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Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside

Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside

by Andrea Di Robilant


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From the author of the best-selling A Venetian Affair, here is the charming chronicle of his search for the identity of a mysterious old rose. Andrea di Robilant’s tale takes us back to the time of Josephine Bonaparte, as well as into some of the most delightful rose gardens in Italy today, brought to colorful life on the page in the watercolors of artist Nina Fuga.
In his 2008 biography of the Venetian lady Lucia Mocenigo (his great-great-great-great- grandmother), di Robilant described a pink rose that grows wild on the family’s former country estate, mentioning its light peach-and-raspberry scent. This passing detail led to an invitation for an audience with a local rose doyenne, Eleonora Garlant. She and other experts wondered if di Robilant’s unnamed rose could possibly be one of the long-lost China varieties that nineteenth-century European growers had cultivated but which have since disappeared. On the hunt for the identity of his anonymous yet quietly distinctive rose, Di Robilant finds himself captivated by roseophiles through time––from Lucia and her friend Josephine Bonaparte to the gifted Eleonora, whose garden of nearly fifteen hundred varieties of old roses is one of the most significant in Europe––and by the roses themselves, each of which has a tale to tell.

What starts out as a lighthearted quest becomes a meaningful journey as di Robilant contemplates the enduring beauty of what is passed down to us in a rose, through both the generosity of nature and the cultivating hand of human beings, who for centuries have embraced and extended the life of this mysterious flower.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307962928
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/06/2014
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Andrea di Robilant was born in Italy and educated at Columbia University, where he specialized in international affairs. He is the author of A Venetian Affair, Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, and Irresistible North: From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers. He lives in Rome.

Table of Contents

1 Alvisopoli 3

2 Malmaison 13

3 The Rose Planter 32

4 Cordovado 55

5 Eleonora's Old Roses 74

6 The Bee and the Hawfinch 100

7 Orphan Roses 121

8 Eleonora and Valentino 140

9 Monsieur Joyaux 155

10 A Chinese Garden in Umbria 176

Acknowledgments 197

Select Bibliography 199

Index 201


A Q&A with Andrea Di Robilant
Q: How did you come to write about a mysterious rose given to your glamorous ancestor by Empress Josephine 200 years ago?
A: Well, I didn’t really know that was where it came from when I started out. In the beginning it was just a lovely scented pink rose that grew wild in the woods on land on the Venetian mainland that had once belonged to my family. This mysterious rose had attracted the curiosity of a few local residents, but no one could figure out what it was or where it came from. So that’s what really got me started – well, that and a few chance discoveries.
Q: Would you describe this rose and what makes it so charming and special among roses?
A: It is a shrub with a lovely silvery pink rose, clearly an old Chinese rose, semi-double, very sturdy and exceptionally fragrant. It smells of raspberries and nectarines. I planted one in my garden. It blooms all year round very profusely and the flowers get prettier and fuller every year. It looks like an Old Blush but the blooms are more beautiful and much more scented.
Q: The book reads as if a detective story, full of labyrinths, stops and starts, false leads, and occasional happy surprises. Did you feel like a detective?
A: Well, more like a reporter. Which is what I have been all my life. Initially I thought of it as an interesting piece of news. “Mysterious Chinese Rose Grows Wild In Woods of Northern Italy.” Once my curiosity was piqued I wanted to get to the bottom of the story. But it was never a straight line. Mostly twists and turns that led me to interesting people, charming gardens, unexpected places. And every time I thought I had reached a dead end someone appeared on my path to get me going again.
Q: What, if anything did you know about roses before you began this book? Were you a gardener at all and/or has this experience made you a rose afficionado?
A: I didn’t know the first thing about roses, and although I have a small garden I never had time to take care of it. I certainly never thought of myself as a gardener. Poking around old roses I often felt like an impostor as I was often with people who knew a great deal about roses. I have grown to love roses and now I know a little bit about them – what I learned in the course of a year. So not much at all, really. And when I am asked to talk to rosarians I still feel like an impostor!
Q: It seems that most of the interesting roses come from China originally and then spread to the West through England and France. Is it a cultural or artistic thing or was it the climate, and is that even accurate to say?
A: The arrival of Chinese roses in Europe in the eighteenth century caused a revolution in the world of roses. Chinese roses brought remontancy – repeat flowering – and colors never seen before, including red and yellow. So you can imagine the impact these roses had once they were crossed with European species and varieties. There was a big bang effect. A hybridization frenzy took over, especially in nineteenth century France, and the staid old world of roses exploded in many directions.
Q: Although this started for you as a light-hearted quest, you learned a great deal from several of the rose-o-philes you met along the way. Can you talk about the discoveries you enjoyed or some of the fascinating people you met?
A: I have to say that the biggest thrill was to spend time in the garden of Eleonora Garlant and her husband Valentino. It is a rustic rose garden of great beauty and sophistication. Eleonora is entirely self-taught and had never seen a rose garden or a formal garden before she started planting her roses around her vegetable plots. She has created such a perfect environment for roses that new varieties grow spontaneously in her garden: as many as five or six new roses come to life there every year. I was taken by the notion that her garden was a fountainhead of roses in a world of rapidly diminishing biodiversity.
Q: Your other books, A Venetian Affair, Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, and Irresistible North all seem to be about discovering incredible journeys from long ago. What is it that draws you to these subjects? Are you a romantic?
A: That’s a very direct question! I suppose I have a romantic sensibility within a classical frame of mind. Goethe is my man. Certainly the Goethe of Italian Journey. And I have always been a traveler. And a journalist. So: a roving romantic on a quest. That sums it up.

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