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.
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.
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),
under arching trees (Castello Orsini, near Pienza),
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.
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!)
And here are plants seen from further away, which make an individual statement – like this peony – or are thoughtfully blended.
I find flowers and plants particularly beautiful when they are set against walls. Like white 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.
The walls encourage you to take a second look at other built features. Like steps at Villa Vicobello – these date from the 1500s
– and at Palazzo Farnese on either side of an elegant water feature.
A 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.
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.
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 ….
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
or local residents, they add to our awareness. And put a broad smile on our already happy faces.
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.’