The English abroad: the legacy of British gardens on the Italian Riviera
The Italians have been no slouches in creating steep, cliffside gardens with spectacular drops to cool, glistening blue-green water
Sunday 07 July 2013
I don't have many free hours for gardening at this time of year because mostly I am occupied with gawping at Corsica and the Côte D'Azur on the Tour de France. Wowzers. I am sorely tempted to a Mediterranean holiday by all this giddying about on bicycles by the sea, though I'd happily forego the aching legs and sore bum of the long-distance cyclist. Give me a nice tree to sit under, and a book.
There are plenty of nice trees to park yourself under in Kirsty McLeod's The Best Gardens in Italy: A Traveller's Guide (Frances Lincoln, £20), which came out in paperback recently; it is now much better shaped for travel than it was in luscious-but-gigantic hardback. In particular, there are plenty of trees beside lovely Mediterranean views: the Italians have been no slouches in creating steep, cliffside gardens with spectacular drops to cool, glistening blue-green water.
Energetic Italian gardenmakers, yes, but also Englishmen and women, and a fair number of those 19th-century sort of indeterminate Europeans: Habsburgs, Austro-Hungarians, Holy Roman Postmasters. The most famous gardening Englishman in Italy must be Thomas Hanbury, who in the 1860s created La Mortola in Liguria, not too far from Monaco. He was the dude who purchased Wisley for the RHS, but his Italian cliff-top outpost is a far cry from Wisley's utterly Surrey setting. La Mortola is a sort of fantasy, with cactuses and palm trees and winding paths and huge terracotta pots - even what McLeod describes as a datura "copse". Wow, a whole mini-wood of hallucinogenic trumpet flowers. No slouch.
Hanbury intended his garden to be botanic in concept, and worked closely with his brother Daniel, a pharmacologist intrigued by the number of plants used in medical drugs. But "Never go against nature" was Hanbury's refrain, so there are also plenty of stands of pine, wild tufts of cistus, the rock rose, and a whole section devoted to succulents, all of which tolerate the salty, moist sea air.
Elsewhere along this glittering Italian coast there are more traces of England. Villa Boccanegra, a short drive from La Mortola, was owned and designed by Ellen Willmott, a contemporary of Gertrude Jekyll and a fantastically flighty heiress whose violin was a Stradivarius - she lived the rest of her life by the same luxurious principle.
Willmott worked with ferocious intensity to make a garden in this unpromising spot; unpromising, that is, apart from the million-dollar views across the Med. Water tanks were created and war waged against the intrusive Italian railway - what were they thinking, wanting to run a set of rails along this beautiful coastline? Flowers were specially bred to honour her (see below), and agaves, yuccas, aloes, cannas and mimosas were planted on a grandiose scale.
McLeod's seductive book finally invites the reader to ponder the difference between English and Italian gardening ways. Having just finished Tim Parks's Italian Ways (Harvill Secker, £16.99), devoted to thinking about the Italians via their railways, I begin wondering if it would be possible to do the same via gardening. The English make winding paths of descent through groves of trees; the Italians carve dramatic staircases straight up the hillside. The English spend thousands on plants, the Italians preferred to allocate their lira to stylish statuary. Highly symmetrical box and cedars line the Italian paths; wiggly old olive trees grow haphazard over the English ones. A bit of mildly nationalistic pondering - what better way to while away my hours under a tree by the sea.
La Mortola is open to the public daily in summer; Villa Boccanegra is bookable for group visits only. gardensinitaly.net
Miss hits: What's in a name?
Scabiosa caucasica "Miss Willmott"
Tiny white 'pincushions' on long, wavering stems, looking like tiny floating clouds on a hot day. £6.99, rhsplants.co.uk
Ceratostigma willmottianum 'Forest Blue'
The brightest sky blue you'll ever find in a garden, with the additional admirable quality of blooming until November. £5.99, rhsplants.co.uk
Potentilla 'Miss Willmott'
Enamel-vivid flowers in raspberry pinks, on long stems from a dome of green.
Erygnium giganteum 'Miss Willmott's Ghost'
Tall white sea holly with the air of bleached bones, a 'ghost' appearing in the arid days of August
Life & Style blogs
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Scottish independence: Yes campaign feels the heat as Alex Salmond's NHS claims come under furious attack
£23m Birmingham cycle scheme is attacked by Tory councillor for not catering to the elderly
Salmond accused of laughing off national debt with ‘what are they going to do: invade?’ joke
- 1 Scottish independence: Ireland since 1919 is a lesson for Scotland in what a Yes vote means
- 2 Thailand deaths: Pair's bloodied bodies found naked on Koh Tao beach
- 3 Lego breaks out of the toy box and heads for the gallery
- 4 Julian Assange and Edward Snowden join piracy mogul Kim Dotcom’s political campaign in New Zealand
- 5 Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special needs assistants Jobs i...
£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Bristol: Nursery nurse jobs in Chippenham...
Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad Education is working in...
£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher loo...