The two Chianti wineries with the most beautiful gardens also have the most enchanting names – Badia di Coltibuono (Abbey of the Good Harvest) and Villa Vignamaggio (Villa of the Vines of May.)
Coltibuono started off as a Benedictine Abbey and working farm in the 4th century. Like so many buildings from that long ago it has had a tumultuous history. The Middle Ages were especially bad. The abbey was sacked several times and each time the Benedictines rebuilt it. Then in the 15th century Lorenzo dei Medici, the ruler of Florence, purchased the abbey and transformed it into an important centre of science and learning, where illustrious scholars like Galileo – at least before he caught the attention of the Pope – would meet to discuss their latest discoveries.
The location may seem an odd choice. Why not in Florence? Why here, in what often felt like the middle of nowhere? In reality, although there are times when it doesn’t seem possible – on the way for the first time to a lot of these wineries, I spent most of my time either lost or thinking I was lost – we’re only 30 kilometres from Florence. A pleasant country outing, even in the 15th century, from the hustle and bustle of the city.
In modern times, another Medici, Lorenza, gave new life to the abbey when she set up a cooking school within the abbey walls. It became enormously successful – you may have seen her on one of the cooking shows she made for PBS or maybe even have one of the many books she wrote on la cucina toscana (Tuscan cooking).
She was also interested in the gardens of Tuscany and when she discovered records of a hortus conclusus that the Benedictines had maintained here during the Middle Ages, she set about restoring the ancient garden.
Every element of the hortus conclusus was loaded with symbolism, which could only be interpreted by the monks and a few laymen who had been initiated into the garden’s secrets. The high walls surrounding the garden made it inaccessible to all others, just as the Garden of Eden had become inaccessible after mankind’s fall from grace.
The square, symbol of the underlying mathematical order of a divinely created universe, was repeated throughout the garden. Inside a square perimeter, intersecting paths created four smaller squares. In yet another layer of meaning, those intersecting paths created a cross. And in the middle, a fountain or an olive tree symbolized eternal life.
On a previous visit I had stopped to chat with a gardener who was trimming the boxwood. His Italian was a little hesitant and I had difficulty understanding him. Always an awkward situation. I’m not good at identifying most of the regional accents. And I thought I could hear a slight hint of an English accent. So I asked him – in Italian (more awkwardness) – if he spoke English. He did. He was from Sri Lanka and had been working at Coltibuono for about 15 years. That struck me as a rather long way to go looking for gardeners. It turns out Italian gardeners are few and far between.
This got me thinking about what was going on in gardening and horticulture in Italy today. When we think about Italy’s artistic and cultural contributions to the modern world, there is no shortage of things that come to mind. Cars – Maserati, Ferrari. Fashion – Gucci, Prada etc. Food. Just when you think there can’t possibly be one more cooking show featuring a celebrated and dishy Italian chef, they come up with a new one. Cinema. And on and on. Except when it comes to horticulture and garden design. So what happened?
In a nutshell – World War II. After the war, thousands of peasants abandoned the abject poverty of farm life in the hopes of finding a better life in the city. For a while, it looked like the Communists might prevail. (For a Canadian, ‘educated’ as to the perils of the ‘red plague’, this was very unsettling. I was astounded when, in the rely 1970’s, I was introduced to the owner of the local jewellery store and learned he was a card-carrying member of the communist party.) In that environment, no-one wanted to draw attention to themselves by commissioning – or even publicizing the fact that they owned anything so extravagant as a garden. Many of Italy’s grand, old gardens – Sacro Bosco and Villa Lante, two gardens I had recently visited in Lazio, come to mind – were essentially abandoned.
Any labour that involved working with la terra was looked down on. Even those young people who might have been drawn to working on the land or in gardens found their way blocked. Up until the war, young would-be gardeners traditionally went through a long period of training as apprentices. Unpaid apprentices. After the war, in order to protect vulnerable workers from what were often slave-like conditions, the practice was banned.(It is a practice, which regrettably, has since been revived – rebranded as ‘internships’ – in some sectors of the Canadian economy. Two of Canada’s most prominent magazines were recently (end of March 2014) targeted by the Labour Ministry of Ontario for illegally ’employing’ unpaid interns. If you haven’t been following this issue, and would like to know more, google “unpaid internships ontario”. You’ll find a storm of comments, from those who support the program as one of the few ways of breaking into the field, to the vast majority who are adamantly opposed to it.)
From the Badia di Coltibuono it is a short, but beautiful drive to the next winery garden, Villa Vignamaggio. I had already taken a ridiculous number of photos of the vineyards, but I couldn’t resist these wild roses (did you notice they’re my favourite colour?) growing by the side of the road. Of course one photo led to another and before I knew it, my already tiny car was just a speck in the distance. And I could hear voices.
I’m not the only one who’s smitten with it. Film directors love it too. If it seems familiar, maybe you recognize it from “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of many movies filmed here. In 2011 it also won the ‘Best of Wine Tourism’ award for Architecture, Parks and Gardens. However you may feel about awards – my feelings are certainly mixed – they do raise awareness and interest. And that is surely a worthwhile goal.
All the elements of the classic Renaissance garden are here – statues, clipped boxwood, cypresses, a central axis, private “rooms”.
The view from the villa may be more familiar than a casual glance might lead us to think. In 1503 the owner of the villa was Francesco Giocondo. He commissioned a popular artist of the day to come to the villa and paint a portrait of his 15 year old bride. The artist’s name was Leonardo da Vinci. And the young bride’s name? Lisa.