Is Villa Gamberaia the most romantic garden in Italy?
Roses are shots of colour among the clipped greens of the water garden. Photo - Robin Powell
An Italian Romance
Here we join a long line of world-weary travellers who have fallen for the charms of Villa Gamberaia.
Villa Gamberaia has had good press for more than a century. When Edith Wharton visited in the 1890s she described it as a perfect example of producing a great effect on a small scale. Other writers have gone further: a place that ‘leaves an enduring impression of serenity, dignity and blithe repose’,; and even ‘the most thoughtful domestic landscape the western world has seen.’
It’s a challenge for anything – a city, or work of art, let alone something as changeable as a garden – to live up to that level of praise, yet when I visited Gamberaia last northern spring, I too fell in love. I would have lingered all day if I could. There was something magical about the effect of the garden floating above the Arno valley. Blackbirds were singing through the stillness of the early morning. Mist clung in pockets and ribbons in the olive groves sweeping down the slope. Water played delicately in the fountains, and as the sun burned away the early cloud, the terracotta skyline of Florence below us started to glow.
Looking back to the villa through an arch in the cyprus hedge, the garden is all tiers and tones of clipped green. Photo - Robin Powell
I was drawn to take in the views, which aren’t seen in a single wow moment, but instead are framed in a series of pictures. They are glimpsed in snatches through archways and breaks in a great wobbly yew hedge; or bordered by stone walls and statuary. Standing at a stone balustrade at the end of the long lawn of the bowling green I felt I was in a beautifully decorated opera box looking down on the stage of Florence and its valley. Having taken in the view I was drawn back into the garden, to dawdle around the box-edged pools, wander the alleys, and explore the bosco. The air was scented with roses, lemons hung on the trees like miniature lanterns, hot pink azaleas tumbled in great loose waterfalls of bloom from terracotta containers, and the beds of peonies were so heavy with bloom they could hardly stay upright. View, greenery, flowers: I moved from one to the other and back again, always finding something new to love.
Roses are grown as climbers, standard and bushes throughout the garden. Photo - Robin Powell
When Wharton saw the garden it had been recently bought by the Romanian Princess and sister of the Queen of Serbia, Giovanna Ghyka. Princess Ghyka was famously reclusive. The story goes that she had been a great beauty in her youth. When her rosy bloom started to fade, she hid herself away in the Tuscan countryside with her lifelong companion, Miss Blood, and worked on creating the romantic gardens of Gamberaia. The troubled princess was never seen in public again without a heavy veil. It was rumoured that she would pace the long cypress avenue in the night, and bathe, naked, at dawn in the water-garden.
The water garden consists of four rectangular pools where the villa’s original parterre stood. They can be seen from the rooms of the villa, but at ground level are obscured by hedges of box so that their reflections of clouds and sky come as a surprise as you enter the garden. The Princess and Miss Blood also added a semi-circular cypress hedge that curves around a crescent of water garden filled with iris and other water plants.
Views of Florence are glimpsed through gaps in the hedge, or are framed by sanctuary. Photo - Robin Powell
Edith Wharton wasn’t impressed with the changes the couple made, but Gamberaia has been fortunate from the start in having owners who successively built on the beauty of the place. The princess and Miss Blood lived at Gamberaia until the former’s death, after which American-born Baroness von Ketteler bought the garden. She hired Cecil Pinsent, an English garden designer who was revitalizing classic Italian garden design in his Tuscan gardens. Together they get the credit for adding Gamberaia’s topiary and wide box borders.
Destruction and rebirth
During World War II retreating German soldiers destroyed the garden and torched the villa. In 1948, Tuscan neighbour and art historian Bernard Berenson saw “trees with branches broken looking like elephants with broken tusks, the house burnt out with the beautiful courtyard fallen in, vases and stone animals on the parapet thrown down and broken.” And yet, he wrote, “the place retains its charm, its power to inspire longing and dreams.”Gamberaia became the property of the Vatican, which sold it to the Florentine industrialist Marcello Marchi, who began the work of restoration and rebuilding. This has been continued by his nephew Luigi Zalum, and his sons.
Beyond the formality of the garden the Tuscan countryside slopes towards Florence with a familiar rhythm of olive and cyprus trees. Photo - Robin Powell
Unlike many grand Italian gardens, this one still has the sense of being a family home. While many grand gardens impress, awe and even intimidate, the overriding principle at Villa Gamberaia is pleasure. It’s simply a joy to stray along its pathways.