When I looked out my hotel window the next morning it wasn’t glorious, but it wasn’t raining. I set off early and was waiting at the entrance gate when the receptionist arrived. I had the whole garden to myself for almost two hours – enough time to explore and soak in the spirit of the place before the first bus group arrived.
The initial impression is that we are in an extremely well-maintained and remarkably well-preserved classic Renaissance garden. It is definitely well-maintained, but it is not well-preserved, for the simple reason that, as these gardens go, it is relatively new.
Work on the garden only began after Princess Ghyka, sister of the Queen of Serbia, bought the property in the early 1900’s. Reams have been written and speculated about the Princess. She lived here as a recluse, never leaving the property, with only a “friend” – an American woman – for company. Obsessed with her rapidly fading beauty, she seldom came out during daylight and always wore a dark veil when she received the rare visitor. And yet, despite this shadowy existence, she was the force behind the gradual transformation of the property into a Renaissance garden, or rather, a 20th century idealized version of a Renaissance garden.
When the princess arrived, instead of pools there was a parterre de broderie – gardening lingo for a flat area filled with boxwood hedges trimmed into intricate designs. There doesn’t seem to be an English word. Italians use the French term too. Did she have the pools built in memory of the villa’s distant past, when gamberi (crayfish) were raised in ponds on the property? Or perhaps, given her undisguised vanity and narcissism, did the pools have something to do with a more personal and much yearned-for past – a time when she was young and beautiful and invincible?
Unlike other gardens of similar fame, Gamberaia, at just over one hectare (2 1/2 acres) is small – “astonishingly small” – is how Edith Wharton put it in her epic “Italian Villas and Their Gardens”. But, as a perfect example of the art of turning a potential weakness into strength, its relative smallness became one of its most attractive features. Wharton described it as “probably the most perfect example of the art of achieving a grand effect within a relatively small space”. Now that’s something we can all aspire to.
I know it’s considered one of the highlights of the garden, but for me this enormous grass area just looks so out of place, so implausible. A horticultural anomaly in a land where fresh water has always been a scarce resource. In days gone by, the so-called “bowling green” was actually used for outdoor games. I wonder how much longer it will be maintained to this state of perfection.
At the end of the bowling green, the requisite grotto. It is a little disconcerting to know that part of the path to the grotto is not on terra ferma, but is part of a bridge built over the local road.
All this in just over 2 1/2 acres. And yet it doesn’t seem at all crowded. Maybe it really is Italy’s most perfect little garden.