Great Gardens of Italy

As it is World Book Day I was determined to get my review of Monty Don’s Great Gardens of Italy (published by Quadrille) up today if only just!

I was apprehensive about this book because I have a growing dislike for the type of dense green hedging (box  or yew generally) that seems to predominate Italianate gardens, a dislike of parterres and topiary so I thought it would be an interesting challenge for me to try to overcome my prejudices.

The layout of the book initially surprised me.  It is divided into 6 sections, each representing a region of Italy: Naples, Rome, Viterbo, Tuscany, Veneto, The Lakes.  The book follows a sort of journey from the Naples area up the leg of Italy, generally keeping to the left and then to the top area.  The whole of the right hand side and the boot are not included.  I found this interesting, presumably it is due to the lack of ‘great’ gardens in these areas and I suspect that this is because the wealth of Italy was located in other areas around the great cities.  Each region is introduced with a two page summary and this is followed by a description of each garden along with photographs to illustrate the points made.  Interestingly the description of the garden and the photos are completely separate.  At first I thought this was detrimental to the book but having read quite a fair chunk of it I feel this is actually a good approach.  Too often when I am reading a book which has photographs  to illustrate with captions underneath, I losing the thread of the main body of the text while I read the photo captions.  I really like this layout.

The photos are excellent as you would expect from Derry Moore and they give the book, along with its larger than average size, a real coffee table book feel.  Sadly there were not as many photographs as I would have liked of many of the gardens and I found myself, having read Monty’s description, wishing for a particular feature to be illustrated, and finding an image absent.  It is also interesting that the number of photographs (as with the amount of description) varies from garden to garden.  There is no set formula.  In at least one case (Giardino de Ninfa, Sermoneta) there was a longer description and more photographs and I felt this was due to the obvious enjoyment Monty got from the garden which was only to apparent in the tone of the language he used to describe it.  Sadly, conversely, I think it is apparent when he is less keen on a garden such as in his description of La Mortella, Ischia and I wonder why he decided to include a garden that he did not seem to admire much.

What I found fascinating was Monty’s introduction to the book in which he explains that the Italians are not enthusiastic about gardening like the British.  Working with the soil is seen as a rural and lesser occupation and in fact it is hard to find Italian gardeners.  Many of the gardens feature in the book have gardeners from other European countries, Britain and Australia.  Monty likens the British approach to gardening to the Italian’s approach to food – quite revealing and true I think. I suspect that this disinterest in gardens is the reason why so few of them are open to the public and why so many have been left to decay.

Monty’s writing is generally quite engaging and there is a sense of trying to recreate the atmosphere surrounding the garden and its locality.  However, sometimes I think this goes too far.  For example in the introduction to Rome there is a long paragraph, almost a third of a page, about cars and driving in Rome.  I could not for the life of me understand what this had to do with anything else and it really jarred.

Each garden’s description carefully chronologies its history and creators although this can get a little confusing when you are reading one description after another – the number of Comte’s becomes a little befuddling.  As someone who is increasingly fascinated with garden history and the evolution of gardens and garden styles my biggest criticism of the book is  the lack of a cohesive time-line running through the book.  There is a chronology at the back which identifies each garden’s creation in terms of what was happening in Europe at the time which is interesting and helps the British reader relate events to their own history.  However, personally, I would have preferred it if the book had started with the earliest garden and worked its way through to the newest.  Also knowing something of Italian history particularly leading up to the Unification of the Italian nation, I think if so much history is to be included for each garden then it needs to be placed in the wider context.  For example the description of Giardino di Boboli in Tuscany refers to the power and authority of  Cosimo de’Medici but there is no context for this, how does his power and authority compare to say Elizabeth 1 of Britain.  I think someone who does not understand Italian history would miss the significance of some of the characters that appear in the book.

It is obvious that Monty is passionate about Italian gardens and they seem to fulfill a certain horticultural need in him which is probably lacking in most British gardens.  He says “the very British ideal of the garden as a botanical showcase of varieties and collections of plants has always rather bored me.” and “What you do, rather than what you do it with, has always seemed the really interesting thing about a garden.” With this in mind I can see why he finds them so fascinating. I expect if you were to visit any of these gardens, you would not find them particular busy (in fact many aren’t open to the public) and I can imagine that with the quietness,  the clipped hedges, running water (a recurring theme along with water chains and fountains), and the mossy sculptures and old buildings there would really be a very special  magical atmosphere – not an easy thing to achieve in most gardens.

This is not really a book to read from cover to cover.  It is a book to dip into on a grey winters day when you want to dream of somewhere sunny and verdant.  The book is designed to accompany a forthcoming television series on Italian gardens and it will be interesting to see how the two tie together and whether the film of the gardens adds anything new.

Personally, as much as these gardens are beautiful, the majority of them are not for me.  I find the parterres and the endless dense greenness a little depressing and still.  I prefer things a little more disheveled, a little wilder so if I was to be lucky enough to choose on of the gardens to visit it would be Giardino de Ninfa, Sermoneta with its  abandoned decaying village, masses of roses and general romance.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is lucky enough to tour Italy, as hopefully you may be able to track some of the gardens down, to anyone who loves this style of garden, to anyone who enjoys looking at beautiful photographs.

10 Comments on “Great Gardens of Italy

  1. I could enjoy dipping into a “sunny and verdant” place about now Helen! Lovely review. I would imagine there are some wonderful gardens along the right side of the boot too. Not so elegant perhaps but maybe that is another book! ;>)

  2. I got frustrated at all the features mentioned which weren’t illustrated too. Hopefully that’ll get redressed when the TV programme’s aired.

    I also find it strange that Italian gardens have been such an influence on Bristish ones but now we’re ‘exporting’ people to look after them!

  3. I’ve been waiting for the T series since I first read about it in Gardens Illustrated Magazine. As I live in Viterbo, with, historically, some of the most important gardens in the world close by but with no general interest in gardens or gardening now I will look forward to Monty’s view. If anyone wants to see any particular feature please ask as I have hundreds of images I’m happy to share. A thoughtful review, Helen as always.

  4. Excellent review Helen. It’ll be interesting to see what the TV show is like compared to the book. I like Monty but often the shows make more sense in their layout within a series and the book is just an expected after thought.

  5. A comprehensive review , Helen. Well done. You say that someone who knows no Italian history might be confused, but a book cannot contain everything and, personally, I like books that wet my appetite for another field of learning and I enjoy following it up. You also say that Monty Don’s likes and dislikes come across strongly – that is always true of his books, in my view, you learn as much about the man as the subject. He is not an objective writer – and I hope he never is!

  6. I enjoyed your thoughtful and comprehensive review Helen. I must confess to having a quick flick through of this title in a bookshop recently and deciding that I would not buy a copy. I would like to read it though should it appear in the library in the fullness of time. I was most interested to read that Monty states that Italians are not enthusiastic about gardening . My Roman mother and various Italian relatives are keen gardeners – will have to make enquiries as to whether they are bucking a trend 🙂

  7. I don’t really understand the ‘what you do, rather than who you do it with’ quote. I haven’t read the book, but your review suggests that the historical context of who and why is important in these gardens. So the ‘who’ seems very important to the Italians. The ‘what’ is just the day-to-day of grunt gardening and largely done by imported English gardeners. Or have I misunderstood?

  8. I think it would be very hard to be objective unless you are Italian. The garden choices here are all very obvious, and as you say, a whole swathe of the country has been left out. ‘Italian gardens-Lite’ might be more appropriate. Yawn re Rome and traffic: as cheap and easy as Italians talking about British bankers in bowler hats

  9. Pingback: The Ninfarium | The Patient Gardener’s Weblog

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