‘Italy’s Private Gardens’ by Helena Attlee and ‘Great Gardens of Italy’ by Monty Don: reviewed by Charles Hawes

March 14, 2011

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Helena Attlee recently published a lavishly illustrated book on Italian gardens and this has now been followed by Monty Don’s book of his BBC 2 television series ” ‘Monty Don’s’ Italian Gardens.” ( I don’t imagine he owns them all, but you never know..)

It seemed appropriate and useful to review the two books together.

Anne Wareham, editor

Garden at Ninfa copyright Charles HawesReview by Charles Hawes of “Italy’s Private Gardens” by Helena Attlee, photographed by Alex Ramsay and “Great Gardens of Italy” by Monty Don, photographed by Derry Moore.

Visiting and photographing gardens in Italy over several years has given me some of my greatest pleasures. I remember being on the little ferry that travels between Isola Bella and Isola Madre and the shore of Lake Maggiore and giving a whoop of joy at what a wonderful time I had just had exploring the theatrical garden of Isola Bella in the most magical morning light. Despite having seen many photographs of Bomarzo, near Viterbo I wasn’t prepared for the strangeness of the place as I walked around on my own on a misty November day.  I felt similarly amazed when I visited La Scarzuola last October. There I just tumbled out of bed from the ice cold room I had been provided with and was blessed with a morning so clear and bright that I had a bare hour to get the pictures done before the contrast of light and shadow would have rendered the pictures unpublishable.

Between them the writers of these two books have been to all the above gardens – and many that I have yet to visit. It was irresistible, then, for me to find out what they made of the ones I do know and to see how other photographers had approached the gardens.

The photography is a major part of both volumes, with many pictures being given whole pages and several double paged spreads in each.  I didn’t get out the calculator, but my estimate is that more than half of both books is taken up by the photographs.  So, unusually perhaps, I am going to start with the photography.

There are some very fine pictures in both books. One thing notably distinguishes them, though.  Attlee has built her book around the conversations she had with the people intimately associated with the gardens she has chosen and each garden in her selection has a portrait of somebody. These are exceptional.  Ramsay has a real talent for capturing his subjects looking natural and relaxed.  And he demonstrates consistently his skilful appreciation of how to light his pictures to make them sing.  The portrait of Jacop Cigogna Mozzoni looking out over the garden that is named after his family is beautifully executed.  Putting Nick Dakin-Elliot next to a terracotta bust was a great composition (though the picture should have been cropped slightly) and I loved the shot of Marco Solaro holding forth at the extraordinary La Scarzuola.  (I didn’t understand a word of what he said when he did this with me – and he was speaking English). Having little talent for portraiture I take my hat off to him.

In fact, overall, Ramsay’s photographs win hands down.  He shows us a wide range of his skills.  The title double paged spread at Castiglion del Bosco, of a pool edged with Verbena bonariensis and with a background of a wooded hillside is superb.  Where he has had good light he has made the most of it. His set from the romantic garden of Ninfa is outstanding and it was inspired of him to photograph the descending seedpods of the poplars to make them look like falling snowflakes.  He gives us several  charming close ups – my favourite being the lizard on the sofa at Giardino Pezzino and the stack of plastic crates of lily bulbs at Villa Poggio Torselli.

By contrast Derry Moore’s work is altogether less consistent. Whilst the box parterre double page at Castello Ruspoli is great, the side lighting really picking up the lines of the intricately cut hedges, some of his sets are very dull indeed.  I would  have returned on a better day at the charming Villa Balbianello, and the five pictures chosen give very little sense of the garden.  And I would not have been happy with the set of the exceptionally pretty Villa Torrigiana. Many of the pictures in Don’s book look slightly “fuzzy”. And to my eye several have a slight colour cast creating a somewhat unreal colour palette.  The double page pictures of Villa Pisani and of the Fountain of the Organ at Villa D’Este might have been great if it had been worked on a bit more. It’s difficult to know if this was lack of care on the photographers’ side or the publishers.

Attlee introduces us to just 19 gardens in her book whereas Don’s book gives us 30.  Neither, of course is anything like a comprehensive look at Italy’s gardens and they don’t claim to be.  Nor are they attempting to be guide books. Neither book has visitor information and only Don’s book has a map showing roughly where in Italy his gardens are located.  Other books already cover such ground, though, and Frances Lincoln are about to give us ‘The Best gardens in Italy: A Travellers Guide’ by Kirsty McLeod which is to be published in May, and which, I understand will have over 100 gardens.  But on the face of it with many more gardens in his book and at £10 less than Attlee’s, Don’s tome might be considered better value for money.

I know that thinkingardens readers might consider the photography to be mere window dressing (you are wrong, of course) and are far more likely to want to know about the writing. The authors choice of gardens coincides in just four examples: Villa La Pietra in Florence, La Foce elsewhere in Tuscany and La Torrecchia in Lazio and its nearby neighbour, Ninfa.  I thought it would be interesting to compare their approaches to these gardens.

Don gives La Pietra just two pages followed by two photographs, whereas Attlee devotes 14 pages to the garden and Ramsay’s 15 photographs (a particularly beautiful set) are well integrated within the text.  So this is hardly comparing like with like.  Attlee’s story of the garden is much more complete. Within her account of the garden as it is now we are told how bringing flowers into the house is now all but banned because “insects could be carried in on plants or flowers …and it is thought that they might damage the artwork”.  Honestly. Get a life.

Irritatingly, in his brief description, Don scatters his dates around with abandon. We start at the year 2000, move back to 1994, on to 1939 back to 1907 forward to 1924 back to 1460 then 1560 before he gives up on dates entirely.  Attlee moves in a more orderly direction which does help one follow the history. I liked Don’s assessment of the restoration work, though;   ‘…there is a slightly rumpled, unmachined scruffiness that is crisp where it counts but relaxed about things like lawns, flaky paintwork or the occasional weed’. (I bet I would disagree with him about the lawns though. I think they are best  crisp when faced with flaky paintwork).  And for me, Attlee does go on a bit in the section about how the garden is managed today.

With La Foce, a garden sixty miles south of Sienna, Don gives us two pages of unbroken text followed by half a dozen pics.  This approach of having slabs of text followed by the pictures is consistent throughout the book and is simply poor design.  Attlee’s text is integrated with the pictures –  this is consistent in her book and is a far more pleasing approach. Both photographers visited when the massive wisteria-clad pergola was in flower and Ramsay’s pictures are stunning, making Moore’s look very flat (they wouldn’t let me photograph it last October- I bet it was because the wisteria wasn’t in flower).

Both authors tell the engaging story of the garden’s development and they agree on most things. What I liked about Don’s account was that he is prepared to share some criticisms of the garden. He finds one very formal area ‘too brutal and reminiscent of fascist insignia to be enjoyed. The hedges are like troops on parade at a rally…..’. – it is very refreshing to hear some evaluation of a garden rather than merely description. Attlee’s account tells us about how the garden has changed since an English landscape architect called Peter Curzon has taken over a curatorial role in 1997 and about the thinking behind the changes.  Curzon isn’t mentioned by Don. He seems key to how the garden is developing and it seems a serious omission to leave him out.

In their visits to La Torrecchia the books continue the basic differences in their formats. Don gives two pages of text followed by two photographs. And not very illuminating pictures at that.  A wild flower meadow with no context of its situation and a wisteria clad ruin.  Whereas Attlee’s account presents us with a great broad shot of these ruins set against a closely mown lawn and it immediately gave me a strong sense of the place. My first impression reminded me strongly of the romantic ruins of Ninfa. And then Attlee tells us that Lauro Marchetti, who has been Ninfa’s custodian for decades, was commissioned in 1995 to make the garden within the ruins of the castle and ruined village, so I gave myself a big pat on the back. And then I gave myself a big kick that I didn’t go there when I visited Ninfa as it is only a few miles away.

After Marchetti had done his work,  (according to both authors, overseeing the installation of over 10,000 plants over 4 years),  Dan Pearson was involved in 1998 (clearly 10,000 plants were not enough) and then he handed the reins to Stuart Barfoot as head gardener who now acts as a consultant to the estate .  Don has a nice story of his acquaintance with both Pearson and Barfoot and Attlee fleshes out the account of their role in adding ‘an unlaced English abundance to the planting’.  At the end of his account Don laments that he thinks what Italy lacks is ‘intelligent, educated gardeners in love with the earth that they work’.  He may be right that the Italians don’t value the skills of gardening but I doubt very much that falling in love with earth would be an advantage to them in creating more exciting adventurous modern gardens.  But that’s Don for you; he just loves to get his hands dirty.

Ninfa is the only one of these four gardens that both authors visited that I have also been to.  So this is where I might get competitive about the photography. Except I won’t. I have some wonderful pictures from Ninfa and so do both the photographers of these books.  One of Moore’s best pictures in Don’s book is a shot of a pink rambler reflected in the clear water of the river that runs through the garden, framed by a stone arch.  Perfection. He gets more pages for this garden than any other in the book, but I’m still not happy with some of the reproduction.  Ramsay’s side lit double page of yellow Irises (also by the river) with one of the fern covered ruins is also superb and his set is consistently beautiful.

Don still restricts himself to two pages of description.  But what description! He likes this place a lot.  ‘Ninfa becomes roses better than anywhere else’, ‘Ninfa is the most romantic garden in the world and contains as much beauty as any visit can bear’,  ‘no garden is more haunted. No garden more easy with its past’. In fact, so overwhelmed is Don by Ninfa that he begins to hallucinate. As well as seeing ghosts, he could feel the hemp rope of dead butchers’  ‘rasping against the stone, and catch the blood tang of meat’.  Phew. A drop of anti-psychotics might be advisable with his glass of Prosecco the next time he visits or he might find himself locked up.

Attlee is enchanted by Ninfa too.  But less affected.  For what it’s worth I also consider Ninfa to be one of the most glorious gardens I have visited.  But it is disappointing that neither author has a word to say of its faults.  Every garden has them and for me it adds to my appreciation of a place if writers are willing to comment on what doesn’t work so well, as well as singing a garden’s praises.  Having a more balanced view helps us see gardens more clearly. In my view Ninfa is a little over tidy and I think it would benefit the garden if it was left to relax a little more.  And some of the planting feels out of place, incongruous. But do go yourselves: you are unlikely to be disappointed.

Italian gardens continue to fascinate and enthral us and these books  have given us a good introduction to many of the country’s greatest gardens.  Don and Attlee both write in an engaging way and offer interesting accounts of what these gardens are like now as well as their history. Attlee’s accounts are fuller, perhaps, and more focussed on the stories of the garden makers.  Don is rather more excitable. These are big heavy books, so you would not want to take them with you as part of your luggage.  But I am happy to have them on my shelves – until I plan my next trip.

Charles Hawes

Also by Charles Hawes : ‘More books on Italian gardens, and ‘Scampston, review of the walled garden’

website  photo gallery 

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Previous post:

Next post: