Parco Scherrer: The Heavenly Garden

When traveling I visit local gardens and parks that are less known to experience places that fall outside the standard canon of landscape study. These sites are often not well documented and my visits usually generate more questions than answers.

Such is the case for Parco Scherrer, which I toured last week. Located in Morcote, Switzerland, a beautiful historic town on the shore of Lake Lugano (Ceresio), Parco Scherrer is the creation of Arturo Scherrer, an erudite and well-traveled textile merchant.

Sited on a steep hillside, Parco Scherrer contains a collection of sculptures and miniature structures modeled on buildings from the Mediterranean, Asia and Far East that are curiously wonderful and overwhelming.  Without the benefit of Scherrer’s insight,  I was left to imagine what he was thinking and how, given the difficulty of the terrain, the garden was constructed.  Scherrer has been labeled both visionary and obsessive, traits which are often attributed to those who create gardens with a singular intensity.

Scherrer (1881 – 1956) is described in the garden guide as a “romantic and passionate landscape gardener.”  Born in St. Gall, Switzerland he received an international education studying French language in Lausanne, Switzerland, textile and weaving in Aachen, Germany, Italian in Sienna and English and business in the United States.  After assuming management of his father’s textile company in Munich, Germany, Scherrer is credited with its transformation into one of the “smartest English-style fashion houses in town.” He traveled extensively for business and developed a love for art, culture and architecture.

“The Siamese Tea Pavilion in Parco Scherrer”

In 1930 Scherrer bought a house in Morcote with one hectare of land and began to transform the slopes and terraces into a richly landscaped private botanical/sculpture garden.  His passion for art and antiquities, cultivated through travel, informed  the design of the garden inspiring the installations of replicas of  historic structures as well as exotic plantings and a large collection of sculpture.

To grasp the enormity of Scherrer’s undertaking one must visit Morcote with its steeply sloping terraced landscape.  Regarded as “The Pearl of Ceresio,” Morcote, once a fishing/agricultural village, became a popular vacation destination in the 19th century.  Included in the inventory of Swiss Historic Sites, the village includes a series of medieval arcades along the lake punctuated by alleys that ascend the steep hillside which, along with a network of trails, harbors discretely sited residences.  At the peak of the hillside is Santa del Maria del Sasso, a baroque church dating from the thirteenth century.

“One of Morcote’s narrow alleys”

“Many homes are discretely sited in the landscape”

“A view from Santa del Maria del Sasso”

Although the topography in Morcote is challenging, Scherrer’s endeavor was aided by the mild climate and the garden’s location on the Southern slope of  Mount Arbostora where it is protected from cold winds.  The site is beautiful with a breathtaking view of the Italian gulf of Lake Ceresio, the hills of Varese and the Po Valley.

“A view from the Belvedere”

Scherrer died in 1956 and according to the documentation his widow bequeathed the garden to the Morcote Municipality in 1965 with the stipulation that it be available to the public and preserved as designed by Scherrer.   Considering that the garden was created in just over twenty-five years it is a remarkable accomplishment and testament to his vision and focus.

Existing documentation suggests Parco Scherrer was deemed “The Heavenly Garden” by the Aga Khan, grandfather of Karim Aga Khan. While I am unable to confirm the origin of this attribution one can imagine the wonder of visiting Scherrer’s tribute to Oriental and Eastern cultures along the shores of Lake Lugano.

To do justice to the richly complex elements within the park provides a challenge so I will present a brief overview  following the sequence one travels as currently experienced by visitors.  This begins and ends at the “Grotto Ticenese” where a seasonal restaurant is  sited.   The map below which was copied from the guidebook.

THE PLAN

“The Park is entered directly from the street”

The garden is accessed by a series of Mediterranean-themed terraces in the renaissance and baroque style, connected by paths, arbors and staircases that gradually ascend to the highest point, where the Tempio del Sole (Temple of the Sun) is located.   Each terrace and pathway is richly ornamented with sculpture depicting themes from literature and mythology.

The entry sequence, beyond the first plaza, is bathed in light and provides multiple opportunities for distant views.

“The entry plaza”

Two lions of Carrera marble flank the entry staircase.  The stairs connect to a pergola accented with sculptures representing the four seasons.  The pergola culminates with an amphora dating from the thirteenth century.

“A Carrara Lion flanking the staircase”

“Sculptures accent the stair”

“The Pergola”

The pergola leads to the Fontana Romana, a shaded dell connecting to the Belvedere.  Here  statues of Venus, Hercules, Juno and Jupiter are sited along with other sculptural elements.

“A view towards the Renaissance Fountain”

“The Belvedere”

The path continues upwards where the Limonaia, an airy structure inhabited by an otherworldly assortment of exotic animal sculptures, and the Erechtheum, a 1:4 scale model of the second temple of the Acropolis made from Vicenza stone, are sited.

“The Limonaia”

“The Erechtheum”

At the highest point is the Tempio del Sole, described as a sun temple in a Moorish style that “awakens the dreams of the gardens of the Alhambra in Grenada with two baroque fountains of Veronese stones.”  Statues of Mercury, the god of commerce and a female spinner are located here, on the garden’s highest vantage point, paying homage to the Scherrer family’s commercial enterprises.

“The Tempio del Sole”

This marks the completion of the Parco Scherrer’s classical elements.

I was already experiencing sensory overload as I embarked upon my descent.  Before me lay an exotic  landscape of dense, tropical vegetation with a series of structural features including a Siamese Tea Pavilion, an Egyptian Temple, an Arabian House and a “Palazzina” set in an Indian Garden.  Each was richly ornamented with decorative detailing on both the interior and exterior and set within a landscape ornamented with sculptural elements.

“Left unfinished the Arabian House was Scherrer’s last project”

“A water-lily pond with a Chinese tortoise”

“One of several Buddhas “

The “Palazzina Indiana” is modeled on a Renaissance building, the “Palazzo Salo” in Brugine, near Padua.  The interior of the building is a women’s compound in the Mughal style with a ceiling painting detailing the exact location of the heavens at the time of Mrs. Scherrer’s birth.

Four stone lions “protect” the building and to the right is a series of sculpture including four stone elephants, below three striking cobras, beneath a model of the sacred cow of Mysore.

“The Palazzina”

“Four elephants symbolize good luck”

“An entry stone to the Palazzina”

Throughout the garden  slopes and terraces of the garden are planted with exotic and oriental plants that Scherrer acquired during his travels including cypresses, camellias, camphor and eucalyptus trees, cedars araucarias, palms and bamboo woods.  More than fifty of the plants are labeled with their scientific name and identified in the brochure as in a botanic garden.

The garden concludes at the “Grotto Ticinese” a structure paying homage to the Lugano region’s vernacular architecture.  According to the brochure, the building is a reconstruction of a house from the “Sassello” quarter of Lugano which no longer exists and it now houses a seasonal restaurant and amenities for the park.

After visiting Parco Scherrer I did a quick search of background material to try to understand Scherrer’s thought process and motivation for building the garden.  I wanted to see images of Scherrer and his wife entertaining guests, sitting on the Belvedere admiring the view or conducting a tea ceremony in the Siamese Tea Pavilion.

I did locate one article written by Daniel Minassian for Architectural Digest in 1989, titled “Wonders of Scherrer Park: A Monument to One Man’s Obsession in Switzerland.”

Obsession is an interesting word to use and I wondered  what Mr. Minassian discovered in the course of his research that led him to conclude that the garden is a somewhat naive blend of cultures, styles and eras.  Gods and mythologies clash; chronological time is suspended.  Yet it all retains a curious power, and the imprint of the man who created it – proof that the born traveler is himself a kind of artist, in that his work admits of no impassable barriers.”

Parco Scherrer is open from  March through October 15th and information can be found at : http://www.gardensinitaly.net/search.asp.  The garden is especially beautiful in the spring when the azaleas and camellias are in bloom.

Copyright © 2012  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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