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Book Review: Gardens of the Italian Lakes

Book Review: Gardens of the Italian Lakes

Steven Desmond, Gardens of the Italian Lakes(Frances Lincoln, 2016) £20

For the purposes of this book the Italian Lakes comprise just Lakes Maggiore and Como. Garda, and the several smaller ones on the southern skirts of the Alps are excluded, on the understanding by the author that everyone knows what are meant by the gardens of the Italian Lakes. Such a choice divides the book nicely into two, and a couple of useful maps at the end show exactly where the 18 gardens discussed are located. One contiguous pair is included in the same chapter. Every garden is presented to us through a variety of splendid photographs, mostly of the gardens as they exist today under a variety of skies and seasons and different times of day, with several illustrations of older photographs, prints and paintings, usually to demonstrate how miraculously little the gardens and even their surroundings have changed over the decades.

The gardens share many aspects due to their mountain and lakeside settings. Although specifically directed at Villa del Balbianello the author’s description of ‘an arresting location crowned by human improvements’ can refer to many of these gardens: ‘the place looks unspeakably romantic in the approach, reveals layer on layer of beauty and interest within in its own little world and directs the eye outwards to framed views of such power and glory that the most ardent romantic’s descriptive powers will fail.’

With the ameliorating effects of the waters of the lakes and protection from the mountains the climate is such as to allow a wide range of species from many parts of the world to flourish, leading to the luxuriance of planting that characterise so many of the gardens. Nevertheless Desmond does issue warnings of the weather, pointing out that summer is the wettest season in this part of Italy, and gives several examples of where damage by winds within the past few years has caused catastrophic changes to the vegetation. The exuberance of growth has enabled most gardens to recover in a surprisingly short time. Sadly in the case of Villa San Remigio, the damage in August 2012 was sufficient to shut the garden to the public and the local authority has not yet had sufficient resources to make it safe enough for visitors.

The two lakes, despite being long and thin and of similar dimensions, are contrasted, with Como´s shores being generally much steeper, permitting fewer towns and villages to cluster along the shores, and of different geology, alkaline limestone, to Maggiore’s acidic granite. Yet in one garden beside Como, Villa Carlotta, the love of the then owner for acidic plants led to ‘the mind-blowing extravagance’ of introducing vast quantities of acidic top soil. The shape of Como, with its two southern branches leading from a single main trunk, has given the promontory where the branches separate an unassailable site for views in all directions. Villa Serbelloni, which occupies this prime location, might not have been included in the book for lack of strong garden design and identity if it were not for its enrichment by commanding views emanating in all directions.

In contrast to Como, Maggiore is graced with islands. Probably the most famous Baroque garden in northern Italy occupies Isola Bella, while a contrasting, English-style landscape garden clothes another of the Borromean islands, Isola Madre. The other archipelago in the same lake, of Brissago, is actually in Switzerland and now functions as a botanic garden.

Three of the gardens in the book grace houses several kilometres away from the lakes but of sufficient proximity, art and fascination to be included. At Villa Cigogna Mozzoni the house and garden are such integral parts of the same design that it is disappointing that no images illustrate how the exterior is decoratively mirrored within the interior, while a major element of the garden, the stone staircase, is entirely ignored by the illustrations. There are other instances of an apparent mismatch between text and images, especially at Villa Taranto where textual references to the double border, magnificent avenue of conifers and the important valley receive no such recognition in the photographs. The predominant style of this garden display is that of the informal woodland garden yet the illustrative accompaniment over- emphasises the brightly arrayed bedding designs.

Desmond ‘s extensive knowledge of gardens elsewhere allows for relevant comments and comparisons and for his censuring of Edith Wharton and even Georgina Masson in their disparagement of Italian garden planting of the 19th and early 20th century. The background of each garden´s development and most significant personalities in that development are engrossing. They serve to highlight the vulnerability that German ownership of property engendered in the First World War and British ownership in the Second World War. Even when the facts are not completely at his disposal he sidesteps with elegant phrases. In the cascade garden of Villa d’Este ‘it is tempting to assume that the iron rope work is early 19th C., as that of the golden age of this fabric’. It is frustrating that in the write up to this sublime historical finale of the book, which the cascade garden represents, no more is provided on its history than the name of the designer and owner.

Most of the gardens show a degree of horticultural skill and perfection to refute those criticisms of Italian gardens sometimes trumpeted from our own shores. The author´s use of the term ‘tonsorial artistry’ in the case of Villa Balbienello is an amusing description of when mowing and pruning may be slightly over rigorous. Many of Desmond’s descriptive terms are rich and inventive, no mean feat when describing so many gardens, but his prose is occasionally let down by conversational interjections.

The size of the book precludes it being slipped into a rucksack for onsite reference. It needs to be perused before travel and help to determine your programme of visits, with opening hours at the time of the book going to press adjacent to the maps. The author has done his job in the case of this reviewer: to instil a desire to go and visit these places. I may already know the gardens of Maggiore quite well but the pleasure of the gardens of Lake Como await me, urgently spurred on by this enjoyable book.