|Mediterranean Garden Society|
The Italian Branch of the MGS
Our annual Branch meeting was held at B&M Books in Florence. John Werich, who is a professional photographer and proprietor of the bookshop, then gave us a talk on how to improve our photos of gardens, illustrated with many wonderful examples from his own portfolio.
In the harsh sunlight of Mediterranean summers, the key is to go out early, at first light, to get a good balance of shadows and tones. Alternatively, photos can be taken in late afternoon, but then the colour of the light will be different and the mood of the picture will change. John showed us how to compose good pictures and, if necessary, edit them. Some of our members had their own photos subjected to critical scrutiny and we all learned from our mistakes.
In beautiful autumn sunshine, we held our Annual Plant Sale at the garden of Carol and Colin Cross, a wonderful example of a true mediterrean waterwise garden. Carol gave us a tour of her garden, explaining how the garden had developed over the years. She explained that her philosophy for creating a successful garden is contained in three basic rules which have held her in good stead over the years, which is good advice to us all in developing our mediterrean gardens:
Always plant small so that the roots and top growth are co-ordinated, and smaller subjects require less water. Mulching at this time also helps to conserve moisture in hot weather. Carol uses gravel extensively as it also protects against excess wet during the wetter months. If different sizes and colours are used, this can become a pleasing feature of the garden.
There were many wonderful specimens on offer for sale for the keen enthusiast, together with plenty of stalwarts; also gardening magazines, books and jewellery made from 'seeds' were for sale.
The grand Renaissance era of Italian gardens is exhibited nowhere better than in Lazio's attractive Cimini Hills area. Here the gardens of ancient Rome were recreated and redesigned by Renaissance architects on behalf of powerful popes and princes and they were the focus of our visit. Led by Christina Thompson, professor of Italian Garden History at the University of Tuscia, the two-day visit was a real opportunity to understand the garden design, planting, symbolism and spiritual references underlying these magnificent classic Italian gardens and to learn about the intrigues and rivalries of the great families that built them.
Recently MGS members and guests made a rather unusual garden visit. Form and space were the focus rather than garden plants, and we were able to see this architectural concept in the reality of the villa, outbuildings, landscape and gardens of La Foce.
The La Foce that we see today is the creation of Iris and Antonio Origo and English architect and garden designer Cecil Pinsent.
Our guides were Ethne Clarke who has written a biography of Cecil Pinsent, (An Infinity of Graces: Cecil Ross Pinsent, An English Architect in the Italian Landscape) and Benedetta Origo, the current owner of La Foce.
Early in the 20th century, Cecil Pinsent converted a somewhat rundown and conventional country locanda into the attractive complex of buildings that reflect not only the grace and elegance of humanism in architecture, but also the practical validity of its philosophy.
Geoffrey Scott - who was Pinsent's partner in the creation of the villa and gardens of Bernard and Mary Berenson's I Tatti - encapsulated this philosophy in his book Humanism in Architecture, which has become a classic text. Architecture, he wrote, must be designed and built for human use and pleasure. Ornamentation should be added only to accentuate the simplicity and utility of space both in gardens and buildings.
The cortile at La Foce, with its broad and ample arches and its spacious yard that enabled all the human operations emanating from the property to be carried out there, is an excellent example of building for human use combined with elegance of space and form. Today many of us experience the pleasure of the superb acoustics of the cortile during the Incontri in Terra di Siena summer concerts, created by Benedetta Origo and her son Antonio Lysy.
Benedetta, who was born at La Foce and has lived there all her life, took us around the garden. The garden, which was only a sea of mud originally, was the joint creation of her mother, Iris Origo, and Cecil Pinsent. Pinsent gave it architectural grace and form, and Iris chose and supervised the plantings. The variety of “rooms” is a testament to the success of this joint creativity.
The stark geometric simplicity of the box garden, with its baroque fountain to draw one's eye to the landscape over the wall, is a surprise after wandering through the more informal gardens of box, citrus, blue salvia, hibiscus, geraniums and Japanese anemone, to name but a few of the plants now in bloom as we enter autumn. One particular planting was just declining from its late summer glory but deserves a special mention. To the left of the swimming pool area, two long beds had been planted with large green hydrangeas, pink and white Japanese anemone, and in the centre, sky blue agapanthus.
Today's planting is, of course, the creation of Peter Curzon, who has overseen the gardens at La Foce and maintained their beauty for a number of years.
From the wisteria walk, we climbed to the top of the hill through native woodland to sit around yet another baroque sculpture and enjoy a wonderful view of the landscape.
Here we can see the result of the extraordinary work of Benedetta's father, Antonio, who was able to co-opt the farmers of the region to take advantage of a government scheme to improve and make more productive the eroded and poor farmland of the surrounding land. Looking out at this landscape, one sees fields that now sustain good crops, erosion is not apparent and farmland has been reclaimed. When one looks at the bald, white crete senesi on adjoining hills, one can appreciate what a miracle Antonio Origo was able to perform.
It is not often that we are able to see the perfect marriage of architecture, garden flair and landscape reclamation. Too often we concentrate only on “the garden” and yet it is the relationship between these three aspects that provides human satisfaction to us all.
We finished our tour with lunch at the Origo ristorante, Dopo Lavoro, designed by Pinsent, and in which we enjoyed the benefit of vegetables and herbs grown in the adjoining orto – the ultimate pleasure of La Foce.
We are grateful to Benedetta Origo for sharing with us some of her lifetime experience of La Foce and to Ethne Clarke, whose talk based on her deep knowledge of Cecil Pinsent and his work was fascinating and illuminating and gave us a new framework within which to understand the garden.
Text Lynne Chatterton
The Apennine mountains, which form Le Marche’s western border, provide the visitor with a constantly evolving backdrop and are home to some of the region’s most stunning scenery. The Italy branch visit to the area in June was a great success.
The property sits on a small bluff, dropping down on either side, with spectacular views down a gorge and up towards the imposing Sibillini mountains, craggy with sandstone outcrops. The garden surrounding the tower is modern and the owner has used extensive hard landscaping to accommodate the ups and downs of the land. These are executed in materials which blend with the surrounding landscape – reclaimed oak railway sleepers and granite cobblestones for the paths, and stone or marble sets of huge proportions for walls, water features and bridges. As we made our way around the garden, we came across unexpected punctuation marks created with several sculptures.
After walking the garden, we were able to visit the interior of the tower, every bit as unusual as the garden and topped by a circular skylight in the master bedroom positioned to allow the light of the full moon to fall directly on to the bed.
Prati di Ragnolo
Given the weather preceding our walk (there had been snow the weekend before), it was a miracle that any flowers were out to welcome us. Luckily we were able to see enough to give us a taste of one of the richest flowering meadows of the Sibillini mountains and Le Marche and the views were stunning.
The following plants were sighted:
Our guide was a natural scientist, Maurizio Fusari, a certified Guida ambientale escursionistica and Guida del Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini, who also runs his own walking company (www.quattropassi.org). Massimo had with him a good guide book to the wild flowers of the Sibillini, with excellent photos making it easy to identify the plants, the book is called: Il giardino della Sibilla. Guida ai fiori del parco nazionale dei Monti Sibillini [Paperback] by Alessandro Rossetti & Paolo Tescarollo, Massimo Dell’Orso. Member Jan Thompson also recommended Mediterranean Wild Flowers by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson. ISBN 0-00-219901-7 (A & C Black – London) for beautiful illustrations and comprehensive lists.
The first level formal gardens are elegant and in proportion with the imposing Rocca. The contrasting informality of the shady lower garden is deliberate and enchanting.
Lastly we drove over to the Rocca’s working farm with its blond cattle, abundant flowering orto and, if possible, yet more roses for cutting. This last visit of the day allowed us a rather intimate glimpse into the lives of our gracious hostess Elisabetta and her delightful husband Benny and the very hard work and energy that they both dedicate to sustaining Rocca D’Ajello. We thank them for a wonderful visit.
Text Angela Durnford
One of the best decisions I ever made was to join the Mediterranean Garden Society. The MGS serves both educational and social functions, and their gatherings reflect this fact. MGS branches often plan group outings to visit regional gardens of note. These events are quite pleasurable: they are informative, provide an opportunity to meet interesting people, and allow entry into fabulous private gardens otherwise not available to visit.
So it was with high hopes that I contacted Angela Durnford, head of the Italy Branch of the MGS, to see what was on their agenda for May 2013. My husband and I were planning a trip to Italy and hoped we might catch a lecture or garden tour. Eureka! She wrote back inviting us to participate in a branch outing to two gardens in Tuscany near the hill village of Montalcino.
Case Basse Soldera
First stop on the MGS outing was Case Basse Soldera, a small organic winery specializing in growing Sangiovese grapes. Vintner Gianfranco Soldera focuses his attention on the production of the estate's Brunello wine while his wife Graziella tends an extensive garden bordering their home.
Montalcino enjoys a mediterranean climate (Köppen climate designation Csa), but the garden at Case Basse Soldera is not strictly mediterranean in style. Near the house, Graziella has created areas clearly influenced by English gardens, including roses and mixed flowers bordering areas of lawn. She is a rosarian extraordinaire and her collection includes hundreds of roses of many varieties.
Near the winery offices Graziella has created a white parterre garden. The flowers and plant material have been chosen for their white blossoms or variegated leaves.
As one wanders further and further from the home and offices of the estate, one enters areas of the garden that have more of a mediterranean feel. There is a grove of fruit trees underplanted with clumps of irises, there are long passerellas planted in various combinations of plant material, and there are olive trees. It is a remarkable garden reflecting a tremendous level of dedication on Graziella's part.
Castello Di Argiano
I knew the day included lunch, but the meal we were served at Castello di Argiano took my breath away. As soon as we arrived at Giuseppe and Sarah Sesti's property, we were whisked into a restored chapel adjacent to their home. We were served a quintessentially Italian buffet lunch: wedges of fresh mozzarella di bufala, tomato bruschetta, prosciutto, melon, and grilled vegetables, accompanied by a glass of Sesti Grangiovese 2010. Fortunately, our lunch companion, Willem-Jan Kuiper, warned us there would likely be a pasta course. Otherwise we would have left no room. As he predicted, wonderful asparagus lasagna soon appeared.
The food alone would have been reason to categorize this as a memorable lunch, but the setting made it one of the most remarkable lunches we had ever had. The chapel was as charming a setting as one could want, set ablaze by the Murano glass chandelier hung from the ceiling. A painting commissioned by Sarah for Giuseppe's 70th birthday hangs in an alcove and helps creates a beautiful atmosphere inside the chapel. Giuseppe is an avid scholar of ancient astronomy, and the artwork depicts the castle among astrological and mythological symbols. An abstract Murano glass window in the back wall of the chapel evokes the mystery of the universe.
It was in this heavenly setting (pun intended) that the couple’s daughter Elisa Sesti gave us a brief lecture about the winery's biodynamic approach to the cultivation of the grapes and the production of their wine. The information was fascinating and thought-provoking. I resolved to learn more so that I might prune and plant in my own garden with biodynamic principles in mind.
After lunch we were invited to explore the garden according to our own whims. Members set out, cameras in hand, to capture shots of the property and its 360-degree view of unadulterated Tuscan countryside.
Angela walked the garden with Sarah Sesti and shared these observations:
A little distance away sits the Giardino di Orlando, which Sarah built in memory of her son with the help of her other son and architect Cosimo. There are two Os carved out of a steep hillside – the first is filled with olives under-planted with grass and wild flowers – to replace those removed from the surrounding countryside by the arrival of the vineyard.
Down rosemary-lined steps sits the second O which is filled with alliums, cardoons, fennel, cistus, phlomis and roses. The whole effect is of looseness and movement – again and deliberately in contrast to the adjacent vineyards with their regimented lines. Mature trees from the surrounding woodland provide shade. The steep path invites you ever down to a tranquil glade and small pergola which hints at many, many hours of quiet reflection.
The Sesti family has a deep connection to the arts community, Giuseppe having been an opera director for 30 years. Several rooms are available for vacation rental (by word of mouth only), and many of their guests are singers, painters, writers, and musicians.
Once again, membership in the MGS has provided us with a stellar experience not soon to be forgotten. Many thanks to Angela Durnford for including us in the tour and for all her efforts on our behalf (including providing content for this post). The opportunity to connect with her and her branch was very much appreciated.
Text Kirsten Honeyman (and Angela Durnford)
On 19 April the branch enjoyed a good day in Umbria appreciating the season’s first sunshine (with one shower burst). Our morning visit was to Archeologia Arborea, a foundation for rediscovering and cultivating antique fruit varieties located in Lerchi (PG). About 150 species and varieties are present in the 500-tree orchard, some of which have been saved from extinction. Isabella della Ragione was a delight to listen to - she is an authority on the history of fruit cultivation in central Italy. She told us which varieties to grow for resilience, ease, blossom, taste and seasonality, as well as how to treat pests without destroying nature’s balance, leaving aphids, ladybirds and bees to do their work. The Italy Branch of the MGS has adopted a tree in the orchard, the pretty Mela Muso di Bue (cow-face apple). AA has published several excellent books on fruit, and all varieties are for sale from the nursery. TMG No 56, April 2009, has a full write-up by member Carole Cross, and more information is available here.
In the afternoon, Riccardo and Bruna Amerio and Richard Taylor were kind to host us in their hillside gardens, where we saw two very different approaches working successfully.