Elusive landscapes: Australians and ‘the Italian garden’
Jane Drakard is a historian working at Monash University. She migrated to Australia from the UK in 1977, and has gardened in Australia and on the north coast of Scotland. Her professional expertise is in Asian history and she is the author of several books on the history of Sumatra. She has made a number of extended visits to Italy over the past 10 years, and lived for a year in the neighborhood of Santo Spirito in Florence.
Gardening is not always the relaxing activity that some suppose. To garden is to know greed (not to speak of envy and sloth). Garden greed extends beyond the lust for new plants, encompassing the search for horticultural information and, importantly, for ideas about the use of space. In this respect the current vogue for Italian gardens is nothing new. Gardeners and landowners have long sought to understand and imitate something of the particular qualities of Italian landscapes and the way in which these have been integrated into Italian garden design. Italy itself has often been compared to a garden paradise, and the major European gardening styles have all been influenced, at least in part, by the great Italian Renaissance gardens, which were themselves conceived as a return to classical ideals. This influence finds expression even in contemporary Australian suburban gardens with their turn to formality and to what are often described as ‘Italianate’ styles.1
Australian garden designers, like so many others, speak of this influence when referring to their own garden ethos. Australia’s best known twentieth-century garden writer, Edna Walling (1895–1973), wrote of the relevance of Italian models for Australian gardens.
There is little doubt that as we advance in the designing of our garden in Australia, we shall derive more and more inspiration from the old gardens of Italy [...]. The chief elements of the Italian garden – stone, water and trees – are most appropriate to the conditions governing the construction of gardens in Australia (quoted in Forsyth 2006, 191).
Paul Bangay, a contemporary interpreter, has also described the influence of Italy on his Australian work:
I discovered that most of the Florentine gardens shared an important characteristic: their plantings were limited to a small number of species. [...] All these plants are hardy and well suited to the Tuscan environment, which is not dissimilar to that of many parts of Australia. As a result these species, particularly in combination, have formed the basis of my planting schemes in Australia (Bangay 1996, 12).
Both these Australian authors recognise the simplicity of the elements used to compose Italian gardens, but they have drawn on the tradition in different ways. Walling’s gardens represented a search for what we might call natural landscapes; she excelled in the art of creating mystery. Her gardens, with their clever use of light, stonework, pathways and changes of level, remind us of the groves so beloved of classical authors, rather than the formal or Italianate garden. Bangay, on the other hand, is a new exponent of the defined garden and, in commissions for Australian clients, has created highly structured formal gardens, including clever use of water and repetitive planting drawn from a limited palette in ways which recall both Italian and French gardens.
This tension between formality and ‘nature’ is helpful in thinking about the wider impact of Italian landscapes and garden styles. Questions of cultural influence and borrowing are rarely straightforward. Garden cultures do not evolve in isolation, and the very process of influence or translation is seldom based on simple difference, but depends rather on those slivers of commonality which help us to see and appreciate something new. In the 1980s Australian participants in a symposium held on the subject of Australians in Tuscany struggled with just this question of like and unlike, referring to the similarities and differences in climate, landscape and light between Australia and Italy (Prampolini and Hubert 1993). Similarly, in her beautifully written Remembered Gardens, which charts the gradual evolution of an Australian garden style, Holly Kerr Forsyth (2006, 176) considers ‘what makes an Australian garden’, concluding that it is the ‘quality of the light which distinguishes the landscape absolutely from gardens of the northern hemisphere’.
Moreover, as Claudia Lazzaro (2001, 32) reminds us, the idea of ‘the Italian garden’ is itself a construct, rather than a homogenous tradition. Italian regional landscapes, climate and flora are diverse, and have been subject to a variety of influences over time, not least the influence of French and English ideas. Numerous authors have described, for example, the fashion for romantic gardens, the so-called giardino inglese – the English garden – which became popular in Italy in the early nineteenth century. Examples can be found in Florence, such as the Giardino Torrigiani and the Giardino Corsi (or Annalena), and as far south as the Giardino Inglese in Palermo. More recently, and in a different context, we can look to the work of Cecil Pinsent (1884–1963) and Geoffrey Scott (1884–1929). Both Englishmen were employed by Mary Berenson to work on the garden of Villa I Tatti at Ponte a Mensola in the early years of the twentieth century, and went on, especially in Pinsent’s case, to create some of Tuscany’s most famous formal ‘Renaissance’ style gardens, including La Foce in the Val d’Orcia and the Villa Medici at Fiesole. While the inspiration in these cases was Italian, the interpretation was a restatement, seen through the eyes of outsiders, who had absorbed the tradition and re-embedded it in Italy, in many instances for wealthy foreign clients.
Indeed, according to Lazzaro (2001, 36) the use of the term ‘formal’ to identify Italian and French styles:
only came into use after the advent of the English landscape garden [in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries] to distinguish two fundamentally different garden styles: the formal and the informal or artificially ‘natural’ which eschewed the symmetry, regularity, and order of the formal garden for the curvilinear, irregular and illusion of nature without art.
This dialogue, between what Lazarro views as fundamentally different notions of the relationship between art and nature, is expressed in the differences between the work of Walling and Bangay, and can also be detected in much earlier English responses to Italian landscapes. The English gentleman enthusiasts, who visited Italian villas and gardens as part of their Grand Tour in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were particularly fascinated by the way in which Italian landscapes combined gardens and rural cultivation, what Alexander Pope described in a marvellous phrase as the capacity to ‘call in the country’. Italy was seen as the garden of the world with a fecund landscape over which Renaissance villas enjoyed ‘fine prospects’ as recommended by the great humanist Alberti. This link between ‘villa and vigna’ gave Italian gardens a mythical allure which recalled the ancient world, and appealed particularly to an English taste for the natural, the grove, as well as the exotic – represented by oranges and other fruits which could barely be cultivated on the sceptred isle (Dixon Hunt 1986, 38).
It is still the same today, as we borrow and adapt. The Italian garden is once again an inspiration and new books on the subject abound while old stalwarts are reprinted. Australian gardens increasingly reflect both strands of influence – the formal and the ‘natural’. Period cottages in the suburbs are flanked with formal box parterres setting off iceberg roses, while drought-hardy Mediterranean species are increasingly available in Australian nurseries. The water-wise message in Australia spoke first to advocates of indigenous ‘native’ gardens, itself a complex concept, but style- and water-conscious contemporary gardeners now also look to succulents and grey-leaved perennials from southern Europe and beyond which are often arranged in naturalised settings. As Edna Walling so presciently remarked: ‘It is really rather amazing that we have copies of the English style rather than Spanish and Italian, because in this climate, protection from hot winds is essential to civilised living’ (Walling 1980, 82).
Yet borrow and copy as we might there are, I think, elements of ‘the Italian garden’ style which lie beyond mimicry and fashion. Standing in the famous gardens of the Villa Gamberaia in Settignano outside Florence, even with the knowledge that the design owes much to the influence of former non-Italian owners, it is hard not to feel that one is experiencing something essential – a genius of place and perception – which is particular to the art of Italian landscape design. The garden at Gamberaia encloses and holds the viewer within reflected patterns of green symmetry, while at the same time drawing awareness out to the ancient olive groves, the vigna, and to the hazy prospect of Florence beyond. The effect induces a sense of perfect calm, an experience which even such hardened aesthetes as Harold Acton and Bernard Berenson have described as haunting the imagination.
But what of Australian gardeners in Italy? How have Australians gardening in Italy responded to the weight of this long tradition, and to what extent might Australian gardeners have a contribution to make to Italian garden practice?
The best known Australian to have gardened in Italy is surely the author Germaine Greer, who lived near Cortona in the 1970s and early 1980s. Greer once made a distinction between her first encounters with Britain and with Italy. While London was known to her from books, Italy was familiar from painting: ‘there was tremendous recognition when I arrived’ (Zeroni 1982). Greer’s garden interests, including a talent for plant propagation, have attracted little attention from biographers, although she has written widely about gardening in her newspaper columns, in her humorous collection of garden essays, The Revolting Garden (Blight 1979), and in a recently edited monograph, Poems for Gardeners (Greer 2003). Garden-minded readers will also notice that knowledgeable observations about plants, both wild and cultivated, feature prominently in her writing.
Greer herself has referred only briefly to her house and garden in Tuscany, remarking in 2004 that ‘I loved that house so much that I have been able to survive the loss of it only by sternly forbidding myself to think about it, let alone write about it’ (Greer 2004). Nevertheless, in Daddy, We Hardly Knew You she described the setting: ‘My house sits on the side of a great basin of luminous air, surrounded by low hills that look like huge people sleeping under blankets’. In that volume Cortona is the heart’s home from which Greer embarks on the painful quest that drives the narrative. Early in the book, a description of the wintry Tuscan landscape provides the reader with a framework for understanding the difficulties of the journey ahead, and conveys something of Greer’s response to the landscape.
The next morning I went down from my golden mountain into the valley of the mist to change money. It was like making Dante’s journey in reverse, from the peak of the paradiso terrestre to the Inferno. Below in pianura there was no horizon, no light or shade, only a damp, bleak cold in which objects loomed and vanished as my hire car rolled by. Rags of frost hung motionless on the trees and great drops slid down the bare branches like tears, to splat on my tiny windscreen. [...] In sheltered spots I could see the white rime lying thick on the ground. Above the cold stream the air was echoing and clear: below there was a muffled not-quite silence, like breathing under blankets.
The bank robbed me badly (Greer 1989, 21).
Gardening, Greer remarks elsewhere in the same work, ‘is a good defence against memory, for it is all in the future’. While Greer has chosen, for the most part, not to look back, her garden is remembered by others. The Australian artist Jeffrey Smart has provided the best published description.
Germaine’s house was at the end of a long, long road going up an unspoilt valley. Once at her house you could see for miles, and you could have been in Africa or Australia – no sign of habitation. Germaine had a most splendid and scholarly rose garden, as well as a kitchen garden. It is a joy to eat her fresh home-grown vegetables and meat spiced with her own herbs.
As well as an eclectic herb garden, behind her house she had a small ‘laboratory’. Here she made tinctures and medicines, which I am sure were very efficacious (Smart 1996, 420).
At one stage Greer even produced medicinal plants on a commercial basis, supplying orris root (iris), lavender, camomile, mistletoe and rue for homeopathic industries (Zeroni 1982).
Smart himself is also the owner of a fine garden at his home, Posticcia Nuova, near Arezzo. The garden, which is largely the creation of Smart’s partner, Ermes De Zan, was recently illustrated in Tuscany, Artists, Gardens by Mariella Sgaravatti (2004). It is described there as a ‘collector’s garden’, and as being unusual in Tuscany on account of the very large range of temperate-climate shrubs and other plants that are cultivated. The garden is both very beautiful and romantic in style. The house has a prospect of the surrounding country, but the formal areas give way to an incline behind the house which is laid out in the style of a cool and restful woodland garden with rhododendrons, ferns, hidden paths and naturalised planting – owing something perhaps to the tradition of the giardino inglese. Over time Smart and De Zan have purchased the lands which once belonged to the property, and De Zan has ‘restored Posticcia Nuova to what it was 250 years ago, a working farm’ (Smart 1996, 453).
On a different scale and in a different key is the garden of the Australian Carmelite sisters at Tavarnelle in the Val di Pesa. The sisters moved from their mother convent at Kew in Melbourne in the early 1980s at the invitation of the Archbishop of Florence and established a community in the old, abandoned Carmelite monastery at Morrocco, near Tavarnelle. The seven sisters, who live an enclosed life of prayer, are all keen gardeners – by necessity, as well as for pleasure. Parts of the garden are given over to the cultivation of vegetables, and there has been a continuous work, much of it undertaken by the sisters themselves, of renovation and building. One of the means by which the sisters support themselves is through the manufacture of creams and soaps using home-grown products.
The internal cloister of the monastery is the preserve of the sisters and, rather than a spare contemplative courtyard, we find at Tavarnelle a riot of colour and a domestic garden space. The sisters grow roses, crepe myrtle, Bergenia and numerous pots of Fuchsia. Each has particular responsibilities for garden tasks, which are fitted in to the spaces of their monastic schedule. Like all gardeners they find that there is never enough time to get everything done, but gardening is clearly a great joy and satisfaction nevertheless. Sister Jerome has responsibility for the cloister, and graciously consented to being photographed among the flowers in late autumn 2005.
There must be many other Australian gardeners who are cultivating Italian soil, but the Australian garden which appears, thus far, to have had the greatest influence on local Italian garden culture is Venzano, the garden established just south of Volterra by the landscape designer and geologist, Don Leevers, and the respected botanical artist Lindsay Megarrity. Between 1986 and 2007, Leevers and Megarrity not only created a beautiful garden in a very short space of time, but established a nursery and garden design business with an impressive list of Italian clients. The garden at Venzano, now in new hands, is a magically photogenic combination of rustic and formal styles. Stone from the site has been used to create frameworks and vistas in the garden, along with the extensive use of bay hedging. The garden is designed to create a sense of intimacy and peace, yet a series of terraces and pathways offer pleasing views at every turn and call in the Volterran countryside.
The important point to make about Venzano in the present context, however, concerns the range of aromatic and drought-hardy perennials which Leevers and Megaritty exhibited in the garden and sold in the nursery. In this sense they not only perpetuated the cultivation of medicinal plants which would have been found in the monastery garden (just as Greer once did at Cortona, and as the Carmelite sisters still do at Tavarnelle); they also quite consciously introduced new plant varieties into the local garden culture, in some cases persuading gardeners to employ species such as Cistus, which grow naturally in Italy, but would not normally be considered garden plants.
Venzano has become increasingly well known. A beautifully illustrated book about the garden has been published by Stephanie Donaldson (2001), and the garden has been included in Gardens of Florence and Tuscany: A Complete Guide (Pozzana 2001). In 2002 an article in Britain’s The Daily Telegraph described the nursery Il Vivaio Giardino di Venzano as ‘an inspiration for many local gardeners’ through its popularisation and propagation of a wide range of scented plants, including its own cultivars. The same article also identified a developing interest in Italy, represented in specialist plant fairs and nurseries, in a wider range of herbaceous plants, especially the drought resistant aromatics which were once considered to be wayside weeds (Anonymous 2002).
The garden at Venzano demonstrates how these predominantly grey-leaved, flowering species, can be combined in a looser fashion within the formality and precision of an ‘Italian’ garden plan. While Leevers and Megarrity no longer run the nursery, Il Vivaio Giardino di Venzano, their revival of the crumbling monastery and the creation of an exquisite dry-climate garden there has clearly contributed elements of an Australian vision to Italian garden thinking. The Italian garden guide mentioned above describes Leevers and Megarrity as Australians who designed Venzano ‘with refined British taste’, but such a designation of garden style along national lines is increasingly difficult to sustain. The aesthetic and ecological principles which inform the garden at Venzano are also exhibited in an increasing range of beautiful gardens and nurseries worldwide, from Piet Oudolf’s work in the Netherlands and beyond, to Herenswood, the Digger’s Club garden at Dromana in Victoria, and to David Glenn’s dramatic dry garden at Lambley at Ascot, also in Victoria.
The great and historic gardens, such as Gamberaia, will continue to move and enchant us; but, closer to the ground, fresh visions of landscape are emerging in which ‘Australian’ and ‘Italian’ styles uncover a shared vocabulary and develop a new language of expression.
1 Special thanks are due to the owners of the gardens I visited in the course of preparing this essay. I am also grateful to Bill Kent and Ros Pesman for the opportunity to present this paper at the ‘Australians in Italy’ symposium in October 2005, and to all the staff at the Monash University Centre in Prato who helped to make that event such a success.
Anonymous. 2002. ‘A very Florentine sense of fête’. The Daily Telegraph (10 August). Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/main.jhtml?xml=/gardening/2002/08/10/gfron10.xml.
Bangay, Paul. 1996. The Defined Garden. Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin.
Blight, Rose. 1979 (aka Greer, Germaine). The Revolting Garden. London: Andre Deutch.
Britain, Ian. 1997. Once An Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Hunt, John Dixon. 1986. Garden and Grove: The Italian Renaissance Garden and the English Imagination 1600–1750. London: Dent.
Donaldson, Stephanie. 2001. Venzano: A Scented Garden in Tuscany. London: New Holland.
Forsyth, Holly Kerr. 2006. Remembered Gardens. Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press.
Greer, Germaine. 1989. Daddy, We Hardly Knew You. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Greer, Germaine. 2003. Poems for Gardeners. London: Virago Press.
Greer, Germaine. 2004. ‘Blame the English, blame the frost, but Tuscany is so over’. The Independent on Sunday (March 28). Available from: http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article66354.ece.
Lazzaro, Claudia. 2001. ‘Italy is a garden: The idea of Italy and the Italian garden tradition’. In Villas and Gardens in Early Modern Italy and France, edited by Benes, Mirka; Harris, Diane. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Osmond, Patricia J. 2004. Revisiting the Gamberaia: An Anthology of Essays. Florence: Centro Di.
Pozzana, Mariachiara. 2001. Gardens of Florence and Tuscany: A Complete Guide. Florence and Milano: Giunti.
Prampolini, Gaetano; Hubert, Marie-Christine, editors. 1993. An Antipodean Connection: Australian Writers, Artists and Travellers in Tuscany. Geneva: Slatkine.
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Smart, Jeffrey. 1996. Not Quite Straight: A Memoir. Melbourne: William Heinemann.
Walling, Edna Margaret. 1980. The Edna Walling Book of Australian Garden Design, edited by Barrett, Margaret. South Yarra, Victoria: Ann O’Donovan.
Zeroni, Tiziana. 1982. ‘Germaine Greer: Her heart is in Tuscany’. Northern Territory News (April 3).
Figure 18.1: The water parterre at Villa Gamberaia, Settignano.
© 2007 Jane Drakard
Figure 18.2: Looking in, and looking out over the vigna and Settignano, from the walled terrace of Villa Gamberaia, Settignano.
© 2007 Jane Drakard
Figure 18.3: The cloister garden at Chiesa di S. Maria del Carmine al Morrocco, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa.
© 2005 Jane Drakard
Figure 18.4: Sister Jerome in the cloister at Tavarnelle.
© 2005 Jane Drakard
Figure 18.5: Structure in the garden at Venzano, Volterra.
© 2005 Jane Drakard
Figure 18.6: Calling in the country, Venzano, Volterra.
© 2005 Jane Drakard
Figure 18.7: Drought-resistant and aromatic plants at Venzano, Volterra.
© 2005 Jane Drakard
Figure 18.8: The Dry Garden at Lambley, Ascot, Victoria.
© 2007 Jane Drakard
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.