Enchanted enclaves

Italian gardens have shaped and moulded landscapes throughout the world and their influence and allure is as strong today as it was in the days of Pliny the Elder. Here historian Kirsty McLeod and photographer Primrose Bell explore some of the most beautiful, from lesser known plots to old favourites such as Villa Lante.

Villa Rufolo

Ravello, Campania

Boccaccio, writing in 1349 after his exile from Florence, gives a description of the Amalfi coast which could appear in a tourist guide today: “The coast of Amalfi overlooks the sea and is dotted with villages, gardens and fountains, and inhabited by very rich men ... among the villages is one called Ravello, which, like today, was inhabited by men of great wealth ... the richest of them all was called Landolfo Rufolo.”

From the outside, 13th-century Palazzo Rufolo with its high wall and two towers has the appearance of a medieval fortress. Inside, it was probably very different, a place of beauty and repose, with a medieval pleasure garden of which one important fragment remains. Palazzo Rufolo’s charming garden loggia, with its arches open to the sea breeze, was probably designed as an alfresco dining room where the Rufolo could entertain their illustrious clients.

In 1851 Francis Neville Reid, a diplomat and amateur archaeologist, bought the ruined palazzo and decided to restore it. A riotous Victorian bedding scheme was added to the garden but there are peaceful areas to which you can retire from this assault on the senses. On the middle level, an oleander walk offers seats and, to one side, framed against the distant mountains, the sight of a fine example of the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum). On the bottom terrace a pergola covered with Rosa banksiae at each end provides shade and simple seating. In the more informal part of the garden, dominated by a huge cypress, palms and umbrella pines frame the famous view over twin domes out into the Gulf. The Victorian creator of the garden, Neville Reid, went on to found a school for gardeners which is still active.

Such a heady mix of history and natural beauty must have captivated Wagner when he visited the garden in 1880. Rufolo was the inspiration for the enchanted garden of Klingsor in one of his last operas, Parsifal. Now, every June to October, Villa Rufolo hosts a festival that includes classical and jazz concerts, films and art and design exhibitions. The concerts are held in the garden. Wagner is often on the programme.

Villa Lante

Viterbo, Lazio

Villa Lante, a garden with no main building but two small symmetrical casini, has come down to us largely unchanged in structure since its main layout was completed by the end of the 16th century. It has been admired for 500 years as the perfect example of a Renaissance garden. Montaigne, visiting in 1581, thought the fountains surpassed those at Pratolino and Villa d’Este. Sacheverell Sitwell, a 20th-century visitor, called Villa Lante “as much a work of art as any poem, painting, piece of music”. For Edith Wharton, it possessed a unique kind of “garden-magic”.

Authorship of this masterpiece of Italian Renaissance garden design remains debated. Built into the hill in a series of tiered terraces, the entire rectangular layout can be seen from the original entrance at the bottom of the slope. But the garden is best “read” – to the 16th-century observer it would have been a narrative – from the top.

Here, the current curator observes, “formality meets the forest”. The water bubbles out from rocks within a mossy grotto. From there it is controlled as it descends: corralled into the Fountain of the Dolphins, and channelled through the incomparable cordonata or water staircase, whose stone volutes in the shape of crayfish limbs, pay graceful tribute to Cardinal Gambara, the crayfish being his emblem. The Fountain of the Giants symbolised friendship between the Medici and the papacy.

At the current entrance, the Fountain of Pegasus is the sole survivor of the once numerous fountains of the park. In spring, the park offers a walk amid woodland with splendid carpets of cyclamen. Remnants of a chestnut orchard can still be seen.

Borgo Storico Seghetti Panichi

Ascoli Piceno, Le Marche

Planted four square on a knoll with views over the Tronto valley to the distant Sibilline Mountains, and with the blue Adriatic far beyond, the palazzo’s austere façade recalls the medieval castle that once stood here. The tower – all that remains – was incorporated into what became an aristocratic summer residence. The house was bought by the present owner Giulia Panichi Pignatelli’s great-grandfather in the early 1800s, but it was not until 1875 that the garden was laid out to the design of the great German botanist and landscape architect Ludwig Winter.

The underground watering system he put in is still in perfect working order today.

Winter’s hand is clear with a majestic palm, Jubaea chilensis, at the start of the drive. Nearby is Phoenix canariensis, with the fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) and the windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei). Cycas revoluta, the Japanese cycad, has grown to monumental size.

At the back, to the north, is the most romantic part of the garden Winter created: a miniature oriental landscape, reflecting Chinese influence. A rustic bridge made of vine branches spans a pool overhung with yellow Styphnolobium japonicum “Pendulum” (syn. Sophora japonica “Pendula”).

Panichi Pignatelli and her talented daughter Stefania have opened up views, felling a row of limes blocking vistas of the valley. Where the limes once grew, the Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata) now stands in front of Himalayan cedars.

The mother and daughter run the association Le Marche Segrete, a conservation body founded in 1996 by the owners of some of the Marche’s most important villas and gardens.

Giardino Bardini

Florence, Tuscany

There have been seven centuries of gardening on this steep hill rising from the River Arno to the Forte di Belvedere within Florence’s medieval city walls. A garden is first mentioned here in 1309 in an inventory of the Palazzo Mozzi. The palace is described as having “a large loggia and a garden behind ...” Hitherto fabulously rich – as Florence’s papal treasurers they could afford not only a garden and loggia but also “a stove and a hot room for sweating” – the Mozzi had suffered a collapse of their trading company in 1303. This was the start of a series of financial voltes-face in which the Mozzi sold and bought back their ancestral home over the next 600 years.

This first small walled garden was surrounded by terraced orchards, whose survival through the 15th and 16th centuries is charted in two views of the city in the Firenze com’era Museum. In the 17th and 18th centuries the garden was divided, with the Mozzi managing to hold on to the larger, eastern section. On the western side, the Manadori family built themselves a villa, admired even in the mid-17th century for its soaring views over Florence. The next significant date was 1815, when Luigi le Blanc began the transformation of land around Casa Manadori. He created an Anglo-Chinese garden, laid out an English wood, and built a rustic grotto. All this the Mozzi were able to buy back in 1839. They now owned a garden combining three different elements, just as it does today, depicted in this lunette painted in 2005: ancient terraced orchards, 18th-century baroque features and a 19th-century romantic park.

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