When I lived in Northern Italy, I treated myself to many a tour of "I Grandi Giardini Italiani", accompanied by Vivian Russell's book, "Edith Wharton's Italian Gardens" and Geoffrey Jellicoe's "Italian Gardens of the Renaissance". As many visitors to Italy will know, gardening is not a pass time favoured by Italians. We tend not to have sweeping herbaceous borders, ordered kitchen gardens and gardening programmes on every channel. This is because, historically, Italians have asssociated tending the soil with poverty and rurality, neither of which sit comfortably and squarely with the modernity, glamour and bella figura that we strive for alongside wealth and progress. Coupled with the fact that summers can be brutally hot and water prohibitively scarce and highly taxed, verdant lawns and structured gardens tend to be the exception rather than the norm, outside of aristocratic estates. Most Italians only grow what they are going to eat, along with one white pelargonium plant and one red pelargonium plant on the balcony. And so it is very important to remember that "Great Gardens of Italy" written by Monty Don, photographed by Derry Moore and published by Quadrille, is an illustrated odyssey through only very grand estate and aristocratic gardens. If you wonder why every photograph shows very strong, architectural lines, with imposing central axes in parterres that culminate in long and sumptuous vistas of rolling hills in the background with sculptural urns and fountains in the foreground, it is because these thirty gardens are the playground preserves of the very wealthy nobility, cardinals, industrialists and glitterati of their time.
This book is very much a personal journey, undertaken by a writer and broadcaster who is evidently, very much in love with the Italian landscape, and with the stories of families that have shaped and nurtured that landscape over centuries, to create not only very beautiful private spaces but also an important and influential design narrative. The gardens that Monty Don has chosen have influenced generations of designers and plantsmen and women from all over the world. For example, the great gardens of Ninfa, on the road between Rome and Naples, were built on the remains of a town ransacked, ridden by plague and abandoned in 1381, and now the plants have taken over the ruins. It is a very natural and evocative space, one that has inspired the "light touch" approach to gardening. The Giusti Garden in Verona, is considered to be one of the leading examples of High Renaissance garden designs and La Foce, in Tuscany, designed by Cecil Pinsent, has inspired many British gardeners with its gentle billowing borders and undulating tiered terraces, lined with pruned citrus trees in terracotta pots.
Throughout the history of the gardens, from Villa Farnese, in Viterbo, Villa la Pietra in Tuscany, Villa Pisani in the Veneto and Villa Melzi in Bellagio, Monty examines the fortunes and falls of the families that created the gardens, explains the geography, politics, events and circumstances that shaped their creation and interviews the small number of hired help that tends them in this day and age, producing the food grown therein. The lemons, tomatoes, rucola, herbs and olive trees make for very interesting reading for those who are looking for the kitchen garden area, while those interested in great architectural detail will not be left wanting. Derry Moore's splendid photography sumptuously depicts each and every marble statue, wooden pergola, iron pavillion, stone balustrade, ionic column, mossy arabesque, retaining wall and dramatic, ornate step, descending into sunken pools. Above all, clipped box topiary, manicured yew hedges and tall, Lombardy poplars shape and punctuate the structural formality that dominates I Grandi Giardini.
You will enjoy Monty's writing, he is a natural writer, quite introspective and scholarly. You will laugh out loud when you arrive at Villa I Tatti, where the financing for the garden came from art dealing. To begin this subject, he writes: "I once sat at a dinner next to the wife of an enormously wealthy Californian music mogul. Over the salmon mousse we politely scratched around for mutual interests. "Do you like Art?" she barked. When I said that in general I did, very much indeed, she said "Whaddya buying?"
This book is a feast for the senses, it is a gift, a treat, a journey of escapism and romance. It is is a bold and courageous project to have undertaken, requiring great feats of human collaboration, co-operation and assistance, between two English-speaking men and a whole list of experts, researchers, guides and hospitable friends over a long period of time, through rain, wind and heat. Anyone not quite as conscientious and hard-working may well have given up well before the 200th page For the same reason that in Great Britain we love to tour the stately estates of The National Trust, so many would love to read and look through the wedding cake theatricality of Italy's greatest gardens. Unlike Great Britain there is no National Gardens Scheme available to the Italians, so to see horticultural extravagance and gardening skill in all its magnificence, short of touring the twenty provinces of the Italian peninsula with a tour guide, this book is your best chance of seeing the whole picture.