I doubt many of us would be pleased to hear ourselves described as aesthetes, but then we’re not part of the wealthy ex-pat community that lived in Florence in the early 1900’s.
There were a lot of Americans in that elite group, but Brits made up the vast majority, drawn by the romance of the Brownings, and comparatively low property prices. There were so many of them that for a while, no matter where you were from, as far as the locals were concerned you were Inglese (English). It might be urban legend, but upon the arrival of a group, it is said that a porter would advise his manager, “Some Inglesi have arrived, but I haven’t yet discovered if they are Russians or Germans.”
Sir Harold Acton was a prominent member of that community and the last private owner of Villa Pietra. A scholar, historian, author and self-proclaimed hunter of philistines, he described what life was like growing up in the villa in his Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948).
Before we continue, just a note about the name – Villa Pietra (pee-ay-truh). So similar to the garden I had visited a few days earlier. That one is called Villa Petraia (pay-try-uh). It took me a while to keep the two straight. Blame it on all the rocks – pietre – that once littered the Tuscan countryside. Villa Pietra was named for a specific pietra – a Roman milestone nearby.
Harold’s father was a successful art collector and dealer, who had the good fortune to have as his wife an American heiress. With her money they bought Villa Pietra in 1908 and set about restoring it to its previous Renaissance splendour – with a few concessions to their own era, which happened to be around the same time Princess Ghyka was restoring the gardens at Villa Gamberaia. Given the overlapping time frame, one would expect the two properties to have a lot in common. They don’t.
The first difference I encountered had to do with the level of difficulty involved in getting to see them. It had taken me a few hours on the local bus to reach Villa Gamberaia, but that was only because bad weather foiled my first attempt. Otherwise, things were pretty straightforward. It’s open every day from 9am to 6 pm, except Sunday when it closes at 5 pm. No reservations required. You can linger in the garden as long as you want.
Getting into the gardens of Villa Pietra on the other hand is a logistical nightmare. It’s not the distance – it’s only a mile from Piazza della Libertà in Florence. It’s the extremely restricted access to the public. Visits are by guided tour only, for which reservations are required. Tours of the garden are held Tuesday mornings, except in August and mid-December to mid-January. If, like me, you can’t arrange to be in the area on a Tuesday morning, the only way you can see the garden is to sign up for the guided tour of the villa on Friday afternoons (20 euros!).
I walked from my hotel – it’s all uphill, just so you know – and arrived almost half an hour before the guided tour of the villa was scheduled to begin. Worried that the good weather would prove to be nothing more than a teaser, I approached the custode and explained my plight, starting of course, with the magic opener, “Scusi, mi dispiace disturbarLa ma…” Really. I should take out a patent on that phrase. (If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, I wrote about it in an earlier post – “Flourishing, Flowering Florence”.) He hesitated. Looked me over and then decided it was safe to let me loose on my own in the garden.
You may have already guessed the second difference between the two gardens. This one is enormous. And the garden is just a small part of the property. Over the years the Acton’s bought up many of the properties that surround Villa Pietra. A buffer from the riff raff? Fifty-seven acres by the time they were finished, which included a vineyard, olive groves, farmland, and five smaller villas. Lucky New York University students stay in some of these villas for their “Year Abroad”.
The dogs were everywhere. And they all looked to me as if they’d come from the same litter. Were all these gardeners just crazy about dogs? I certainly never saw any live ones running around the gardens I visited.
After the tour of the villa, our guide took us for a quick walk through the garden. I had said nothing as she led us through the villa, but I found my voice in the garden. While not quite as knowledgeable about the garden as she had been about the art in the villa, she was able to answer most of my questions. Finally I couldn’t resist any longer and asked her what was up with all the dogs. She gave me a look. It’s a look I’ve become more or less used to in my travels. It’s one of incredulity. I get it whenever I ask a question about something that apparently everyone else over the age of five knows.
They are custode (guard dogs). They keep watch over the gardens.
There is one more difference between the two gardens. It doesn’t hit you right away, but I think it is a big one. Worth thinking about.
Villa Gamberaia was wide open to the surrounding landscape, welcomed it. At Villa Pietra, the outside world is blocked off as much as possible. From the vantage point in the photo above we catch a glimpse of the town beyond.
But when we are on the lower terrace, the world beyond the high hedges has disappeared. As if it no longer matters. No longer exists.
This denial of the world beyond is at the core of the design of this garden. A deliberate attempt to create a unique world, a world inhabited by a highly privileged, cultivated elite, beyond which nothing else is of consequence.