Book Reviews, Gardens, Landscape History

Book Review: Revisiting the Gamberaia: An Anthology of Essays edited by Patricia J. Osmond

February 20, 2015

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Perfect. Poetical. Sensual. A masterpiece of composition. Perched on a hillside in Settignano with a magnificent view of Florence, Villa Gamberaia has inspired writers, artists, historians and designers for generations. In the finely crafted book, Revisiting the Gamberaia: An Anthology of Essays, Patricia J. Osmond shares Gamberaia’s allure through a collection of eight classic essays accompanied by historic photographs, illustrations and plans.

Written by American and British authors the essays span more than seventy years, beginning in 1901 with Janet Ross’s depiction of the Gamberaia in Florentine Villas and concluding with Sir Harold Acton’s Tuscan Villas, published in 1973. Each essay provides a unique insight into the Gamberaia’s design evolution while providing an introduction to the discipline of landscape history.

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Villa Gamberaia’s garden is small, approximately three acres in size. Yet contained within is a collection of spaces so perfectly sited in relationship to the villa, surrounding agricultural landscape and each other that they compose one of the most harmonious ensembles in Tuscany. As Georgina Masson extols in an essay from Italian Gardens published in 1961, the garden is “at once the loveliest and most typically Tuscan” that she had seen. “In it the light, and air and breeze swept site, advocated by all the garden authors from Varro to Alberti, is exploited to perfection.”

Beloved by Edith Wharton for its “perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale,” the garden is described by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe as the most thoughtful domestic landscape the world has ever known. Its individual features include a grotto, nymphaeum, gabinetto rustico, limonaia and bowling green as well as formal water parterres enclosed at their southern end by a cypress arcade.

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Gamberaia Plan from Italian Gardens of the Renaissance by Geoffrey Jellicoe and John C. Shepherd, 1925.

In the introduction to Revisiting the Gamberaia: An Anthology of Essays, Osmond shares the context in which the essays were written, providing a brief overview of Florence’s cultural environment at the turn of the twentieth century, when writers, artists, diplomats and intellectuals were exploring the gardens and villas of the region and buying or renting properties outside of Florence. Biographical notes provide background information about the individuals who have influenced the Gamberaia’s design.

Villa Gamberaia passed through successive owners, including the elusive Princess Ghyka and the American heiress, Maud Cass Ledyard (Baroness Von Ketteler) before being acquired by the Marchi Family in 1954. Dedicated to restoring the gardens and villa (both of which were destroyed by the Germans during World War ll) the Marchis and now the present owners, Dott. Luigi Zalum and his sons, are passionate stewards of the property and painstakingly continue its restoration and conservation.

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In an era in which garden images proliferate on the internet and technology allows one to “visit” gardens virtually, Revisiting the Gamberaia: An Anthology of Essays, reminds us that there is no substitute for physically experiencing a place, supporting, as Osmond beautifully expresses, the reality that one ”can never exhaust the potential for meaning that a great garden, like a great work of literature or painting, continues to elicit.”

I had the good fortune to visit Villa Gamberaia in early November on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. At that time I had not read the essays in Osmond’s anthology, but had studied the garden in graduate school. As I passed through the entry avenue of cypress onto the grassy terrace with sweeping views over the Arno valley and into the garden, the “sensual, practical, contemplative, mystical, childish and ordered grandeur of the individual,” described by Sir Geoffrey in The Studies of a Landscape Designer over 80 years, both delighted and humbled me, as only a great work of art can do.

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This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, January, 2015.

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply William W. Batstone September 11, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    Lovely review; lovely illustrations. I think I’ll get the book. But I got here out of a need: does anyone know how to contact Patricia J. Osmond? If she is the independent scholar who has written many valuable essays on Sallust, I need to contact her about the republication of one of those essays.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 13, 2015 at 4:44 pm

      I will forward her your contact information with the hope that it is the scholar that you are looking for. Good luck.

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