In the Garden of an Aesthete – Villa Pietra

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.”

An avenue of ancient cypresses sets the tone.

An avenue of ancient cypresses sets the tone.

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.

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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.

Hidden behind the one story extension at the end of the path, the Acton’s version of the requisite grotto.

Hidden behind the one story extension at the end of the path, the Acton’s version of the requisite grotto.

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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.

May must be boxwood trimming month.  The gardener in blue in the background is using manual clippers to make the “domes”.

May must be boxwood trimming month.
The gardener in blue in the background is using manual clippers to make the “domes”.

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!).

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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.

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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”.

More of those dogs.

Those dogs again.

More of them just beyond the arch.

The heads of more dogs just peaking out beyond the arch.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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An NYU student who had stayed at La Pietra told me about the plays
that the faculty stages in the “Wisteria Theatre”. It sounded absolutely magical.

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It would have been wonderful to come earlier in the season to see the wisteria in bloom,
but then the roses wouldn’t have been out yet.

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.

Above the tall hedges, a chance glimpse of Florence’s Duomo is offered.

Above the tall hedges, a chance glimpse of Florence’s Duomo.

Our guide told us there are more than 180 statues scattered around the garden.  But, as you can see, not a lot of flowers.  We are heading toward the little temple-like structure at the top of the hill, beyond the Maritime pine.

Our guide told us there are more than 180 statues scattered around the garden. But, as you can see, not a lot of flowers.
We are heading toward the little temple-like structure at the top of the hill, beyond the Maritime pine.

Almost an exact replica of the temple I’d seen in the gardens of Villa Cimbrone on the Amalfi Coast.

Almost an exact replica of the temple I’d seen in the gardens of Villa Cimbrone on the Amalfi Coast.

Only here, instead of Bacchus cavorting with a satyr, we have...

Only here, instead of Bacchus cavorting with a satyr, we have…

More statues on the way back up to the villa and the end of our tour.

More statues on the way back up to the villa and the end of our tour.

But first, one more stop.  The orto, where citrus and vegetables are grown.

But first, one more stop – the orto, where citrus and vegetables are grown.

The interior of these limonaie is cleaner and tidier than any garage I’ve ever had.

The interior of these limonaie is cleaner and tidier than any garage I’ve ever had.

Renaissance symmetry, even in the veggie garden.

Renaissance symmetry, even in the veggie garden.

Closer to the villa, we see someone working in the garden.

Closer to the villa, we see someone working in the garden.

She offers us some of the fava beans she has just picked.   We munch on them as we make our way to the exit.

She offers us some of the fava beans she has just picked.
We make our way to the exit munching on favas.

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The Perfect Italian Garden – Villa Gamberaia II

When I looked out my hotel window the next morning it wasn’t glorious, but it wasn’t raining.  I set off early and was waiting at the entrance gate when the receptionist arrived.  I had the whole garden to myself for almost two hours – enough time to explore and soak in the spirit of the place before the first bus group arrived.

When you round the corner past the villa, on your right is one of the most wide open views of Florence imaginable.  Even from this distance the Duomo is clearly visible.

When you round the corner past the villa, on your right is one of the most wide open views of Florence imaginable.
Even from this distance the Duomo is clearly visible.

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The initial impression is that we are in an extremely well-maintained and remarkably well-preserved classic Renaissance garden.  It is definitely well-maintained, but it is not well-preserved, for the simple reason that, as these gardens go, it is relatively new.

It is strangely comforting to see evidence of the gardener's struggle with nature even  in a "perfect" garden.

It is strangely comforting to see evidence of the gardener’s struggle with nature even in a “perfect” garden.

Work on the garden only began after Princess Ghyka, sister of the Queen of Serbia, bought the property in the early 1900’s. Reams have been written and speculated about the Princess.  She lived here as a recluse, never leaving the property, with only a “friend” – an American woman – for company.  Obsessed with her rapidly fading beauty, she seldom came out during daylight and always wore a dark veil when she received the rare visitor.   And yet, despite this shadowy existence,  she was the force behind the gradual transformation of the property into a Renaissance garden, or rather, a 20th century idealized version of a Renaissance garden.

Climbing roses grow up the cypress Belvedere.

Climbing roses grow up the cypress Belvedere.

Through the arches wonderful vistas out onto the countryside and looking back toward the villa.

Through the arches wonderful vistas out onto the countryside and looking back toward the villa.

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When the princess arrived, instead of pools there was a parterre de broderie – gardening lingo for a flat area filled with boxwood hedges trimmed into intricate designs.  There doesn’t seem to be an English word.  Italians use the French term too.   Did she have the pools built in memory of the villa’s distant past, when gamberi (crayfish) were raised in ponds on the property?  Or perhaps, given her undisguised vanity and narcissism, did the pools have something to do with a more personal and much yearned-for past – a time when she was young and beautiful and invincible?

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Unlike other gardens of similar fame, Gamberaia, at just over one hectare (2 1/2 acres) is small – “astonishingly small” – is how Edith Wharton put it in her epic “Italian Villas and Their Gardens”.  But, as a perfect example of the art of turning a potential weakness into strength, its relative smallness became one of its most attractive features.  Wharton described it as “probably the most perfect example of the art of achieving a grand effect within a relatively small space”.  Now that’s something we can all aspire to.

I especially liked the way the garden was designed to open out onto the surrounding countryside - welcoming it, rejoicing in it - unlike the next garden I would be visiting.

I especially liked the way the garden was designed to open out onto the surrounding countryside.
Very different from the next garden I would be visiting.

Retracing my steps along the east side of the garden.

Retracing my steps along the east side of the garden.

Am I the only one who wishes they’d put some kind of wedge under this?

Am I the only one who wishes they’d put some kind of wedge under this?

The sunken “Secret Garden”.  Like the garden “rooms” of the Renaissance gardens.

The sunken “Secret Garden”.  Like the garden “rooms” of the Renaissance gardens.

Those clouds again.  No time for lingering.

Those clouds again. No time for lingering.

The cool temperatures and rain are wreaking havoc for olive growers and vintners, but the unusual weather is a dream come true for rose lovers.

The cool temperatures and rain are wreaking havoc for olive growers and vintners,
but the unusual weather is a dream come true for rose lovers.

Stairs lead to the lemon garden. How can there possibly be so many lemons growing on just one tree?There are also potted oranges, grapefruits, mandarins and kumquats up here.

Stairs lead to the lemon garden. How can there possibly be so many lemons growing on just one little tree?
There are also potted oranges, grapefruits, mandarins and kumquats up here.

Next to the limonaia, Albertine roses flourish in the mixed perennial border planted in the 1950’s.

Next to the limonaia, Albertine roses flourish in the mixed perennial border planted in the 1950’s.

Peonies along the west wall of the lemon parterre have been smashed by the recent storms.

Peonies along the west wall of the lemon parterre have been smashed by the recent storms.

From the entrance level, a view of the wall supporting the lemon garden.

Back down at ground level, a glimpse of the enormous wall that supports the citrus garden.

the bowling green

The “bowling green”.

I know it’s considered one of the highlights of the garden, but for me this enormous grass area just looks so out of place, so implausible.  A horticultural anomaly in a land where fresh water has always been a scarce resource.   In days gone by, the so-called “bowling green” was actually used for outdoor games.  I wonder how much longer it will be maintained to this state of perfection.

As a Canadian, I can only shake my head in wonder at all the potted azaleas?  What are they putting in that soil?

As a Canadian, I can only shake my head in wonder at all the potted azaleas.  What are they putting in that soil?

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At the end of the bowling green, the requisite grotto.  It is a little disconcerting to know that part of the path to the grotto is not on terra ferma, but is part of a bridge built over the local road.

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What the dog saw.

All this in just over 2 1/2 acres.  And yet it doesn’t seem at all crowded.  Maybe it really is  Italy’s most perfect little garden.