanesque church.

and by a Romanesque church, San Liberato

and by a Romanesque church, San Liberato

Then there are some special features that make you step back and say either ‘Wow!’ or ‘Goodness me!’ My main ‘wow’ factor is the orange tree stock at Villa Farnesina in Rome. Some 20 species are there; because our trip is rushed, I don’t note their names, but they range from the unusual to the (prolific) normal.

Citrus can be very unusual

Citrus can be very unusual

or usual - and prolific

or usual – and prolific

Then, ‘Goodness me!’ a few of us whisper as we note the way the magnolias have been chopped in one of the beautiful enclosures at Russell Page’s La Landriana garden. Our guide assures us they’ll be back in shape in a year or two ….

Heavily pruned magnolias amid lush planting

Heavily pruned magnolias amid lush planting

In any space, people contribute a lot. Whether these are tour leaders (ours are Tricia Dixon who lives near Cooma in New South Wales, and Philippa Torlonia, an Australian who has been based in Rome since the 1960s, or intelligent guides (of which we enjoy plenty), whether they are workers

A worker in a garden

or local residents, they add to our awareness. And put a broad smile on our already happy faces.

A resident with a (camouflaged) potplant

A resident with a (camouflaged) potplant

In retrospect, the Italian gardens have a touch of magic. So I’ll sum up with a comment by Russell Page about his work at San Liberato. He wrote:

‘I know of no garden more magical than this, so strong is the atmosphere of tranquillity, the just relationship of trees and woods to lake and mountain and sky – the simple planes of the gardens, the sloping woods and fields where even the details of more gardening sections have come together in silent harmony.’

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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.

2 thoughts on “A garden tour of Italy (Part 2)

  1. The trees at San Liberato are magnificent and the church is lovely. But overall I found San Liberato a disappointment.I think that in trying to maintain Page’s work as it was, the relationships that were so important to him are now out of balance. There is a museum-like quality that is fighting against the living and ever-changing nature of a garden. A pity.

  2. I agree. This is one reason why I used that last quote from Russell Page, which I found in ‘The Gardens of Russell Page’ (Schinz and van Zuylen, 1991). Have you read Page’s own book ‘The Education of a Gardener’ (1962)? It’s wonderful! In it he says that (garden) planning needs to be ‘a living, growing thing’ in order to avoid making ‘a sterile museum piece’.

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