Edith Wharton's Italian Gardens

Edith Wharton's Italian Gardens

by Vivian Russell

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In 1903 Edith Wharton was commissioned by Century Magazine to write a series of articles on Italian villas and gardens. She gathered her household together and set off with her husband, her housekeeper and her small dogs on a four-month tour of Italy. Her articles were published in 1904 as Italian Villas and their Gardens. One of the first books to treat the

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In 1903 Edith Wharton was commissioned by Century Magazine to write a series of articles on Italian villas and gardens. She gathered her household together and set off with her husband, her housekeeper and her small dogs on a four-month tour of Italy. Her articles were published in 1904 as Italian Villas and their Gardens. One of the first books to treat the subject of Italian garden architecture seriously, it influenced a generation of garden writers and landscape architects. Nearly 100 years later, photographer and writer Vivian Russell set out on her own odyssey, following Edith Wharton's footsteps around Italy to photograph the best surviving gardens from her book and to tell the story of how each one was made. her lively text describes the patrons and architects who created the gardens and explores their hidden symbolic meaning.

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Lincoln, Frances Limited
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NINETEENTH-CENTURY TRAVELLERS crossed the high Alps and entered Italy through the Brenner Pass, the Splugen Pass and over Mount Cenis - but no crossing was so grand, so high and treacherous as the Simplon Pass. 'The Simplon', wrote Lord Byron after he had made the crossing in 116, 'is the most superb of all possible routes. It is magnificent in its nature and in its art both God and man have done wonders - to say nothing of the devil, who must certainly have had a hand (or a hoof) in some of the rock and ravines through and over which the works are carried.'

The Simplon was barely passable in 1800, when Napoleon made it his route between France and Italy. It had remained virtually unchanged since 1644, when John Evelyn had made an epic crossing on a mule and by a miracle survived. He and his party had crept along a narrow and treacherous track in mist so thick they could neither see nor hear one another, proceeding almost blindly across 'ravines of stupendous depths' over unprotected bridges of unfelled fir trees, surrounded on all sides by the 'terrible roaring of cataracts'. It took Napoleon's 30,000 men six years and five million kilos of gunpowder to blast through the massive mountain walls, and to build the 653 bridges over ravines and chasms that were needed to make the road continuous.

Considered the wonder of its day, the new route over the Simplon offered a bracing and dramatic rite of passage into the Promised Land of the Grand Tour, and became the time-honoured way of entering Italy. Among the clutch of early travellers was, in 1814, Caroline of Brunswick, later QueenCaroline, wife of George IV followed soon after by Byron, Stendhal and Shelley Turner painted and sketched his way along the route, as did Ruskin in 1844, the same year that Dickens made the crossing with his wife, five children, servants and the family dog. The young Henry James walked part of the way in 1869, and the French writer Theophile Gautier also crossed the Simplon, leaving a description in Italia, published in 1852, that is as harrowing as Evelyn's.

Travelling from the cold air of the high Alps into the warmth of Italy, carriages lurched and lumbered along vertiginous routes carrying travellers clutching their Baedeker, Bradshaw or Murray guidebooks, which hastened to reassure them that the world ahead was free of the 'perils of precipices and robbers' presently surrounding them. English carriages, reported Byron, were regularly 'stopped and handsomely pilfered of various chattels'. But however alarming, the Pass afforded a breathtakingly beautiful descent into the dreamland of Lombardy. 'Down, down on, on into Italy we went', wrote Henry James to his sister Alice: ' . . . a rapturous progress thro' a wild luxuriance of corn & vines & olives & figs & mulberries & chestnuts & frescoed villages . . . One can't describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could; the floweriest rhetoric can recall it only as a picture on a fireboard [firescreen] recalls a Claude. But it lay spread before me in the long gleam of the Major [Lake Maggiore] . . .'

Beyond lay a vast green plain, as if, remarked Evelyn fancifully, 'Nature had here swept up the rubbish of the earth into the Alps to form and clear the Plains of Lombardy.' From the vast horizon, frequently blanketed in fog, rose the spires of Milan, the city of bankers. Its long moneyed arm had reached into the 'smiling landscape' of the Italian lakes and built villas and gardens there for the vanity and pleasure of the rich.

One by one travellers alighted from their carriages and fell under the spell cast by the purity of the transalpine light playing upon the splendour of the scenery. It was a landscape that stretched from the highest highs of its perpetually snowy white peaks to the bottomless depths of its brooding, deep blue lakes. Wharton found it had 'an air of perennial loveliness'. The mountains were covered in forests of rich chestnut and sombre fir. Through this dark canopy rose the white church towers of white-walled villages built near torrents and streams, and in Shelley's 'glens filled with the flashing light of the waterfalls'.

The Murray guidebook to the north of Italy, first published in 1842, whose overriding aim, noted Henry James, was 'to alleviate the grinding chore of travel', proposed various itineraries in the Lombardy region. Playing the part of an experienced and cautioning nursemaid, it offered minutiae on every point of interest. You were all but taken by the hand, placed in a boat and floated off to the garden paradises of the Borromean Islands. On your way there you could see for yourself if Isola Bella really did resemble 'a huge Perigord Pie stuck round with the heads of woodcocks and partridges'. In Arona, you were led step by step up into the head of the colossal 1 06-foot (3 2.5 -metre) bronze statue of San Carlo Borromeo, where you were instructed to 'squeeze yourself through the folds of the upper and lower drapery of his skirt', and so clamber up the coppery insides of the saint by means of crampons to the top, where 'you could rest by sitting down in the recess of the nose which serves as an arm chair'- with the proviso that 'this should not be attempted by the nervous, or those of corpulent dimensions'. You were guided through the villas of the Milanese gentry inhabited during the season of villeggiatura - the Villa Carlotta, the Villa d'Este and the Villa Pliniana - and told of the terraces, gardens and excellent views from the Villa Serbelloni hotel, but warned of 'complaints of insolence of the landlord to English ladies'. Murray didn't tell the tourist (but Stendhal, in Voyages in Italy, did) that the Villa Serbelloni had been built on the site of an old castle, the Villa Sfrondata, which belonged to the niece of Pope Gregory XIV. Visitors to the villa were shown where she flung her lovers over the precipice and into the lake when she tired of them. 'We saw the spot but we did not see the lovers', noted Stendhal.

Like a genie released from its bottle, the genius loci liberated the imagination, and the scenery that beguiled the tourists also stirred poetic, literary and musical Muses. 'The Lake of Como has figured largely in novels of "immoral" tendency', pronounced Henry James, referring to the hero of Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma, Fabrizio del Dongo, based on Cardinal Alessandro I Farnese (later Pope Paul 111), who began the great Caprarola villa and whose story Stendhal, as the French consul in Rome, moved to Lombardy for diplomatic reasons. The whole atmosphere was decidedly operatic - even Henry James found himself 'fairly wallowing in a libretto'. By the shores of Lake Como, that ever-flowing fountain of inspiration, Bellini composed Norma and La Sonnambula, Rossini Tancredi, and Verdi Act 11 of La Traviata. To try out their arias the composers could avail themselves of the services of Madame Giuditta Pasta, the Maria Callas of her day, and her husband the tenor Giuseppe Pasta, who had a villa on Como. Another diva, 'La Grissina', sang at Isola Bella for Napoleon, who had a tempestuous affair with her. Liszt, forced into exile by an amorous liaison, wrote his 'Dante Sonata' on the shores of Como, where, on Christmas Day 1837, his daughter Cosima was born, the future wife of Richard Wagner, to whom Isola Bella may have suggested Kundry's enchanted garden in his opera Parsifal.

Sitting on a kind of geographical cusp, Lombardy was, by nature, a land of contrasts. The duality of its character, cunningly exploited by garden architects, was everywhere: in the rises and falls of its topography, the highs and lows of its temperature, and the light and dark of its sun and shade. Pliny the Younger, who became Lombardy's most famous early citizen, understood and later represented this inherent dichotomy in the first century AD. He left his native Como at the age of fourteen, but remained wistfully attached to the lake, which had, he said, 'both use and beauty'. When he inherited land from his uncle, Pliny the Elder, he built two villas on either side of Lake Como, one situated high up, the other low down. The higher one, in Bellagio, sat on a ridge straddling two bays, with a view of the Alps more superb than that of any other villa on the lake. He named it 'Tragedia', after the knee-high buskin or cothurnus boot worn by actors in classical Greek tragedies. The lower one, in Lenno, near the Tremezzina bay, hugged the shore; this he called 'Comedia', after the low shoes worn by comic actors. 'Each', he said, 'seems the more attractive to the occupant by contrast with the other.' The Villa Tragedia was aptly named, for it was replaced by the Villa Sfrondata, a shrine to rejected lovers.

Both Plinys became preoccupied with a little bubbling spring at the other end of Como. From the younger Pliny's description of 'the spring which rises in the mountain, and running among rocks is received into a little banqueting room', it seems that it had already been integrated into a house in the first century. It ebbed and flowed by regular amounts three times a day, but Pliny the Younger, who camped and dined beside it, drinking from its water, could not work out the nature of this phenomenon, and offered seven possible explanations for 'this wonderful appearance'. In this story, we find the germ of the essential and most inspired elements of the Italian garden: a passion for the understanding and manipulation of water, and the metaphor of a smal1 spring as the source of al1 creativity.

A Renaissance palace, the Villa Pliniana, was built over the spring in 1570. When Shelley came to Lake Como in April 1818 he was taken to it, felt the poetic muses stirring there and wished to rent it for the summer. Although neglected, the bubbling spring was still ebbing and flowing as it had in Pliny's time and now featured as a fountain in the courtyard. The villa, according to Shelley, was 'built upon terraces raised from the bottom of the lake'. And above, 'from among the clouds as it were, descends a waterfall of immense size, broken by the woody rocks into a thousand channels to the lake'. When Wharton visited Villa Pliniana in April 1903, she marvelled at the way the architect had captured the torrent on its descent from the waterfall and carried it 'through the central apartment of the villa. The effect produced is unlike anything else, even in the wonderland of Italian gardens.'

Villa Pliniana was a purist's paradise: in it Wharton found the essence of Lombardy, uncompromised and unadulterated by the passion for the 'new English garden' that had by then mutilated many other gardens. To her, the Renaissance garden was consecrated ground, and demolishing it to make way for a fashionable English-style park designed to show off sub-tropical and exotic trees and shrubs was an act of desecration: 'The fury of modern horticulture', she fumed, had 'swept over Lombardy like a tidal wave', tearing across the hallowed ground of the old Italian garden, obliterating terraces and groves, pleached alleys and boxed parterres, and leaving a trail of devastation that included winding paths, spotty flowerbeds and rolling lawns. 'Here and there, some undisturbed corner remains . . . but these old bits are so scattered and submerged under the new order of gardening that it requires an effort of the imagination to reconstruct from them an image of what the old lake-gardens must have been before . . .'

Lombardy's equable climate and abundant water supply, she acknowledged, had always allowed the garden architects of the Italian lakes to use flowers in profusion, 'mingling bright colours with architectural masses'; and, loving flowers herself, she understood this 'passion for horticulture' but believed it should remain within the architectural framework of the garden. She accepted that old Italian garden architecture could be 'artificial' and 'avowedly conventional': it could even be 'a complete negation of nature'. She admitted that the fantastic landscape of the lakes 'justified in the garden architect almost any excesses of the fancy'. But what the gardens were not permitted to be was English. The Lombardy gardener who heeded her impassioned plea for conservation could, as the custodian of a museum piece, look forward to a life of raking terraces, clipping box and picking lemons, basking in the warm glow of Edith Wharton's blessing.

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Meet the Author

VIVIAN RUSSELL is a writer and photographer. She has written three other books on Monet - Monet's Landscapes, Monet's Waterlilies, and Planting Schemes for Monet's Garden. The original edition of Monet's Garden, published by Frances Lincoln in 1995, was awarded Book of the Year by the Garden Writer's Guild. She lives in Cumbria.

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