English gardens in Italy
LAST May, I went garden visiting in Italy. I lived there as a young man and try to go back several times a year. I’ve always loved Italy and have often been exasperated by the Italians; some of the country’s best gardens were made by English expatriates in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, problems emerge when the original gardenmakers pass into the Arcadian fields and local organisations take over.
In the 1940s, Neil Mceachern was ‘encouraged’ to pass Villa Táranto on Lake Maggiore to a foundation with political clout. His 40-acre garden boasted more than 10,000 different varieties of trees and shrubs. Alas, with no tradition of ornamental horticulture in Italy, the garden is a museum to Mceachern’s endeavours, but with little chance of continuation as an ever-expanding collection.
The Hanburys at La Mortola had better fortune and Carolyn Hanbury still lives on part of the estate. Thomas Hanbury started this Riviera masterpiece in 1867 and his son, Cecil, greatly expanded it in the 1920s and 1930s, but postsecond World War taxation of 19s 6d in the pound (97.5%) made it impossible to maintain 20 gardeners. In 1961, Cecil’s widow was obliged to sell most of La Mortola to the Italian state.
Its fortunes since then have seesawed. Some 30 years ago, it was saved from abandonment by an international body of top botanists, who formed a Friends organisation to secure its future. That’s now little more than a local gardening club and the garden is administered by the University of Genoa. The chances of the Italians appointing an English director are zero.
Gardeners in Italy are largely untrained, because horticultural skills are not taught as a professional discipline. Carolyn does what she can and sets an example by helping with the weeding, greatly to the amazement and horror of upper-class Italians, for whom gardening is strictly for staff.
Ninfa, however, is in the best of health. Lelia and Hubert Howard, the last private owners of this garden, made it within the ruins of a medieval town on the edge of the Pontine marshes and appointed their protégé Lauro Marchetti to preserve and curate it after their deaths. Over the past 30 years, he has conserved and intensified its Englishness quite brilliantly.
It was at Ninfa that I spent two days in May, soaking up the extraordinary spirit of the place and looking at the many improvements wrought by Sr Marchetti. My second day coincided with the annual spring visit of the Friends of Ninfa; its membership is fairly exclusive: horticultural bigwigs such as Arabella Lennox-boyd, a smattering of lords and a goodly number of English Catholics.
We revelled in the roses that clamber on every ruined wall, we inspected the roofless church of Santa Maria Maggiore, we gasped at the magnificent restored rock garden made on a crumbled section of the old town walls, we searched the stately river for its indigenous sub-species of trout. I also crossed over the bridge to pay homage to a huge Stewartia pseudocamellia.
Then, we picnicked among the ruins and fell asleep as the temperature rose to the mid 20s, the crickets set up a merry orchestra and the birds paused their sing-song for a postprandial snooze. The best time to be at Ninfa is at night, when a dozen nightingales are singing, fireflies light up the dark and the scent of Trachelospermum spreads throughout the garden.
Could one ever re-create such Heaven on Earth in England, I wondered? The plants, the plantings, the Trachelospermum, even the nightingales, one could probably combine, but nowhere could one do so within the ruins of an entire 14th-century town.
I started to dream of building myself a few ruined walls, with empty windows and weatherbeaten lintels and running roses over them in homage to Ninfa and I suddenly remembered that Arabella has already constructed a ruined tribute to Ninfa in part of her own garden at Gresgarth in Lancashire. She would be just the person, I reflected, to reinvigorate Villa Táranto and La Mortola: a brilliant plantswoman with a sensitive eye for site, climate and style.
What’s more, I thought, she’s Italian. But would the present owners ever share power with her or ever allow her to do what is needed? Probably not, alas.
We picnicked among the ruins as the temperature rose to the mid 20s
Charles Quest-ritson wrote the RHS Encyclopedia of Roses
Lelia and Hubert Howard’s garden at Ninfa, showing the medieval ruins, lawn and trout stream in the foreground