Notes from an Italian Garden

Notes from an Italian Garden

by Joan Marble


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Notes from an Italian Garden by Joan Marble

"We live in an age of anxious haste and mindless grabbiness. We have to hurry to finish our education and get a job...we have to hurry to make money....But the world is not like this for the experienced gardener. Time is our friend. We look forward to the next year in our gardens with happy anticipation."

Thirty years ago Joan Marble and her sculptor husband Robert Cook bought an unpromising piece of land north of Rome in the hamlet of Canale, home of the ancient Etruscans. Here they restored a house and, more importantly, started a wondrous garden that changed their lives. Despite the seemingly endless problems they encountered, the couple's enthusiasm for the land, their ignorance of the obstacles they faced, their downright stubbornness, and the unexpected friends who helped them all served to conquer the forbidding terrain—an experience that offered profound insight into the nature of existence itself.

In beautiful, articulate prose, Joan Marble poignantly brings into focus this glorious land and a passion for living sure to enchant and inspire not only gardeners and armchair travelers, but readers everywhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708993514
Publisher: Ulverscroft Large Print Books, Ltd.
Publication date: 08/28/2002
Series: Charnwood Large Print Series
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.11(w) x 9.27(h) x 1.05(d)

About the Author

Joan Marble is a journalist and writer whose passion for politics has yielded in recent years to her even greater passion for nature — everything from the song of the bee-eater to the scent of the tree peony. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Ms. Marble started her career as a political correspondent for United Press International. One of her first articles on gardening was a report on the Rose Garden at the White House, and she has written widely on the new gardens of Italy. She and her husband divide their time among Rome, Canale, and London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Lure of Etruria

I fell in love with Etruria one chilly evening in the middle of winter. They were having a New Year's Eve festival in a little town near Campagnano, and a group of local boys dressed in Renaissance costumes were marching in a torchlight parade down the main street. As I stood there in the cold watching the flames lurching to the sky and silhouetting the bare limbs of the plane trees, I realized that I felt very much at home in this ancient place. If ever we should decide to move to the country, this was the kind of place I would choose.

One figure who caught my eye was a young man holding a flaming torch, which he would use to light the festival bonfire. He was wearing a green velvet tunic and beige tights and he marched ahead of five other youths who were carrying bundles of branches for the fire. It was his profile that attracted my attention. The line from the forehead ran almost straight to the nose with barely a dent at the bridge. The eyes were large and almond-shaped and the mouth turned up at the edges in a faintly self-mocking smile. The face seemed familiar to me and then I realized that I had seen a profile very like it on the wall of an Etruscan tomb at Tarquinia. These ghosts from the past flicker into your consciousness whenever you wander through the scrabbly little towns of central Italy — when a farm lady setting down her basket of eggs at the market in Barbarano has her black hair curled like the dancer's ringlets on an Etruscan chalice, or when a mason's helper climbs on to a roof balancing a load of cement on his shoulder, his back perfectly straight and his legs showing theover-developed calf Just below the knee that is so typically Etruscan.

In some places in old Etruria the people still pronounce the first letter 'C' as if it were an 'H' ('casa' becomes 'hasa'), which was an Etruscan way of speaking. The design of many farmhouses still copies the Etruscan floor plan and the farmers continue to dig with a mattock, plant by the moon, and coppice their trees every twenty years. They are also first-rate metalworkers as were the Etruscans, who were attracted to the area because of iron and copper in the hills.

In their heyday, from the eighth to the third centuries BC, the Etruscans were among the most powerful people on earth. Their territory was called Tuscia which comes from the Greek and means 'tower' and their borders extended from the Tiber valley to the Tyrrhenian Sea, with outposts as far north as the Po and as far south as Naples. Energetic and enterprising, these early people smelted the metals that they found in the Tolfa hills, developed miles of rugged roads so that carts could rumble to all the villages in the Etruscan League and invented excellent systems of irrigation which carried water through miles and miles of hand-dug tunnels criss-crossing their bumpy landscape. Etruscan galleys plied the Mediterranean carrying fine wine, metals, hand-painted vases and statues to the Greeks and Carthaginians and their gold jewellery was very much in demand, especially the breastplates, and exquisite earrings made by welding hundreds of tiny pin-drops of gold into natural shapes, a granulation technique that has never been duplicated since.

Even in their social relations the Etruscans seemed ahead of their times. Etruscan tomb paintings in Tarquinia show women happily sitting next to men at banqueting tables wearing lovely lacy dresses and holding aloft chalices of wine. And stone coffins are often decorated with sitting figures of man and wife where the woman is depicted as every bit as important as her husband.

But despite their manifest talents and social graces the Etruscans had one fatal blind spot: they refused to pay attention to the strange-speaking lowlanders who clustered in a village called Rome close by their southern border on the Tiber river. The Romans possessed little in the way of art or culture, in their 'shanty town on the Palatine', but they were a practical and persistent bunch and while the Etruscans amused themselves with their arts and their gods and glorious dinner parties, the Romans honed their martial skills and polished their spears. Eventually, in 396 BC, they were strong enough to march on the Etruscan stronghold at Veio and bring their proud neighbours to heel.

This defeat marked the beginning of a long decline for the Etruscans. In the first years it wasn't so bad; the Romans were proud of the civilization they had conquered, and copied everything they could, from their art to their religion, law, institutions and military organization. They also invited Etruscan diviners to their palaces in Rome to read entrails and stars and advise them about the future. In the first century AD, the Emperor Claudius wrote a book in eight parts telling of the wonders of the Etruscan civilization, but sadly for all of us the book was lost and a great fund of Etruscan knowledge slipped into oblivion.

After this the Roman enthusiasm began to cool, and by the time Rome was converted to Christianity the Etruscan culture was disappearing fast. The Emperor Honorius ordered the burning of all Etruscan books and the destruction was so thorough that we have no source of reference for both Etruscan and Latin words. Thus we can read the letters which the Etruscans carved into their tombs and temples, odd Greek letters which seem to be written backwards, but the texts are so limited that they tell almost nothing of Etruscan lore or legends. To show their further disrespect, the Romans erased the old name of Tuscia from the maps. The northern section of Etruria was absorbed into Tuscany, while the southern part (where we live) was renamed Latium and recently modernized to the awkward Lazio.

Table of Contents

The Lure of Etruria7
Finding the Land20
The First Pot43
Building the House52
Planning with a Bulldozer67
The Fine Art of Planting Seeds83
Finding the Perfect Helper97
Bees and Beeswax113
Birds and Cats127
The Joys of High Spring139
Country Weddings157
A Paeon in Praise of Chicory and a Hurrah for Herbs181
A Garden Strikes Back195
Cooling Off in the Greenhouse209
The Racing Horsemen of the Maremma218
Of Etruscan Ghosts and Gardens231
Lavinia Taverna, the Accidental Gardener239
Chasing Pigs253
Mushroom Madness266
Tree-planting Time279
Tomb Robbers295
Joy and Sorrow in the Winter Greenhouse313
Eels for Christmas326
About the Artist347


Exclusive Author Essay
This book has been simmering along on the back burner for more years than I like to remember. It stems from my love of Italy, and especially our windswept corner of Etruscan Lazio, and also from my love of gardens, which goes way back to my childhood in Newton Center, Massachusetts. Some of the chapters are the result of letters sent home to my parents over the years, and also from Christmas letters sent to friends at holiday time.

I started collecting the notes a few years ago and even began to publish a few of them in a little English-language bimonthly published here in Rome. The public response was surprisingly enthusiastic. This gave me the courage to put them together and send a collection of letters to publishers in America. The rejection slips were all very friendly, noting that the editors had loved the material, but their sales departments said that there was no market for this kind of thing. Gardens in Italy, they decreed, were far too "exotic" to interest American readers. All this changed, however, with the publication of A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun, and now suddenly books about exotic Italy are selling like hotcakes (or perhaps I should say like mozzarella-and-mushroom pizzas).

When I looked over the American edition of my book Notes from an Italian Garden, I realized that the sections that appealed to me the most were those that reminded me of Marx Brothers movies. I did not deliberately sit down to write a funny book. I wanted to tell what it was like making a garden in a wild and rather forsaken corner of the Lazio countryside. But as I went along, I began to jot down some of the outlandish events that interrupted our daily struggles, and I think they add welcome comic relief to the whole enterprise.

Among the episodes that amuse me still are:

The invasion of the killer wasps. This all started when my husband, Robert, who is a sculptor and works in beeswax, decided to cook up a new batch of his special sculpture wax in our kitchen. This operation spread wax all over the kitchen and blocked most of our pots and colanders, and since the wax also contained honey, his sticky concoction attracted half of the bee population in central Italy. Once the bees had had their fill, their place was taken by a special breed of large wasps known as ammazza somari (which means "donkey killers"), who not only chewed up the wax but also made nests in our stone walls and continued to terrorize guests at our supper parties for several years. One guest locked herself in the bathroom to avoid them and refused to come out.

A second episode, which still causes me to smile wryly, was the invasion of our territory by the village bulldozer driver, Massimo. Massimo bulldozed an entrance drive that I had not planned, planted rows of cypress trees where I did not particularly want them, and ended his performance by accidentally ripping up all of the water pipes that had just been laid down between the pump house and our kitchen. All this, plus the fact that he was a devout Communist, somehow did not prevent us from becoming friends.

And then there was yet another kind of territorial invasion that involved footloose and hungry animals from neighborhood farms. Since we were inadequately fenced, we were frequently invaded by herds of sheep that "escaped" from their owner as they wandered down the road that bordered our territory, and they ended up nibbling happily on our grass and on the bark of our precious olive trees. We were also invaded now and again by small groups of rampaging cows, horses, and bullocks, and by large family groups of half-wild pigs who could destroy a cabbage or lettuce patch in a matter of minutes. Although we captured several tough little piglets and turned them over to the carabiniere as evidence, the cops never managed to put the handcuffs on their fearsome owner, a tough Sardinian farmer who had served several jail sentences for knifings and aggravated assault. (Joan Marble)

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Notes from an Italian Garden 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I greatly admire people who create things of beauty, sculptors and writers above all. Joan Marble, a writer and gardener--and wife of a sculptor--has created a work of great beauty in 'Notes from an Italian Garden'. If our race survives, people in later centuries will come back to this book to read how two Americans could lead such pleasant, reflective, and productive lives in the Italy of our time. There is a plethora of books now on Italy, many of them facile and shallow--but not this one. Joan Marble knows Italy and Italians well from the decades she has spent in Rome and in the countryside beyond. From my own years in Italy I can testify that this book is an utterly accurate (and also humorous, charming, and appreciative) account of the place and the people. It is the best book I have read on Italy since Georgina Masson's 1950s work on Rome.