This is the book to accompany the soon to be broadcast (as I write in February 2011) TV series of the same name. Monty Don takes a personal journey to 30 of Italy's major gardens. Most of these are clustered around major cities such as Rome, Florence and Naples. Top photographer Derry Moore had the enviable task of capturing each garden in photographs.
After a brief introduction where Don explains his journey and how Italian gardens have shaped and informed his own gardening activities, there then follows 6 chapters dividing the gardens by region: Naples, Rome, Viterbo, Tuscany, Veneto and The Lakes. Don's journey was made south to north and the chapters reflect the direction of travel.
Each chapter is prefaced by an introductory essay describing the regional setting in which the gardens reside. There then follows a 'word-scape' for each garden where Don describes his visit to the garden and his own impressions of it, the historical context, who looks after the garden today etc etc. After each essay there follows a number Moore's photographs to give the visual details. Each photo has a detailed caption linking back to the previous text.
I'm sure the intention is to let the words and pictures speak for themselves with an equal voice. Personally I found the result a little disjointed and would have preferred them to lie side by side as they do in the general introduction. The larger text used for the regional introduction added to the disjointed feeling for me. Much as I admire Monty Don's writing, I found it quite tempting to skip straight to the pictures. I curtailed this by limiting myself to reading one garden at a time, rather than trying to read straight through. I would have liked a plan to accompany each garden too, as it's hard to guage from the text and photographs their size, shape, layout etc.
I can't really say whether the chosen gardens are the 30 'best' ones or if they're the most well known. I'm sure every expert will have their own list which may coincide or wildly differ to this selection: I'll leave the arguments on that score to them. A quick look at other books on the market on the same subject reveal quite a few differences in some and similarities in others.
One feature I liked very much is the Chronology tucked at the back of the book showing where each garden fits in terms of style, date and major events of the time. Thus the Villa Adriana in Rome is rooted in the 2nd century AD in Classical times and Torrechia is the youngest: a Modern garden from 1995-2010.
I was rather surprised the end section didn't contain a bibliography for further reading: Don refers to the odd text used during his research, so I would have liked to see these (and others?) gathered together in one place. Nor were there details of how to go about visiting any of the gardens which take our fancy. However, I believe these are notoriously prone to change, so perhaps it's understandable these details have been left out.
We owe a great debt to many of these gardens as they have formed and shaped many of our own in the UK. For instance, I now can clearly see how the gardens at Blenheim were influenced by places such as Villa Lante, Giardino di Boboli and Villa Torrigiani. However, after a while I found myself wanting to get away from the masses of topiary, enclosed box hedges, statues and walls these gardens contain.
It's the more unusual gardens which have stayed in my mind and now form my fantasy shortlist to visit: Ninfa for its romantic emergence from the ruins, Villa d'Este at Tivoli for its terrace of Hundred Fountains, Sacro Bosco for its giant mossy statues and Isola Bella for the giant wedding cake effect which reminds me a little of Portmeirion.
It'll be interesting to compare the TV series with the book to see if my list changes.
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