Eternal beauty

The ideals of ancient Roman gardens are magnificently visible in the frescoes in the Terme museum
Image of Robin Lane Fox

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Gardening in historic Italy underlies so much of the formal gardening elsewhere in the US and Europe. I have been anticipating the British spring by spending days in Rome among the basic bones of gardening. There is fine flesh on those bones too; magnolias in full flower outside my windows and little purple anemones and pearly-white alliums among the ancient ruins. The first of the cherry blossom has faded but Italian gardens do not depend on temporary decoration.

The ancient Romans already used the evergreen items that Italian architects eventually rediscovered and made famous. The ideals of these ancient gardens are magnificently visible in the frescoes rearranged in Rome’s Terme museum. Gone are the days when only a few such paintings were on display, hung in lines down corridors irrespective of the order in which they had been found. I marvelled at the entire room given nowadays to the wall-paintings from the Villa Farnesina, conventionally associated with the emperor Augustus’s long-lived wife Livia, the woman whom gossip described as a cunning “Ulysses in petticoats”. Beyond the plaited fences in these frescoed garden-paintings of the end of the BC era, bunches of roses, little violets, evergreen holm oaks and the indispensable box-bushes are all represented, ancestors of the plants that many of us still use in Italianate gardens of our own. The casualties are the birds, not the flowers. Finches and golden orioles are shown alighting on the paintings’ green gardening. Nowadays there are next to none of them alive, as the Italians have had a prolonged habit of shooting whatever flies on two wings.

Outdoors, on the slopes of the Borghese gardens, two other Italian mainstays are seen at their best. The upper canopy is composed of evergreen Quercus ilex, the holm oak that is still not common in the warmer parts of Britain. It is a magnificent tree and three big specimens of it will be exercising me this month in my college’s garden back in Oxford. In the past hundred years they have grown to ever-wider sizes and need to be trimmed firmly back into shape. The time to prune a holm oak is late April, as I have found by long experience. Even on old trees the branches will then shoot again near to the point to which they are trimmed. Holm oak also makes an excellent evergreen hedge in mild gardens. The recent winter has done none of ours in Oxford any harm.

The problem is what to plant near these evergreens where their canopy does not cast dense shade. In the Borghese gardens, the answer is beautifully visible, green- leaved acanthus by the hundred. In Britain we are blind to the beauty of this plant as a dense cover in dry semi-shade. In Rome it grows even against the trunks of the oak trees on slopes that receive next to no rain in summer. At home I have been building up a slow swathe of prickly Acanthus spinosus between my hedging avenues of ornamental pears. This acanthus survives all weathers and will flower even in the semi-shade. The prettier choice is the big soft-leaved Acanthus mollis, exemplified in Rome. Start your acanthus carpet with only a few plants and as they thicken, divide them into many more in early spring. I have built up quite a cover from a modest start and look forward to a future of acanthus on a Borghese scale.

What about olives, climbing roses and those lemons that arrived too late in Italy to be included in the empress Livia’s gardens? Last week the FT ran an extract of the important forthcoming book by Kirsty McLeod on The Best Gardens in Italy, a labour of love based on her years of travel all over the peninsula. In Rome, her text delighted me by describing a monastic garden beside the church of Santa Croce, near St John Lateran, in a busy part of the Eternal City. In 2004 the monastic garden was restored here and planted with flowers, fruits and the traditional beauties of Italian gardening. Many of the flowers were chosen to be white, evoking the Virgin Mary.

The centre of the garden was arranged in a cross and planted with rotating crops of vegetables, which the resident Cistercian monks decided to sell to visitors in summer. “When the fruits become mature,” the abbot told McLeod, “we pick them off the earth just as God takes us up when we are ready.”

Reflecting on the waspishness of many such fruits, both vegetable and human, I made my penitential way to the great church and its supposed fragments of the True Cross. Nothing stands still in gardening but I had not quite expected my reception. A dependant of the monastic community was guarding the door, connected to tubes and a Hoover-like machine that appeared to be aiding his breathing. I explained my wish to see his garden. I even mentioned the revered letters, FT. After a prolonged gasp he told me in Italian that the garden no longer existed, although I could see its cross-shape pergolas through the iron gate beyond him. “I have two words for you,” he croaked in English. “Get out.” They rank as my most Christian welcome in Rome since the Vatican special travel office double-charged me with cardinal cunning for a bedroom in the guest house of their nearby nuns.

After a gasp or two, matters improved. The gatekeeper relented and summoned a Cistercian brother who turned out to be made of much more amenable material.

Brother Luigi, as I will call him, explained what imminent readers of McLeod’s book need to know. Santa Croce’s Cistercian community has been reorganised since 2009. Where there were once 30 gardening monks in residence, there are now no fewer than seven.

The garden is no longer open to visitors and God’s produce will be not be on sale to all-comers. We walked nonetheless beside the dark earth of the walled garden’s many beds and discussed whether gardeners help God or work at his direction. Overhead, the rare historic grapevines were waiting to burst into leaf and the Cistercian peas and broad beans were weeks ahead of those in Britain.

Among the last of the lettuces and fennel, the lemon trees still thrive under heavenly management. As we admired them, Brother Luigi extended a hand from his habit and picked two conspicuously pointed and knobbly specimens. He offered them with his kind compliments. “What variety are they?” I asked in innocence. “Nuns’ breasts,” he replied with a knowing glance. Today I am squeezing the breasts to make nuns’ soufflé. After lunch I will be dividing my plants of acanthus, grateful that Italian gardening can still give us all so much pleasure.

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