28 febbraio 2023

How to live

Victoria's greenhouse
Victoria's greenhouse

The roses sleep in the knotted branches,

but as soon as they are kissed by the bold sun, the first buds swell.

Vainly, they flaunt themselves already in full springtime swing as early as mid-March: hyacinths, camellias, primroses.

The hundreds of gardens in Italy, from the Alps (on Mont Blanc, the Saussurrea Alpine Gardens unveil the untouchable edelweiss) to Sicily (with the lush Botanical Gardens

and Villa Malfitano). Ready to reopen

their doors as soon as the swallow

flies. They are surveyed by APGI, the Association of Italian Parks and Gardens,

whose honorary president, Paolo Pejrone, yearns for one thing: If only.

all Italians became gardeners. An art in which we were the best in the world. And  

that is, to be patient, to dream,

to get their hands dirty with earth and thus to hold reality in their hands.”

But in the meantime, we are grateful to the Foundations, virtuous Municipal Authorities, the nobility in their stately homes, who understand that gardens are cornerstones of Italian history. And to those who have lent themselves to the worship of Beauty in nature, reinventing their time. This very personal pocket tourist guide seeks to take those and these into account.

The drawings of flowers

from Piedmont

and dating back to the end

from the 16th-early 17th century, are preserved

in the royal library

in the royal museums in Turin.

So let's start with the Garden of Ninfa, near Cisterna di Latina, under the Lepini Mountains on which are perched the little towns of Norma and Sermoneta. It spans hundreds of years, starting with the name, which refers to the temple devoted to the Nymphs in the classical age. And it is home to the ruins of ancient Roman bridges and medieval towers, churches, houses, monasteries; because – when the Appia and the Severiana were flooded by the marshes – it was the foothill road around Ninfa that guaranteed the transit of goods. And thus, the farmland given by the emperor Constantine V to Pope Zaccaria in reward for having opposed the Longobards of Liutprand became a thriving city. In reality, over the centuries, Ninfa was dominated by noble families: the Tuscolo, the Frangipane, the Annibaldi, the Colonna, the Caetani, with numerous and varying setbacks – including the devastation engineered by Federico Barbarossa – to fill the Annals. Ninfa declined and was abandoned. It wasn’t until the 1920s that it started to come back to life. Count Gelasio Caetani began the restoration of the ruins and planted botanical species discovered abroad.

Here, these non-native arrivals found ideal territory: moisture from the stream that crosses it, protected by the mountain behind, cooled by the nearby sea. His descendants – as far as Lelia Caetani – planted an English garden, but the ruins that travel through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries render the Oasis of Ninfa unique. A place that charmed D'Annunzio and Pasternak. Today, digital travelers are charmed by the cedar that plays host to the rootless tillandsia (air plant), the scarlet flowers like tropical birds, the papyrus, the starry magnolia, the avenue of cypresses, the Japanese maple.

A musician and his adoring wife created ‘La Mortella’, the garden that overlooks the bay of Forio d'Ischia from the Zaro promontory. In 1958, the English composer William Walton and his Argentinian wife Susana bought the barren land on the rocky outcrop. The green-eyed South American lady commissioned the landscape gardener Russell Page to design the garden. But later, it would be her interpretation that would truly make the project a reality. Her final creation, before her death in 2010, is a theater with a cavea open to the sea and surrounded by creeping thyme and roses, large enough to accommodate a symphony orchestra. And indeed, the Mortella Gardens host concerts and shows in spring and summer (this year starting April 1 and 2), in memory of Sir Walton, to whom we owe the soundtrack for the three Shakespeare films starring Lawrence Olivier.

La Mortella is a wonderful combination of musicians, artists and plants: there is the puppet theater created by Lele Luzzati, the collection of Walton's manuscripts, exotic and rare plants mixed with the Mediterranean scrub. If you climb to the upper garden, you discover the spectacular views over the sea and Forio, accompanied by the blue flowers of the fragrant rosemary that runs low along the steps and dry-stone walls. You find a whole collection of blooming aloe, alongside arbutus and myrtle berries. But also the extravagant corollas of Australian species – mimosa, grevillea, banksia. The oriental garden that surrounds the Tai house, embellished in springtime by the flowering bamboo.

The garden has been open to the public since 1991, according to the wishes of Lady Walton, who also established a foundation named after her husband and La Mortella. A way of rendering their love eternal. While William worked on his scores, Susana created her masterpiece of corollas and shrubs, transforming a piece of volcanic land into a multi-level floral paradise.

And now we turn to roses, which are the leitmotif of another garden created by someone of a totally different occupation: Giorgio Mece deals with international taxation. But he is also the owner of ‘Vacunae Rosae’, in Sabina, the first conceptual rose garden in the world, and second in terms of number of species. The garden is part of a vast, wooded property, La Tacita, which slopes down to the shadow of Mount Fiolo – much-loved by the goddess Vacuna in ancient times – in the municipality of Roccantica. It was designed and created in 2000 by the visionary Paolo Bonani, who filled it with symbols, starting with the shape – like an angel's wing – and continuing with the Japanese dry garden and then the seven colored fountains with mythological names, such as Psyche. “Do you really own eighteen thousand roses?!” exclaimed King Charles III, astonished, when – then still the ‘botanist prince’ – he received Mece and his wife Anna Chiara at Clarence House in 2015.  Visitors can book a tour of the Rose Garden – which is registered among the Great Italian Gardens – on the La Tacita website. And it is indeed a mystical floral journey, among 5,500 varieties: contemporary and ancient, English, French, Oriental, such as the white bracteata, a late eighteenth-century Chinese rose. Climbing on trellises and gates, blooming even right through to December, or spread across the slopes, like the super-hardy Knock Out.

The Garden of Pianamola, in Bassano Romano, in the Viterbo area, with views over Lake Bracciano and the sea, is instead home to more “rustic” roses. The owner Elisa Resegotti, film producer and landscape designer, has made her love for beauty a true mission: to save the rockroses, the little “sea roses” typical of the Mediterranean scrub. As relentless as a suffragette, she digs them up from land on the Lazio coast that is soon to be tilled and transplants them on her hill at Pianamola. Resegotti created this modern-day Eden (open to visitors by reservation on +39 338 8479108) by prioritizing the notion of a natural landscape. She has restored the spontaneous flora and focused on the natural contours of the high ground, which had been disfigured by the uprooting of every species. In June, the poppies glow red among the broom and lavender, the mighty oaks stand proud and the carpets of cistus hum the Impressionist notes of white, yellow and lilac. The tuff amphitheater – a tribute to the Etruscans – hosts artist performances and gatherings. Because Pianamola is also an open-air atelier. The most recent exhibition was in late 2022 – the gardens themselves revealed as a work of post-pandemic Resilience – and featured, among others, Paola Babini's Albero bionico and Corkodrillo, a cork sculpture by Hans-Hermann Koopmann.

Fresh new rose,

Delighting Spring,

By field and stream,

Singing gaily,

I declare your rarity - to the flowers.

Let your rare gifts be

Freshly sung

By old men and young

On every journey:

And, each in its own tongue,

Let the songbirds sing

Evening and morning

The green leaves among.

Now the time has come

Let the whole world sing

As is most fitting

Of your high merit:

Who are angelic - among creatures.

Lady, in you there sits

An angel’s likeness:

Lord, how blessed

My desire is!

Your look so joyous

That goes beyond

Nature and custom’s

A thing so wondrous.

The women among us

Call you a living goddess:

And I cannot express

How favoured you seem:

For who can dream - beyond Nature?

Beyond mortal nature

God made your pure beauty

So that you might be

The queen of all here:

So let your gaze from me

Not stray too far away,

And your sweet kindness

Be not cruel to me.

And if you think it wrong

That I should love you,

Don’t hold be guilty too:

Love drives me, against whose course

Strength has no force - nor Measure.

Guido Cavalcanti, [1258-1300].

Translation by A. S. Kline, 2007.

Giorgio Mece is the son of a pasha. He speaks with a Roman accent, but his family – Meçe Bono of Tepeleny – is among the five most prominent nobles in Albania, by appointment, in 1271, by Charles of Anjou. From these ancestors he has inherited his love for the land, which led to him purchasing the La Tacita estate, 130 hectares in Sabina. “I'm a megalomaniac,” he says. “That's why I love trees. I have planted 26,000 tall trees, including 200 redwoods from California. Not the roses; they’re to make my wife happy, it’s she who loves roses.” But he is also a great lover of botany as a tool for lifting the spirits. He has accumulated specialist literature, he has studied Shigo, the biologist who identifies the relationships between plants. “It was him who explained to me why one of my redwoods had turned brown: ‘It has a fig tree nearby, a tree it hates.’” His whole life has been full of unexpected events: his father was mayor but was then sent to a concentration camp because he was a Muslim; the conversion to Christianity, his family emigrated to Canada after the war; his studies and a prestigious professional career. His one constant is the call of Nature.

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