English gar­dens in Italy

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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

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