Most garden lovers have heard about the lake gardens of northern Italy – maybe read about one or two – enough to know they are significant places. I, for one, almost negligently, haven’t visited any of them. So when I had the opportunity to review ‘Gardens of the Italian Lakes’ I took it! I hoped it would give me an inside view of these famous villa gardens and a good notion of their visiting worthiness. It did that! ★★★★½
Glancing at the inside cover, the book says it will “become the standard work on these gardens”. It hopes to appeal to specialists and to garden enthusiasts who anticipate visiting and are looking for an authoritative guide. A resounding yes on both counts from me!
It’s a proper ‘grown up’ book, combining Steven Desmond’s thoughtfully written chapters on seventeen gardens at two beautifully scenic lakes – Maggiore and Como. The text is accompanied by sumptuous photographs by Marianne Majerus. His writing is not merely a description of the gardens, although it does this well, but it unfolds the history of these gardens’ owners and makers – often intertwined with social and political happenings of the times.
I found quite engrossing the history of the Lombardy region – ruled for a time by Austria – and of the French, Swiss and Italian history. Not just the official details, but fascinating insights about how the events of the day influenced property sales, rivalry between the lake villas, relationships of intimacy and admiration, wars and other influences that affected how the gardens were born, how they developed and how they became what they are today. There’s an absorbing amount of detail and intrigue that satisfyingly delves into what these gardens mean.
The book is in two parts, one for each of the subalpine lakes in their spectacular settings. Part One opens with an introduction to Lake Maggiore, attractively framed for almost its full length by wooded mountains and infrequent littoral towns. Snow often dusts the peaks around the lake in spring, and the majestic Swiss Alps loom from many of the lake’s vantage points. So all in all, not bad for photographers! I’m told the climate is interesting, and belies its location at the foothills of the Alps. It gets plenty of sunshine and plenty of rain, with the temperature moderated by the large, almost inland-sea-like, body of water. The soil is excellent – acidic and rich in minerals – with fine climatic conditions for vigorous growth rates, supporting plants from many different parts of the world. This reflects the huge plant range in these Lake Maggiore gardens.
Part Two transports one to Lake Como, one of the deepest lakes in Europe. It’s on the doorstep of Milan, and so could have disappeared under tourist development. It hasn’t – due to its mountainous terrain rising steeply from the shores which creates an inland ‘fjord-like’ landscape. The steep rocky slopes don’t suit development, and the geography makes the weather changeable, and so unpredictable. The level of the lake varies considerably. The microclimate suits a wide range of plants but the overall sense is harsher than Lake Maggiore. The limestone geology creates alkaline soil, overlaid in some of the gardens with imported acidic topsoil to grow Rhododendron and Camellia.
I may never get to Isola Bella, the 17th century baroque island garden on Lake Maggiore, but I think I’d really like to, having read the wildly varying visitor impressions from across the centuries. Bishop Burnet, who left England hastily when James II came to the throne, visited Isola Bella during a boredom-relieving European tour and gushed about its enchantment. Later, French politician and scholar Charles de Brosses made disparaging remarks about it compared to French offerings (predictably?). Napoleon Bonaparte took over the island for two days and held a party celebrating the conquest of Lombardy. Essayist William Hazlitt thought his visit a waste of time, and political writer Samuel Laing described it as a monument of senseless expenditure, expounding “…. looks like an old court lady arrayed in silks, lace, and diamonds, a hooped petticoat, and white satin shoes, left by some mischance, squatting down all alone in the midst of a Highland loch.” Now I’m sure I’d love it!
Steven Desmond also draws on commentary from previous books about the gardens. So we begin to build a picture of Isola Bella’s fluctuating popularity – resulting somewhat from the fashions of the times. Richard Bagot, in The Italian Lakes in 1905, took a dim view of the garden overall but showed his growing appreciation for the English-style plantings – his mixed opinions reflecting changing attitudes towards Isola Bella. J C Shepherd and Geoffrey Jellicoe visited in 1925 and published their distaste, but in their revised book of 1953, they ‘updated’ their views somewhat, commenting “this lovely decadent island scene is one of the great landscapes of the world.”
Desmond brings us to the present day, walking us into the garden for a taste of its contents, where it is in relation to the lake, and its lay-out. He describes it in evocative detail, supported by the excellent photographs specially taken and captioned with descriptions, details and how scenes ‘work’ (I’ve included the captions as printed with images to demonstrate this). But intelligently, not all is given away, leaving one wanting to be in the garden in person. I want to see if I can detect ‘the kink in the main axis’, linking the villa at one end to the terraced garden at the other, disguised ingeniously in the Atrium of Diana (apparently Edwin Lutyens used something similar in two of his English gardens in the early 20thC). And of course to see the flock of white peacocks.
Other Lake Maggiore gardens include Villa Cicogna Mozzoni, Villa Della Porta Bozzolo, Villa San Remigio – an Edwardian garden made by two lovers, Villa Táranto – one of the world’s great woodland gardens, and Isola Madre – an island retreat of flowers and birds.
One of the pleasures of visiting Isola Madre is the approach by boat, taking in the prominent rectangular villa with palms, oleanders and climbers, terraces clad in creeping fig descending towards the visitor arrival point, and romantic outcrops of rock sprouting greenery and flowers over the lapping water. This sets the tone for what is to come, a happy melding of a richly planted garden in the English style, laid out over an Italian stone framework. Here the ornamental fowl are as multi-coloured as you can’t imagine – brilliant Lady Amherst’s pheasant and the black and white ‘silver’ pheasant with its red highlights amongst the birds that distinguish this place from its sister island. The overall affect is entirely different from nearby Isola Bella, summarised by Desmond thus:
“There, all is splendour, nobility, state and parade. This (Isola Madre), by contrast, is carpet slippers and afternoon tea.”
Isola Madre has had its share of famous visitors. A young Gustave Flaubert holidayed with his parents, writing that he found it the most ‘voluptuous’ location where he found himself in a ‘sensual state’. As Desmond says, “the mind boggles”! The garden’s popularity grew, with its position on the 1879 garden ‘must visit’ list cemented by the visit of not only Umberto I, king of the newly unified Italy, but also Queen Victoria.
One of its remarkable trees, the monumental Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana), which arrived as seed from a plant-hunting expedition in 1862, was blown over in the storm of 2006 which flattened most things in its path. The falling tree missed the house, lying forlornly on the ground beside it, attached by a hinge of rootplate on one side. Prince Borromeo decided it could be saved. He hired a helicopter which pulled it upright with a cable. Steel cable-braces were then attached to hold the tree in place, much like a flagpole. Surprisingly, the tree seems to be recovering, but the cables remain, just in case.
Villa Melzi is among the gardens on Lake Como – an early 19th century romantic park on the lake shore at Bellagio, Villa del Balbianello with its famously picturesque loggia (I so want to touch the serpent-like creeping fig winding around the columns), Villa D’Este – a 16th century cascade garden, and Villa Carlotta – built late in the 17th century by the Clerici family. The gilded letter ‘C’s on the forecourt entrance gates (seen in the book cover image) isn’t for ‘Clerici’. Rather it’s for ‘Carlotta’, the Italianised form of the name taken by Charlotte, daughter of Princess Marianne of the Netherlands. Carlotta inherited the property from her mother on marrying her love Georg, heir to the dukedom of Saxe-Meiningen. It was during the Saxe-Meiningen period the long terraces were richly replanted as a woodland garden, a change of style that continues to define the garden. Azaleas grow happily in the huge quantity of imported acidic topsoil. The scale and extravagance of these gardens is astonishing.
Villa Carlotta, like many of the gardens, was affected by war. Duke Georg died at the outbreak of WWI and in 1915 ‘Italy entered the war, allied against Germany. Villa Carlotta was now the property of an enemy, but was spared confiscation and placed under temporary management. With the family never likely to return after the war, it was due to be sold until local enthusiasts intervened and it was eventually taken over by a charitable trust which owns it to this day’.
In a nutshell…
I would say the book achieves its objectives very well. It is certainly absorbing reading, while being laid out in a style that suits contemplation – one garden at a time. This also makes it easy to look up a particular garden. As well, there are useful maps, addresses, contact details and helpful opening arrangements.
If you are considering a visit to the Italian Lakes, definitely read this book for inspiration and information, and to help you decide which gardens to include in your itinerary – though now I just want to go to all of them! If you’re armchair touring, or studying gardens, this book will get you as close as is possible for a gloriously illuminating ‘mental cruise’ in these gardens of the lakes.
GARDENS OF THE ITALIAN LAKES
Text by Steven Desmond, photographs by Marianne Majerus
Published by Frances Lincoln, distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin
RRP AUS $69.99 UK £35 Hardcover