The Perfect Italian Garden – Villa Gamberaia II

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.

When you round the corner past the villa, on your right is one of the most wide open views of Florence imaginable.  Even from this distance the Duomo is clearly visible.

When you round the corner past the villa, on your right is one of the most wide open views of Florence imaginable.
Even from this distance the Duomo is clearly visible.

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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.

It is strangely comforting to see evidence of the gardener's struggle with nature even  in a "perfect" garden.

It is strangely comforting to see evidence of the gardener’s struggle with nature even in a “perfect” garden.

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.

Climbing roses grow up the cypress Belvedere.

Climbing roses grow up the cypress Belvedere.

Through the arches wonderful vistas out onto the countryside and looking back toward the villa.

Through the arches wonderful vistas out onto the countryside and looking back toward the villa.

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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?

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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 especially liked the way the garden was designed to open out onto the surrounding countryside - welcoming it, rejoicing in it - unlike the next garden I would be visiting.

I especially liked the way the garden was designed to open out onto the surrounding countryside.
Very different from the next garden I would be visiting.

Retracing my steps along the east side of the garden.

Retracing my steps along the east side of the garden.

Am I the only one who wishes they’d put some kind of wedge under this?

Am I the only one who wishes they’d put some kind of wedge under this?

The sunken “Secret Garden”.  Like the garden “rooms” of the Renaissance gardens.

The sunken “Secret Garden”.  Like the garden “rooms” of the Renaissance gardens.

Those clouds again.  No time for lingering.

Those clouds again. No time for lingering.

The cool temperatures and rain are wreaking havoc for olive growers and vintners, but the unusual weather is a dream come true for rose lovers.

The cool temperatures and rain are wreaking havoc for olive growers and vintners,
but the unusual weather is a dream come true for rose lovers.

Stairs lead to the lemon garden. How can there possibly be so many lemons growing on just one tree?There are also potted oranges, grapefruits, mandarins and kumquats up here.

Stairs lead to the lemon garden. How can there possibly be so many lemons growing on just one little tree?
There are also potted oranges, grapefruits, mandarins and kumquats up here.

Next to the limonaia, Albertine roses flourish in the mixed perennial border planted in the 1950’s.

Next to the limonaia, Albertine roses flourish in the mixed perennial border planted in the 1950’s.

Peonies along the west wall of the lemon parterre have been smashed by the recent storms.

Peonies along the west wall of the lemon parterre have been smashed by the recent storms.

From the entrance level, a view of the wall supporting the lemon garden.

Back down at ground level, a glimpse of the enormous wall that supports the citrus garden.

the bowling green

The “bowling green”.

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.

As a Canadian, I can only shake my head in wonder at all the potted azaleas?  What are they putting in that soil?

As a Canadian, I can only shake my head in wonder at all the potted azaleas.  What are they putting in that soil?

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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.

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What the dog saw.

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.

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