Abbey of the Good Harvest and Villa of the Vines of May

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.)

Badia di Coltibuono

Badia di Coltibuono.

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.


Iris under the wisteria pergola.

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.


Instead of the high stone walls of the medieval walled gardens, a living wall of trees encloses the gardens of Coltibuono.

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.


Of course you don’t need to know any of all this to appreciate the garden’s beauty and tranquillity.

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.

Boxwood, before and after the annual trimming.

Boxwood, before and after its annual trim.

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?

Fountain in the inner courtyard.

Fountain in the inner courtyard.

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.


Do the workers who tend the vines consider the long, spring days a blessing or a curse?


Entrance to Villa Vignamaggio. Incantevole (enchanting).


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”.


It’s all about your point of view in these Renaissance gardens.


The inscription above the sundial reflects the movement of the sun on its daily journey.  (OK – I know – we’re the ones who are doing the moving.  This was the 16th century.  Remember what happened to Galileo?)
‘Phoebus leaves me around noon, not to return until morning’. 


Beyond the green arches, an enormous garden ‘room’.

It even has one of those dogs to keep watch over things.

The garden even has one of those dogs to keep watch over things.

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.


Chianti Castles

Today is a real treat for the driver.  The two wineries we’re going to visit are less than 10 kilometres from Gaiole-in-Chianti.  Round trip.

A fortress castle for the turbulent Middle Ages.

There were two things that drew me to Castello di Meleto – the walled medieval garden and the tour of the castle.


Next to the castle, a small hortus conclusus (walled garden).

I could see they had made an effort to create a garden like those of the Benedictine monks who lived here during the Middle Ages, but the effect was rather underwhelming. (Fortunately, a few days later, I would see another, much more compelling restoration of a hortus conclusus in a winery close by.)

The real highlight at Meleto turned out to be the interior of the castle, which unlike most of the other castles in the Chianti region – at least the ones that are open to the public – is furnished.


All the “crooked” doors are mounted on a swivel so that they close properly.

The family chapel.

The family chapel.


The great dining room – all set up for a wedding reception later that day.


ANTES MUERTO QUE MUDADO (Better dead than changed.)

I have no idea what that Spanish motto is doing above the Ricasoli emblem.  I even checked an Italian on-line chat room – very entertaining, but the consensus seemed to be that the reason was lost in a miriade di informazioni.


In the 18th century, paintings in the ‘classical picturesque’ style were extremely popular.  They soon led to a new fashion in garden design – the Romantic English Landscape Garden.


Florence may have won the war, but in the hearts of many locals Siena remained the centre of their world.


The 18th century theatre.


On the rear wall – bread and circuses.  A note of irony?


Lovely scenery along the way. I just wished those patches of blue were a bit bigger.

The sky was overcast when I set out for Castello di Brolio.     You can visit the gardens without a reservation, but I figured, having come all this way, why not have a look at the castle interior as well, so I had booked una visita del castello months before.  I wasn’t worried at the time.  May is a lovely month in Tuscany.  Rain is almost unheard of.


High stone walls surround the castle, which was strategically, or maybe not so strategically located on the Medieval border of arch enemies, Siena and Florence.


Inside the entrance gate.  Just before the deluge.

Of course it did rain.  We had barely gone through the entrance gate when it started to pour.  But if it hadn’t been so miserable, perhaps our guide wouldn’t have taken pity on me later on and told me about a path in the vineyards surrounding the castle, that wasn’t, strictly speaking, private.

The family chapel.

La Cappella di San Jacopo.  The family chapel.


The austere exterior leaves you totally unprepared for the richly decorated interior.

Detail of the ceiling.

Detail of the ceiling.

I have no more photos of the rest of the castle tour.  First of all it was raining catinelle (pails).  Our little group got soaked in the 20 metre dash from the chapel to the castle.  But even more annoying, inside the castle there were those dreaded VIETATO FOTOGRAFARE signs all over the place.  I naively asked if it might be OK to take photos “senza (without) flash”.  Our guide looked at me quite sharply and said, “No.”

A few minutes later I was to feel even stupider (is there such a word?  They were debating this on the CBC a few days ago – ‘stupidest’ sounds fine – as in, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!”, but somehow ‘stupider’ doesn’t… no idea.)  On the bright side, I have had many opportunities to notice that asking a ‘stupid’ question in a foreign language doesn’t feel nearly as embarrassing as in your native tongue.  Someone has probably done a study on this.

Anyway, as our guide led us through the various rooms of the castle, which I of course was itching to take photos of, I noticed that there  were a bunch of gizmos hanging from the ceilings.  I asked her what was up with all these hanging things.  Again she gave me that sharp look.  “They are security cameras,” she slowly enunciated in her German-accented Italian.  Oh dear.

Eventually she realized that I was not a security threat and we got along fine.   She was doing the tour in English, which she spoke perfectly, and whenever there was a break in the script I would ask her a question.  In italiano.  It was a little weird.  My rule of thumb is to speak the two foreign languages I know when I’m in the country, which means  Italian when I’m in Italy and French when I’m in France.  Would she have preferred speaking to me in English?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that when I explained to her that what I had really come for was to take photos of the garden and vineyards, she told me about the path through the vineyards around the castle.  And she also said I could come back two days later without paying the entrance fee again.  I mention this because I noticed a rather nasty comment on Trip Advisor about a visit which seems to have occurred under similar circumstances.  I don’t know what happened to make that visitor write that negative comment.  All I can say is that my experience was very different.

After the tour of the castle interior, we were supposed to be taken through the gardens.  To her credit, our guide offered, but of course we all declined and instead made another mad dash over to the cellar for the second part of our tour.


These modernized wineries may produce better quality wines but they always make me think of space stations.


At Brolio they still use corks made of cork. On the sheet of paper overlapping the labels is a list of fornitori (suppliers) of tappi (corks) made out of sughero (cork).

If you ever find the whole wine thing mystifying, if not downright intimidating, here at Brolio there’s another layer to confound you.  We’re at the Castello di Brolio, so why do so many of the labels feature the name ‘Ricasoli‘?

For that we have to go back to the mid 19th century when Bettino Ricasoli, one of the most important politicians of the era and a strong promoter of Italian unity, got sidelined because of his strong sense of integrity – a character trait that some, who no doubt found it annoying, described rather uncharitably as moral intransigence, leading to the nickname ‘il Barone di Ferro‘ (the Iron Baron).  In ogni caso, abandoning politics, he turned his iron will to improving the wines produced on the family estate and in 1872 came up with a wine ‘recipe’.


Here’s an idea for all those playpens that today’s parents seem to be shunning.

It was one of those things that no-one thinks of doing and then, once it’s done, everyone wonders how they ever managed without it.  For the next hundred years all wines bearing the Chianti label were made according to that recipe, which in 1967 was made into law.  Not surprisingly, it called for a big dose (70%) of Sangiovese, Tuscany’s viticultural workhorse to this day.  But it also included a fair amount (15%) of Malvasia and later, Trebbiano, white grapes which have recently been prohibited by law.

Given that over 170 different clones of the Sangiovese grape have been created since Bettino’s day, who knows how much today’s all red Chianti’s differ from those earlier white-infused creations?


Does someone actually dust these bottles?


This part looked – and smelled – more appealing.


Finally, the degustazione!




Two days later, when I went back to Castello Brolio, it was still unseasonably cool, but for the first time in a while it wasn’t raining. Before going out into the vineyards, I wanted to have a look at the garden around the castle. I dropped in at the reception area, chatted with the guide and once again walked through the small opening in the ramparts.  This time under wonderfully blue skies.


Brolio comes from brolo, Longobard for ‘enclosed green space’. The Longobards, aka ‘Long Beards’, were a Germanic tribe who led a virtually unopposed invasion of Italy in the 6th century. Castello Brolio was one of their most important strongholds.


In the 12th century, the Republic of Florence gave the estate, which was of enormous strategic importance in the wars against Siena, to the Ricasoli family, in whose hands it has remained – apart from two “painful” decades in the late 1900’s.


In the centre of this terrace, a Cedar of Lebanon, one of the many ‘exotics’ introduced in the 19th century.

By the 19th century Florence and Siena had settled their differences – more or less – and the medieval fortress was transformed into the neo-gothic fairytale castle we see today. To go with the more peaceful feel, all sorts of exotic plants and trees were introduced into the gardens.  But for me, even more beautiful than the ‘exotica’ was the formal Renaissance parterre below the ramparts.

And below the ramparts a classic Renaissance parterre.

And beyond the parterre, a seemingly unending vista of vineyards.




To my left I noticed people in the vineyards.  Time for me to set out for the path the guide had told me about.

On the far left I saw some people wandering around in the vineyard. Time to set out for the path the guide had told me about.


The path should start just past this corner.

The “two painful periods” were the Nazi occupation of the castle during World War II and a couple of decades later when the Ricasoli’s lost control of the property.

In the economic upheaval of mid 20th century Italy, many large family estates in the Chianti region were sold and the new owners focused their efforts on quantity.  This was a boon for impoverished university students – remember those oh so chic straw-covered bottles that we’d stick candles in to decorate our spartan lodgings?   But the thin, watery reds were less appreciated by more savvy wine drinkers.  For years they wouldn’t touch anything that came out of the Chianti region and eventually the Ricasoli’s had to sell.


As had happened with the other great family estates, the new owners went for volume and for the next couple of decades, the wines coming out of the Brolio vineyards were essentially indistinguishable from the rest of the ‘plonk’ being produced throughout the Chianti region.  But all that changed when Brolio’s ‘White Knight’, Francesco Ricasoli, who had been working as a photographer in Florence, managed to buy back the property in 1993 and start the slow process of revitalizing the Brolio reputation.


Now and then the sun lit up a villa in the distance.

The biggest seed puff I've ever seen.

The biggest seed puff I’ve ever seen.

It was a real treat wandering around in the vineyards all by myself.  The only problem was, I couldn’t find the path back up to the castle the guide had told me about.

Definitely not the path, but I managed to get back to the ramparts without breaking anything.

Definitely not the path, but it did lead upward.

For my next outing I’m off to visit ‘The Abbey of the Good Harvest’ and ‘The Villa of the Vines of May’.  Delightful.