The Garden Across the Lake

They say you shouldn’t go back.  It won’t be the same – and by that I think we usually mean as good as you remember – and you’ll be disappointed.  But what if your memory of a place wasn’t a particularly good one, would going back still lead to disappointment?


The cypress-framed Moorish pavilion.  One of the few photos I took on my first visit to Villa Melzi.

Ten years earlier, I had not been impressed when I visited the gardens of Villa Melzi.  As far as I could see, Sommariva over at Villa Carlotta really needn’t have gone to quite so much trouble to outdo his rival.   The grounds around Melzi’s villa struck me more like a park than a garden.  A rather well-groomed, but ultimately boring park.  My reaction may have been due to my coming from a place where, despite urban sprawl, there were – and still are – lots of parks.   Also, although I had read up a bit about Villa Carlotta before my visit, for some reason, I hadn’t gotten around to doing the same for Villa Melzi.   All I knew about Melzi was that he was a thorn in Sommariva’s side.  Who knows?  Maybe that – and the sad story of Princess Carlotta – had predisposed me not to like it.


Ten years later, with all those dark clouds and the constant threat of rain, even this bit of exotica looked dull.

After Paola showed me the long-range forecast I adjusted my expectations weather-wise.  Now instead of sunny skies, I just hoped the rain would let up long enough to visit the rest of the gardens on the lake.  The nearest garden, Villa Balbianello, is (bizarrely) closed on Wednesdays in addition to the more usual Mondays, so I visited Villa Melzi next. But it started to drizzle shortly after I arrived and since I haven’t yet figured out how to hold an umbrella and fiddle around with my camera settings at the same time, I took a couple of photos and gave up.


A true Venetian gondola – you can tell by the six points below the curved ferro at the front – apparently brought here by a grateful Melzi for the enjoyment of his benefactor, Napoleon.

On the off-chance the meteorologists were wrong – poor things, notwithstanding climate change deniers, with all the unusual weather we’ve been having, they’re having a harder time getting it right these days – I had splurged on a 2-day ticket.


The standard entrance fee is 6,5 euros. An extra 2,5 euros gives visitors the chance to come back for a second look.

On my last day on Lake Como, the sun came out.  Paola had managed to get me rebooked for a tour of the gardens of Villa Serbelloni (next post) which left me with just enough time to visit one more garden.  Which would it be?  Villa Balbianello or back to Villa Melzi?    The gardens of Villa Balbianello are lovely, but small, and getting there involved a ferry and a motor boat, and the biggest problem of all – the last entry was at 4 pm.  Many of Italy’s gardens are open from early morning until tramonto (beyond the mountain).  This can make garden visiting a tricky business, especially in places like Lake Como, where in the fall, the sun disappears beyond the mountains surprisingly early.


One evening, on the way back to my hotel, I watched as the mountains behind me cast their long shadows over the opposite shore. Bellagio was the first to be plunged into darkness.


For a few minutes Varenna to the north was still in sunshine.


A few minutes later the shadows had reached Varenna and the snow-capped peaks at the north end of the lake would soon be in darkness too.

A light packer, I had brought a scarf and a warm sweater for evening strolls along the shore.  Strolls which I planned to follow with a glass of wine on the hotel terrace before going in for dinner.


The shadows climbed so quickly it was hard not to think the sun had suddenly accelerated.

I stubbornly took those strolls and one evening, bundled up in every warm thing I could find in my suitcase, even managed a glass of wine on the terrace as the sun set.


Not what I had been looking forward to, but there was no denying it was a powerful sight. Maybe even impressionante.

A week later, when I returned my rental car – in the teeming rain of course – to the rental office in Vicenza, the agent looked up in surprise as he was checking  the papers.  Lei è di Toronto!  He had just come back from a two-week trip to southern Ontario.  The weather had been fantastico!  Sunny, low twenties every day.  Not a drop of rain.  Looking back, I think it was better I hadn’t found this out earlier in my trip.


Villa Balbianello is in the middle of a narrow promontory. As annoying as the early last entry was, it was understandable.  Visitors tripping and injuring themselves on the steep banks in the fading light – maybe even falling into the drink – would be the last thing any gardener could reasonably be expected to have to deal with at the end of the day.  In the end I decided to go back to Villa Melzi.


From the entrance a path shaded by the Avenue of Plane Trees leads to the villa.

‘Wherever you go, there you are’ is one of those deceptively simple phrases.  Just when you think you’re on the verge of grasping what the author (whose identity I am sorry to say refuses to come out of the dark corner of my brain where it appears to be lodged) had in mind, it slips away.  In any event, I think it has something to do with the way, as we travel around, we unwittingly and sometimes unwillingly, bring with us bits and pieces of ourselves and our culture.  It’s a helpful concept if we want to try and appreciate – which still leaves us the option of not liking – a garden.

To understand what is going on at Villa Melzi, it’s helpful to go back to the ‘Grand Tour’, that 19th century rite of passage especially popular among young Englishmen, for whom first-hand encounters with the art and architecture of antiquity and the Renaissance, as well as the more fashionable and sophisticated society of Europe’s aristocracy, were expected to produce changes that would lead to higher prestige and social standing upon the traveller’s return.


Past the Avenue of Plane Trees the lake views open wide.  Next to an enormous Pinus Montezuma, one of the many statues pilfered during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign.

One of the things those young English travellers brought with them was the new style in garden design – the so-called “romantic” landscape – which was transforming large swaths of their native countryside.  In Italy the lure of this new, ‘exotic’ style was irresistibile.  Older gardens all over the country, especially in the north, were torn apart in what Edith Wharton would later condemn as the “fury of modern horticulture (…) a tidal wave, (which was) obliterating terraces and grottoes, and transforming them into rolling lawns…”


At the bottom of one of the rolling lawns decried by Edith Wharton, a tropical hut adds the allure of exotica all the rage in Melzi’s day. Villa Balbianello spreads out along the promontory in the distance.

As we saw in the last post, to the bitter disappointment of Sommariva across the lake, Francesco Melzi d’Eril was named Vice-President of the Italian Republic by Napoleon, a post that despite the fierce emotions it engendered, was a remarkably short one, ending with the demise of Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy three years later.  Melzi continued on for a few years as the Republic’s Chancellor and when his political came to an end, focused his energy – and, it would seem, his competitive spirit – on his garden, the first on the lake to be redone in the new, English style.


Across the lake, Villa Carlotta.

The hillside was torn up, Renaissance terraces obliterated, and then the planting started. Not for the first time in horticultural history, the rarer and more exotic the plant, the greater the prestige for the owner.  Especially coveted were flowering plants like the Rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias which intrepid plant explorers had started to bring back from countries like China that had recently opened their borders to foreigners.


When the rhodos and azaleas are in bloom, I wonder if this patch gets much attention.  It’s actually a labyrinth, but from here the puffs of boxwood look like they’re rolling down the hillside. A lot of work has gone into this area. Is it supposed to be funny?


To complement the horticultural exotica, various more or less exotic architectural elements were placed throughout the grounds.


Silhouetted against an enormous Cedar of Lebanon, this tree stood out like a friendly Inukshuk.


A grotto behind the villa had somehow been spared.

During the spring when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom, the garden must be a truly wonderful sight, but on this fall day, the most enchanting area was the ‘Giardino Orientale‘.


A variety of Japanese maples, other exotica like the Arum by the bridge, and water lilies fill the lush Oriental Garden.


I was sorry to have missed Villa Balbianello, but I was glad I went back to Villa Melzi.  There was a lot more to it than I had remembered.  Strange.  It was unlikely the garden had undergone any significant changes in the ten years since my first visit.  Was it possible that on this day, instead of being changed by the visitor as it had been so many years before, the garden had managed to bring, if not change, at least an awareness of change in the visitor?



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