4 maggio 2023
by Lidia Lombardi

The Sea-cret Garden

Giardino di Giulia 
Giardino di Giulia 

From blue to green, from sea to land, from sea beds covered with a tangle of seaweed and Posidonia to rose beds, myrtle, shady umbrella pines and violet-flowered rosemary bushes. The Italian coast is dotted with gardens, offering a cool escape from the muggy heat. They feed on the breeze coming in off the sea, they can withstand gale force winds. And it is a thrilling experience to get there not from the interstate or a dirt road, but from the sea, climbing off the boat after docking in a harbor, or casting anchor in a cove.

Many of these gardens can also be reached by land, of course. But you can also rent a boat, if you don’t have your own, and climb up from the beach, from the cliff, from the dunes. There is a guidebook for keen explorers. It is called I giardini sottocosta [Gardens on the Coast]: 800 photographs in 450-plus pages of stories and fact sheets on 70 gardens open to the public, put together by Nicoletta Campanella, an expert on historic gardens but also on floral-inspired fashion and costume, for the leading publisher in all things roses and gardens, Nicla Edizioni. A book of scenery, curious facts and untold stories of families and personalities with a passion for landscape and botany. Thus, we travel along the coast of Italy, moving down from Liguria to Puglia, up the Adriatic to Venezia Giulia, stopping in Sicily and Sardinia.

The Italian coast is a succession of gardens, ready to provide coolness to tamp down the mugginess

Ah, Sardinia! Campanella reconstructs the very start of the Emerald Coast and its first visitors. And it began with the disappointment experienced by Prince Karim Aga Khan on December 29, 1960, when he first arrived on the island to visit the newly acquired possessions. He confessed: "It was like a hunting reserve, there was no running water or electricity, no houses or industry of any kind. I was unhappy that I invested in that place." He returned the following summer and was won over by the beauty of the coast. Architect Busiri Vici designed the first villa, at Liscia di Vacca, for model Madame Bettina. The rest of the Costa Smeralda Consortium complex, conceived with the utmost respect for the natural environment (native plants only in the green spaces), was built between 1961 and 1962, greeted by the international jet set, including – in 1964 – Queen Elizabeth, who stepped off her yacht to have tea with her sister Margaret and her husband, Lord Snowdon.

After all, the predilection for spending summer by the sea in Italy had been initiated by another royal figure, Princess Pauline Bonaparte. Who, instead of her primary residence on the French Riviera, in Grasse, later preferred a villa in Viareggio, which she began building in 1822, shortly after the sea had washed ashore the body of Shelley, the English romantic poet who drowned when his sailing boat “Ariel” went down in a storm. Pauline is said to have bathed in the sea naked, covered with a garland of flowers. But it is also true that two other ladies, who with her invented summer vacationing, were the first to ask a couturier, Charles Frederick Worth, to make clothes for outdoor activities, including walks along the shoreline: Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and Pauline von Metternich.

Pauline Bonaparte had also lived for a few months overlooking the sea in 1814, when she joined her brother Napoleon in exile on the island of Elba, housed in the mansion overlooking the sea, lazing in the garden in which a path led up to a lighthouse, among Mediterranean scrub, cypresses and small palm trees. However, on Elba, it is in the Botanic Gardens of Ottone, in Portoferraio, that the palms really abound, with 36 different species.  The park originated in the 1800s and was expanded as far as the beach. The pride of the many tropical species is the blue palm, so called because of the reflection generated by the leaves in the midday sun. The Villa dell’Ottone is also the result of a friendship. It was built by Giuseppe Garbari, a landowner from Trento, who was encouraged by his associate Giorgio Roster, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Florence. His residence on Elba, Villa Ottonella, inhabited since 1895, bordered Garbari's, enabling the two to take long walks together, discussing their shared passion for botany. Garbari failed to overcome his sorrow after his friend's death in 1927 and he sold the garden. The family that purchased it has kept it as it was.

The predilection for summering by the sea in Italy had been initiated by another emblazoned, Princess Pauline Bonaparte

Traveling south into the Tyrrhenian Sea, a must see is Villa Cimbrone, in Ravello, on the rocky promontory, Cimbronium, where a castle once stood in the 11th century. The boat can be moored in Amalfi, but it is fashionable to dock at the harbor-island of Marina di Arechi, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Then it's an uphill climb to the top of the world's most charming coastline. And to think that Villa Cimbrone – much loved by the literati of the Grand Tour – suffered disinterest and neglect in the late 19th century. It was "saved" by a British banker, Lord Grimthorpe, aided by an eclectic figure born and bred in Ravello, Nicola Masi. Thanks to their dream become reality, today we can stroll under the canopy of blue and white wisteria in the Viale dell’Immenso, sit beside the little temple of Ceres, breathe in the fragrance of the crown of Banksia – so loved by Virginia Woolf – on the Terrazza delle Rose, hold our breath looking out from the Terrazza dell’Infinito, with a stunning seascape as far as the eye can see.

On the Adriatic, the first high coast for those traveling from the north is within sight of Pesaro. And here, on the hills that stretch as far as Gabicce, wild broom gives way to the imposing and landscaped park of Villa Caprile, 1600 hectares around a residence built in 1640 by Marquis Giovanni Mosca and expanded by his descendants. The gardens are organised on sloping terraces with fountains and water features. The first, closest to the sea, is populated with native essences, myrtle, rosemary, and citrus; on the second level an Arab-style pomerium; and on the third the viridarium, complete with a garden theater. Guests of the rooms decorated with frescoes included figures native to Marche, such as Rossini and Leopardi, as well as Casanova, Stendhal and Napoleon.

Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg's successful gamble was the Miramare Park in Trieste. It is reached by land on a very pleasant walk skirting the long public beach served by the egg-shaped huts. From the sea, you moor in the small bay of Grignano, below the snow-white castle so loved by Princess Sissi. Her brother-in-law, a botany enthusiast, wanted to experiment with the barren and rocky karst promontory as a reforestation and acclimatization station for a variety of species. He had mountains of soil brought in from Styria and Carinthia and supervised in person the planting of the park, entrusted to court gardener Jenilek. This resulted in a wooded part, in romantic English style, with gazebos and ponds, and another, almost touching the waves with colorful Italian-style flower beds, in front of the Kaffeehaus. Maximilian took care of Miramare even from Mexico, where he was acclaimed emperor in 1864, sending Jelinek exotic species. He would never get to enjoy seeing them grow in the distant Gulf of Trieste: republican opponents subjected him to the judgment of a court-martial, which decreed his execution.

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