More books on Italian Gardens reviewed by Charles Hawes

March 27, 2012

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Charles Hawes has a weakness for Italian Gardens and never misses a good opportunity to visit them. I think he’d quite like to take a tour of other interested garden visitors some day. Meanwhile, he is contenting himself with collecting books about them, and reviewing the books for thinkingardens.

So here you are – more books about Italian gardens: do you want to buy them or not? ( See also.)

Anne Wareham, editor and publicity manager (do click an ad..)

The Best Gardens in Italy by Kirsty McLeod. Published by Frances Lincoln. £30

Italian Gardens Georgian Masson

Italian Gardens Georgina Masson published by Garden Art Press

Charles Hawes:

It seems that we cannot get enough of books about Italian gardens. The above have been published since my review for thinkingardens of Monty Don and Helena Attlee’s selections. Frances Lincoln have also published  “Close to Paradise: The Gardens of Naples, Capri and the Amalfi Coast “ by Robert Fisher.  I can’t keep up.

“Italian Gardens” by Georgina Masson (a pseudonym for Marion Johnson) was first published in 1962. Masson’s book only really covers the development of gardens up to the 18th century. So, for instance La Mortola, outside Genoa and begun in the 19th century by the Hanbury family – which Masson refers to briefly as “not to be missed by any garden lover who is visiting Italy”  – is considered to be “modern” and out of the scope of her book. You have been warned.

This is not a revised edition, so much as an embellished one. The text is unaltered. What has been added are about 20 quite recent photographs by Alex Ramsay which are mostly excellent, and plans of 15 of the gardens that Masson would have had available to her when she was undertaking her own researches. The rest of the book remains frozen in the time that it was written at the end of the 1950’s and such one has to accept that her descriptions of the detail of the contemporary appearance and planting of the gardens (when she makes them) are out of date.

Most of the book is illustrated by Masson’s own black and white photographs. It is always interesting to see historic records of gardens, but sadly most of the photographs are not of great quality. It would have been super to see the many historic paintings of the gardens reproduced in colour. These might have been available at the time of the first publication but more likely would have need to have been re-purchased for this later edition, thus adding to the costs of the book. Nevertheless, if I had paid £35 for the book I would have felt a bit cheated that these illustrations have not been upgraded.

Her approach is to take the reader though the development of Italian gardens historically from ancient Rome, through to the Medieval and the Renaissance, and then to focus her attention more regionally, when she considers further garden development in Tuscany,  Le March and Veneto and Northern Italy.  There is probably no better book for the general reader as an introduction to the early history of gardens in Italy. So I was keen to turn to Kirsty McLeod’s book to find out more about what these gardens were like now and to find out her account of what has been happening to Italian gardens in the last 200 years.

Villa Garzoni copyright Charles HawesMcLeod’s “The Best Gardens in Italy “ is organised geographically. She includes over 120 gardens with a further 30 mentioned at the end as “worth visiting”.  I think that if the author considers that these  30 are worth a visit then she might have given us a sentence or two about each of them, rather than just their address and web sites (though isn’t it wonderful that every one of the gardens does at least have a web presence?)

She devotes either one or two pages to each garden. This uniformity provides a pleasing rhythm to the book. Primrose Bell’s photography is good for the most part, without being outstanding. Some are taken in the harshest of lights and a few on the dullest of days but this is to be expected when so many gardens have had to be visited. Thankfully there are relatively few close ups, which seldom show the reader anything of interest about a garden.  The pictures provide (at least for most of the 30 or so gardens known to me) a characteristic view, giving some visual sense of the place.

McLeod writes straightforwardly and engagingly about her subject. She provides a decent introduction to the history of each garden – sometimes at the cost of not allowing enough room, perhaps, for the garden as it is now. McLeod draws heavily on Masson for her histories, sometimes quoting her directly,  sometimes reporting her anonymously (“It is said….” ) and elsewhere she often seems to be extremely close to Masson in her choice of words for her own descriptions.

The book is more comprehensive than any other on its subject and I was pleased to see some gardens included which are almost unknown to the gardening press. The extraordinary Il Bosco Della Ragnaia in Tuscany, for instance, where the American artist Shepperd Craige is making a most ambitious and interesting garden and which deserves to be on anyone’s shortlist of Italian gardens to visit.

Il Bosco Della Ragnaia copyright Charles HawesBut there are omissions which I think would have at least deserved a mention. La Scarzuola, for instance in Umbria where Tomaso Buzzi, a controversial, mystically inclined architect, begun a weird and wonderful citadel in the 1950s that his nephew is continuing to work on.  A place not to be missed. I would have liked the book even more if she had found more contemporary gardens for us to visit.

If I have a single complaint about this book it is that McLeod is seldom willing to make any critical appraisal of the gardens.  It is unforgiveable that the shocking state of Villa Garzoni (below) is not acknowledged – a worse state of decrepitude I have not seen in any garden in Italy. Nor indeed its horrible commercialisation as part of the nearby Pinocchio Theme Park.  And here the choices of photographs are unrepresentative of the garden. At least the ghastly garish terraces of the Villa Ruffolo are shown in a photograph even though she opines that  “they work”.  So perhaps we should be grateful that she mostly keeps her opinions to herself. But visitors to Villa Cimbrone might be shocked to find a helipad in the garden, and when will somebody acknowledge that not all the planting at Ninfa is good, even though it may overall be a delightful garden? I think for a book to be fairly described as a “Travellers Guide” it needs to be willing to guide as well as describe.

Villa Garzoni copyright Charles Hawes

“Italy’s Best Gardens” is a big and heavy book.  It is not one you will want to carry around with you on a visit, so read it before you go on your trip and take notes about what you want to see and when they are open. What we really need now is a pruned down and expanded version that you might slip in your pocket or have in your bag.  Another book on Italian gardens, anyone?

Charles Hawes  photogallery on GAP photos





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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Petra Hoyer Millar March 28, 2012 at 10:06 am

Shame and rather surprising that Masson’s photography is not up to scratch as admittedly when purchasing books such as these, it is the photography that determines the purchase. I may have to read your review of Monty’s Italian garden book, but fear that I may just not have enough coffee to read such (though elegant) lengthy prose….


Tzipporah March 27, 2012 at 6:45 pm

Does anybody actually READ garden books? I look at the pictures to get ideas for my own gardens, but I can’t say I’ve ever read more than a paragraph or two in anything except Wareham or Solomon’s “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades” which was pretty much a how-to for a unique climate/soil combination.


annewareham March 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm

(ha, knew you’d have to except me if you wanted your comment approved!)


Tzipporah March 28, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Yes, but yours isn’t a gardening book, per se. It’s more of a snark about gardening books and gardening in general. Snark is always better reading.


annewareham March 28, 2012 at 1:55 pm



Emmon March 28, 2012 at 3:29 am

Hi Tzipporah – Well, I read a book called “The Bad-Tempered Gardener.” There are some nice pictures but it’s primarily collection of very thought-provoking essays/chapters — including one that blew me away called “I hate gardening”! It’s a courageous, exciting book that drew me to this website!


annewareham March 28, 2012 at 10:19 am



Paul Steer March 28, 2012 at 11:43 am

That is a good question, the only ones I have read cover to cover are ‘The Bad Tempered Gardener ‘ by Anne Wareham and ‘ Growing to a ripe old age’ by Edward Enfield. I have tried reading Monty’s but you need a few weeks and a good coffee as suggested by Petra HM. The photographs by Derry Moore are what draw you in. Other gardening books by Monty are much more readable. The most practical gardening book I have is ‘The weekend gardener’ . Gulp.


annewareham March 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm

(I pay them you know…)


Paul Steer March 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Let me know about the some day tour of Italian Gardens… would love to do that. I love trees in pots and strong lines. I like the look and sound of Kirsty McLeod’s book.


Emmon March 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Thanks so much for putting these books on my radar! The symmetry of the garden on the first book is just perfection!


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