1998, Leigh Hunt, Study Tour Of Gardens, Italy

Il Giardino

By Leigh Hunt

How to encapsulate a travel scholarship into just a single article? It would probably take a crowbar to squeeze in my wealth of experiences from Italy in spring (April 17th-24th 1998). Rather than making less of more, it is best to tell the highlights of the trip.

Monday morning and the start of the working week. I had left the rush hour of London’s metropolis to join the habitual patterns of another. Roma Termini is at the heart of Rome’s transport network and both commuters and tourists pass through in vast quantities each day. I would leave them all behind to visit Giardino di Ninfa, “The Garden of the Nymph”.

Speeding out of the suburbs of Rome on the train, the glories of the countryside began to catch the eye at every opportunity. Seas of blue Borage flowing alongside the tracks with ribbons of poppies and feathery fennel foliage. Behind, the fields and olive groves filled the middle distance, whilst grey topped hills formed an eloquent full stop to the landscape of southern Italy.

Arriving at Ninfa, I was met by the head gardener, Lauro Marchetti. He welcomed me most warmly, taking me through the once ruined Town Hall to the gardens. From the great hall — complete with an Arthurian round table — the main doors were swung open onto the gardens.

The shafts of warm Italian light were blinding at first, but as my eyes adjusted I saw a small terrace with a Rosa banksiae `Lutea’ tumbling from above. The terrace was at the top of a flight of steps, below gushed a river. The scents of jasmine and citrus flower were instantly recognisable. Pausing to look into the river, a whole new beauty was revealed. It was crystal clear and at the bottom waterweed swayed in the current, dancing to the harmony of the garden. Later, on reflection, those doors opened to reveal an earthly paradise!

Lauro explained that it wasn’t just a paradise for the gardener, but also the wildlife. Italians don’t relish their native flora and fauna. So Lauro was actually trying to re-educate the locals and children that come to the garden simply by making them look and listen. Today though, the garden seemed to be open just for me; I was able to walk where I pleased, stepping over all the barriers.

Roses were all around, but my eyes went skyward to my first surprise; a ring epiphytic Tillandsia aeranthos growing on the bare trunk of a Pinus pinea. Ninfa is often quoted as an `English’ garden, but with the advantage of a Mediterranean climate so much more is possible. On the opposite bank of the river were trees of mauve blooms, Paulownia fargesii with bare branches and a mass of blue foxglove spikes. The bees buzzed into the trumpets, but the many flowers they visited filled a 30 foot tree. Lauro said the “one old tree had sons and now there are many”!

Everywhere one walked on meadows of daisies — why do we mow the lawn? A green swathe is dull, but a carpet of pink and white daisies snaking off into the distance is magical. The clock struck twelve . . . round the corner came a ride-on mower and the carpet went flying into a million pieces; but time continues to tick and the carpet would return in a week.

I would not return so soon though — after just sitting in different places to take in nature’s movements — my time at Ninfa drew to a close. It was almost like parting with a loved one, I had been captivated by the romance of the garden and now I had to leave. I think of Ninfa often and, without a doubt, this garden and the others which I have visited (Villa d’este, Boboli, Giardino dei Semplici . . .) are already, and will continue to influence my future work.

The hallmark of a truly good experience is the desire to repeat it. I am already making plans to return to Italy! I could never have said this though, if it had not been for the equal generosity from the Kew Guild and the Merlin Trust. I can only encourage others to follow the well worn track to Italy; it has been well trodden for good reasons. Many may dismiss Italy as not `exotic’ enough, it is definitely not Brazil or New Zealand. But I couldn’t imagine anyone not being thoroughly satisfied and excited by some aspect of Italian gardening and horticulture. Go, go!

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