Many moons ago when I went to Sissinghurst to ask Nigel Nicolson (late of this parish) if I could write about his mother, Vita Sackville-West, he raised his hands, and eyebrows, in horror, ‘Oh! Not another book about my mother!’ These two titles on Italian gardens may provoke a similar reaction, for there has been a recent run of revisiting via Charles Latham’s vintage Country Life photographs, Edith Wharton’s Edwardian musings and Georgina Masson’s 1961 classic, now revived.
Many moons ago when I went to Sissinghurst to ask Nigel Nicolson (late of this parish) if I could write about his mother, Vita Sackville-West, he raised his hands, and eyebrows, in horror, ‘Oh! Not another book about my mother!’ These two titles on Italian gardens may provoke a similar reaction, for there has been a recent run of revisiting via Charles Latham’s vintage Country Life photographs, Edith Wharton’s Edwardian musings and Georgina Masson’s 1961 classic, now revived. But, on such a subject, can there be too many books? The miracle is that despite the vagaries of fortunes and two world wars, the gardens that Latham photographed for his 1905 book are still there for the cameras of Primrose Bell and Derry Moore.
Kirsty McLeod’s The Best Gardens in Italy exudes the good organisation required of A Traveller’s Guide: mapped and listed by region, each of the 126 gardens appear at the turn of a page, there is a comprehensive index and 13 additional pages give all the location and contact details, down to olive oil tastings and, occasionally, bed and breakfast. All the nostalgic names are here — Isola Bella, d’Este, Gamberaia, Lante, the Hanbury’s La Mortola — with lesser known treasures: Trauttmansdorff ‘the garden of glaciers and palms’, the Giardino Buon- accorsi with 105 personable statues of known provenance, and the botanical park with restoration in progress at La Casa Bianca near Porto Ercole.
The Guide luxuriates in remote havens of exotics, and cabinets of architectural delights, all endearingly photographed by Primrose Bell. McLeod has authority, she is a generous and unobtrusive guide, allowing her subjects to speak; at Villa Capponi, ‘visitors have always loved this exquisite but homely little garden, and successive owners have cherished it . . . ever since 1572’. She describes mouth-watering plantings and livens her texts with a colourful cast including John Evelyn, Dante, Goethe, Mark Twain, plenty of princesses and Hollywood stars. And, as Robin Lane Fox says in his introduction, ‘the most fascinating aspect of this book is its eye-opening awareness of all the gardening and restyling which Italian owners have undertaken during the past 20 years’.
Monty Don’s many admirers will find Great Gardens of Italy a souvenir of his happy return to health and television. After Around the World in Eighty Gardens he longed to concentrate on one country and, he writes, ‘there was never any doubt in my mind what that one country might be’. He visits 30 of the greatest gardens, travelling from the south up the ‘shin’ and ‘thigh’ to Florence, across to Venice then lastly to Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore.
He travels with the remembrance of Geoffrey Jellicoe’s celebration of the humanist origins of design — a pace, a step, a handspan as measurements, indulging ‘the slow intimate process of getting to know a garden like a body’. He immerses himself in the experiences of each garden: at Villa Farnese, ‘think of the water jokes, the drama, the constant performance and add in the killing’; he hires a bicycle for the ten kilometres round Palazza Reale at Caserta; he is the absorbed garden detective — hearing from an American academic (a thriving species hereabouts) that the parterre at Castello Ruspoli is at risk from one aged gardener with a scythe, he seeks out the gardener, Santino Garbuglia, with his razor-sharp, sickle-like falcetto, the very tool that has been used for centuries. At the ‘Crab’ Cardinal Gambara’s Villa Lante — ‘Picture yourself a cardinal for the day . . . trail a hand in the crystal water, dabbing your face in the summer heat . . . life is sweet, but it is about to get better still’ — and he revels in the water games of the Fountain of the River Gods.
Great Gardens of Italy is a book to savour, for the delights of Monty Don’s tasting of lemon biscuits and limoncello — ‘Angels sang’ — and for the zing of fountain spray in Derry Moore’s breathtaking photographs. Pack both books, in a stout bag for A Traveller’s Guide weighs in at 1.75 kilos, forget your desert island or wilderness experience, and return to these old loves.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 9, 2011Tags: Book review, Gardens, Italy, Non-fiction, Travel