Gardens are often obsessions - they provide distractions from other responsibilities, although having one is a responsibility itself. Petrarch, the 18th C. Italian poet, considered gardens ideal for poetry, instruction and introspection. They can provide food, maybe just flowers, or perhaps none of the above - simply a green tapestry clipped, pruned, espaliered or pleached. Whatever its shape, size, location or purpose, we can unequivocally say that above all a garden is a source of delight - a patch of pleasure - a symbol of ourselves, a thing of beauty to be savored - every precious satisfying moment.
Every summer, when I plan a trip to Europe (I always create the time) it is my opportunity to get away - really away - and completely recharge. I plan extensively so that I can maximize each day visiting sites and soaking up the local culture. This year, it was a tour of villas and gardens for 8 days on Lakes Garda, Como & Maggiore in Northern Italy. Visits to France and England followed, for a photo shoot at Vaux-le-Vicomte and a visit to Mapperton House, nestled in the English countryside near Dorset, where the garden and surrounding parklands date back to the 16th Century.
The following is my travel scrapbook from three countries and four memorable gardens....
#1: Villa Balbianello
The undisputed star of lakeside villas, few places compare to the Villa Balbianello. The villa is situated idyllically, between the cool wind descending from the Swiss Alps to the North, and the warm Tuscan sun to the South. Built as a convent, the 18th Century date unknown, two small structures clung to the Dosso d'Avedo promontory - a jagged peninsula jutting out almost to the center of Lake Como. It was developed over time by several aristocratic Italian families to become the spectacular property that it is today. The 19th Century ushered in a new appreciation for the romantic landscape of the lakes region, as a vacationland and hot-bed of European society. Numerous paintings document the villa's prominence, as it was passed from one illustrious familia to the next. It seems that each owner so cherished the property - which is bordered on three sides by the lake and on the fourth by a lush, wooded hillside - that it was lavishly maintained, even when empty for decades at a time. It not only survived occupation, a revolution, restoration and two world wars, it was never looted or defaced in any such way. Following the death of her husband and the end of World War I, the mysterious widow the Marquise Marie Arconati Visconti Peyrat reluctantly sold the property to an ambitious young American, Butler Ames. Ames and his wife spent every summer at the villa for the rest of their years (except during WWII), painstakingly restoring the 19th century interior. The guest book holds some of the world's most famous names, including those of Mary Pickford and Jacqueline Kennedy.
In the Ames' will, it was stipulated that Villa Balbianello could not be sold until at least 20 years after their death. Despite this romantic notion, that the villa would go on in its old world fashion, the family did sell exactly 20 years later, to the gentleman and world explorer, Guido Monzino. Monzino could not have been a better choice, contributing to the villa his great energy, vast resources and exquisite taste. He lived in the legendary house, inhabiting its hilltop perch, until his premature death in 1988. The residence and a significant sum of money dedicated to its maintenance, were donated to the FAI (Fondo per l'Ambiente Italiano or The Italian Fund for the Environment).
#2: Isola Bella
Her terraced gardens glittering with Italian baroque marble and statuary, she beckons. One can only reach Isola Bella by water. The 17th Century home of a legendary family, the House of Borromeo, the villa at Isola Bella is grand, with architectural details, mosaics and vistas at every turn. However, the gardens are the elaborate, sensational frame around the picture. I wandered the tree-lined promenades, gazing on sparkling waters and the labors of man - elaborate stonework, garden ornaments and enormous topiaries provide focal points along the path.
Precursor to the divine opulence of Versailles, and the grand era of The Sun King, Vaux-le-Vicomte was the first collaboration of three legendary designers: landscape architect Andre Le Nôtre (1613-1700), architect Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) and the artist Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). Built between 1658 and 1661 for Nicholas Fouquet, then Superintendent of Finance under King Louis XIV, the country chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte was the largest, most elaborate and certainly the most expensive house ever to have been built in France. The surrounding gardens and parkland was formerly the site of not one but three villages, which were purchased and then leveled to allow the vast sightlines, seeming to go on into infinity. Revered as the first "real" French garden, Vaux-le-Vicomte combines the baroque style with a new, grander sort of pomp - a magnificence later to be associated with King Louis XIV. The initial pleasure was short lived by the chateau's owner, however. Following an enormous and infamous fête, held on the 17th of August 1661, the proud Fouquet was arrested, imprisoned for life, and his wife exiled...a harsh punishment for having out-fêted the king!
Avenues, allées, vistas, colonnades and tunnels all act as garden architecture and create a feeling of ceremony, anticipation, excitement, protection and discovery. Lime trees, hornbeam, beech, plane trees, apples, pears and more are planted according to mathematical formulas and then clipped and pruned with precision.
Not built as a "palace" to impress or to humble foreign leaders, this manor house was first built in the mid 16th century from the golden stone carved out of local hillsides. Perfected over the centuries by only four families who have lived here, there are several layers of gardening to be excavated. The buildings are set on a hill with a commanding view, starting with the formal gardens (as new as the 1920's), the 17th century fish ponds, and followed by the lazy countryside.... Whether as a simple retreat from society, the perfect disembarkation point for a fox hunt, or the inspiration for Nancy Lancaster's abstract topiary garden at Ditcheley, Mapperton stands as it has for almost 500 years - on its own.
All photography by Charlotte Moss.