From what I had read before leaving home, the next garden I was going to visit was unlike any I’d visited so far. First of all, it’s new – begun in 1996 – and second, it’s the creation of an American – Sheppard Craige. Il Bosco della Ragnaia is in the hills south-east of Siena. An Italian website describes it as a giardino-bosco. Giardino is “garden” and bosco is “forest”. I’m not sure what that means. A “garden forest” or a “forest garden”?
I wasn’t the only one making slow progress. Around one bend I saw a van – one of those luxury 10-seater things – parked on the side of the road. A half dozen or so people were just getting out. All of them carrying cameras – attached to which were some enormous lenses. Trying to keep my eyes on the road I glanced around. Then I saw it.
There wasn’t really anywhere to pull over. The van had taken up what little flat space there was. I pulled over as far as I could, scraping the bottom of my car on something in the process and got out. They were American – New York accents. They sounded pretty friendly – joking around. One wanted to know when the next meal was. Apparently a full two hours had gone by since they had last eaten. But I was intimidated, embarrassed by my “kit” lens and “starter” camera.
Then I reminded myself of what Mark Truzs, the instructor of a workshop I had taken in Toronto, had said: “After you’ve eaten a great meal, do you go charging into the kitchen to check out the pots and pans?” (This was of course a workshop for photo enthusiasts, not professionals.) “It’s what you do with what you’ve got. It’s what you see. Your take on things.” Thank you Mark.
I took a bunch of photos and headed back to my car, hoping I wouldn’t find oil leaking from the bottom of my car. Almost afraid to look, I peeked under the car. No oil. As I set off again I silently thanked the big equipment folks for showing me the shot.
Further south the rolling hills began to give way to the Crete Senesi, the steep, chalky ridges the area is named for.
After a dozen or so more stops for photos – good thing I was on my own – I arrived. Actually, I drove right past the entrance on the first go, but when it comes to finding these gardens I’ve almost come to expect that. Just beyond the parking lot there was a sign. On the left side was the head of a wild creature – half-human, half-animal. It struck me as strangely familiar.
Bosco means forest or wood. Ragnaia refers to nets that were once used throughout Italy to capture birds. What is being captured in this place?
On the right at the top was a series of letters. Some kind of puzzle? I’m not very good at puzzles, so decided to just take a photo for the time being and have a go at it later. Besides, the sun was out and blue skies all around. Who knew how long that would last?
The rest was pretty straightforward – apart from a few missing letters – which, if you look really closely, you can see haven’t just fallen off or faded away. They are deliberately missing. A clue to that first line. You may have seen through the puzzle right away. I didn’t get it until I saw the letters enlarged on my computer screen. Like I said, I’m not good at puzzles – even “easy” ones apparently.
The rest started off in fairly standard fashion: Welcome. Opening hours (year round from dawn to sunset). And then there were a few “rules”. Not so standard. Especially in Italy.
Respect for the environment is a measure of your participation. What does this mean? What if I respect the environment – a lot – but feel more comfortable “observing” rather than “participating”?
Smoking is absolutely prohibited, out of respect for the forest and your health. That bit about our health – definitely not written by an Italian.
Children under the age of 12 must be accompanied. Given that the property is in the middle of nowhere, or at least as much in the middle of nowhere as one can be in Tuscany, this seems somewhat redundant.
You are invited to use the path on your way down and be careful. A more professional translation would probably begin with “Please use…”. But I have never felt comfortable translating. How can “Please” and “You are invited to” possibly be the same thing?
All interpretations of the garden are welcome. Nice. But hold on. It turns out that your interpretations are welcome – as long as they are of the libero sort – as in uno spirito libero (a free spirit). But what if you find yourself entertaining interpretations that are not “libero”?
And finally the Latin motto – Audere semper. (Always dare.)
Definitely not your typical Tuscan garden.
Giant terracotta pots lined the path to the garden, or forest, or whatever it was. It’s impossible to walk by without having a peek to see what the creatures around the rim are looking at. (Nothing.)
At the risk of being labelled a nature hater or some kind of enemy of the wilderness, here’s a confession: whenever I have the good fortune to spend a precious few weeks travelling around Italy or France, I have little – make that no interest in spending time in forests. I live in Canada. If I want some quality forest time, all I have to do is get in the car and drive a hour or so north. Why would I travel thousands of miles, spend a fortune on airport taxes and surcharges (even when I use points), endure the hassles and indignities of airports and customs – you can add your own pet peeves – to go for a walk in a forest? So the first area I came across didn’t do much for me.
Stairs led to a hidden valley. As I made my way down, paying careful attention, as “invited”, I thought about those Visitors’ Rules.
Even though I don’t like translating – or maybe because I don’t – I’m always curious to see what other people come up with, so when I got back home, I decided to have a look at the English version of the website. What I found there wasn’t just a case of “Lost in Translation”. It appeared that not all visitors had come in the spirit envisioned by Mr. Craige when he first opened his creation to the public. Not only was the current English version of the rules decidedly less poetic, there were a lot more of them. Visitors now entered at their own risk. There was to be no camping. No yelling or loud noises. Capital letters pointed out that this was a PRIVATE PARK. Dogs had to be kept on a leash. And as far as accompanying children under 12, forget it. If any of your progeny haven’t had their 14th birthday yet, don’t even think of bringing them They are not “desired”.
With all the shenanigans that must have led to the new rules, you have to wonder why he continued to open the garden to the public. But to paraphrase Judith Wade Bernardi, “If no one sees your garden, what kind of garden is it?”
It may come as a surprise, but up until the mid 1990’s few people had ever been inside most of Italy’s private gardens. It was Signora Bernardi who changed all that. Originally from England, she had married an Italian and made Italy her home. Wishing to give something back to the country that had welcomed her so warmly, and borrowing from the grand gardening tradition of her country of birth, she set about promoting Italy’s rich garden heritage. She was terribly diplomatic of course. She had to be. Most of the families she approached belonged to Italy’s aristocracy and unlike their counterparts in Britain, were, for the most part, in pretty good shape, financially. Why would they want to allow the public to go traipsing through their bits of paradise?
When she had twenty-two garden owners on board, she founded I Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens). The website describes the organization as “an initiative born to spread the knowledge and appreciation of the heritage of privately owned gardens in Italy. We believe that one can’t fully love and look after one’s environment if one ignores the history of man’s relationship in the past with nature.” By 2013, that list had grown to 92 gardens.
Twin pillars along the central axis (an essential feature of the Renaissance garden) face each other. On one side – INVECE (in-vay-chay) – instead. On the other – DUNQUE (doong-quay) – therefore.
Toward the end of my visit I caught up with Sheppard. He asked what I thought. I said it was unlike any garden I had seen so far in my travels around Italy. That I had visited a lot of different kinds of gardens – Renaissance, Baroque, Medieval Walled gardens, Romantic “English” Landscape gardens; winery gardens; front door gardens. A pretty wide range. He asked if I thought it was a “garden”.
As I was gathering my thoughts, he told me that he had invited Signora Bernardi to visit in the hopes that she would add Bosco della Ragnaia to the Grandi Giardini list. She didn’t. Her view was that given the absence of flowers, it could not be considered a garden.
Maybe we’re looking at “Philosophical Horticulture” or “Horticultural Philosophy”.
I felt badly for him. This may also come as a surprise, but deciding what is, and what is not a garden, can be an extremely contentious issue. Consider all the lawsuits this question has given rise to. Try googling “front yard gardening lawsuits” and see what comes up. I was happy/relieved to see that, at least in one case, reason prevailed. Charges filed against the Oliveira family in Toronto, whose alleged illegal activity consisted of planting a vegetable garden in their front yard, were dropped and the local bylaw amended.
One case in England went all the way to the High Court. A 65-year old found himself with a criminal record after cutting down a few trees on his property. The Lower Court had found that a section of his three-acre property was no longer a garden. It had become a “woodland”. It turns out you need a license if you want to cut down woodland trees – a license which he of course did not have. Luckily for him, the High Court ruled that the OED definition of a “garden” used by the Lower Court – “an enclosed piece of ground devoted to the cultivation of flowers, fruits or vegetables” – was too narrow. One of the justices even went on to say that in view of “the current fashion for wild gardens and meadow areas”, when you are trying to decide whether you had a garden or not, you had to consider “the relationship between the owner and the land and the history and character of the land and space.” (The Telegraph, Caroline Gammell, July 4, 2008) I wish I’d known about this ruling when Sheppard asked me about his creation.