Villa Gamberaia


I have just spent a week in Florence attending the 18th General Assembly of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). The theme, Heritage and Landscape as Human Values, represents an increased focus on the role that landscape (a broadly defined term at best) plays within the heritage agenda. Florence provided an opportune venue in which to conduct this dialogue for here gardens and landscapes are interwoven within an historic urban framework that coherently integrates them with built form.


So it can be no surprise that I had a difficult time staying indoors when there are so many famous gardens and landscapes to explore. Many of these were created by the Medici family. However, it was visiting the Villa Gamberaia, included by Edith Wharton in the 1904 book Italian Villas and Their Gardens and studied by aspiring landscape architects (at least when I went to school) that was my priority.

Published in 1904, and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, Italian Villas and Their Gardens extols the magic that the combined forces of nature and art bestow upon the Italian garden.  Wharton designed her garden at the Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts based upon principles derived from Italian gardens where, as part of a harmonious composition noting, “the garden must be studied in relation to the house, and both in relation to the landscape.”


Located on a hillside in Settignano overlooking Florence and the surrounding Arno Valley, Villa Gamberia is one of the most famous gardens in the world. Among other qualities it seamlessly integrates built and natural forms with a series of spaces that are both intimate and grand, providing a complement to the surrounding multi-hued landscape.


The design of Villa Gamberia is attributed to a series of owners who modified its plan while retaining the property’s design integrity. Merchant Zanobi Lapi is credited with building an imposing villa on the site as early as 1610 employing his nephews to lay out the main areas of the garden in the “Tuscan style,”  combining design elements found in both urban palazzos and suburban villas.


The detailed estate map (cabreo) seen above dates from the first half of the 18th century and combines with etchings by Giuseppe Zocchi (seen below) from 1744 to provide a detailed record of the villa, gardens and surrounding agricultural land during this period.  Many of these recorded additions and improvements were made to the property by Marchesi Capponi between 1718 and 1725.


Features highlighted that remain today include the formal Cyprus allée leading to the villa’s entrance, the nymphaeum of Neptune, the Gabinetto rustico and the upper lemon terrace and limonaia.


Gabinetto rustico


Giardino Limonaia

Princess Giovanna (Jeanne) Ghyka acquired the property in 1896 and began an ambitious restoration of the gardens converting the parterre de broderie into a parterre d’eau.  According to Wharton, “this garden, an oblong piece of ground, a few years ago had at its centre a round fish-pond surrounded by symmetrical plots planted with roses and vegetables, and in general design had probably been little changed since the construction of the villa.  It has now been remodeled on an elaborate plan, which has the disadvantage of being unrelated in style to its surroundings; but fortunately no other change has been made in the plan and planting of the grounds.”

The photographs of the water garden below, by Charles Latham, appeared in a nine page spread in  “Country Life Magazine” on May 26th 1906, two years after Villa Gamberaia was featured in Wharton’s book.

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From 1919 to 1920, Rome Prize winner Edward Lawson measured and drew a plan of the gardens.  Lawson, a first fellow in landscape architecture, is featured in the piece Edward Godfrey Lawson, “Our First Fellow,” by James O’Day on the American Society of Landscape Architecture’s blog, The Field.  Planting plans drawn by Lawson have been used to guide the garden’s restoration.

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Several years later, Susan and Geoffrey Jellicoe surveyed the garden as part of the field work for Italian Gardens of the Renaissance, published in 1925.  The popular book, a partnership of Jellicoe and Jock Shepherd includes illustrations, plans and photographs of twenty-eight villas and has been reissued eight times.

In 1925, Villa Gamberaia was purchased by the widowed, American born Baroness von Ketteler who added both formal and architectonic elements to the garden, including the wide box borders.



The villa and its garden were severely damaged in 1944 as the German army retreated from Italy.  In 1954 the property was purchased by Marcello Marchi and he and his family have devoted the past 50 years to its restoration.  Several smaller houses on the property have been renovated and these, along with main villa, are available for rental.


In Norman Newton’s 1971 book, Design on the Land, Villa Gamberaia is described as embodying many of the admirable qualities that contribute to the Tuscan Villa’s “characteristic serenity….. it is simple, direct, uncomplicated.”

Newton (who was a fixture in my studio class) provides an evocative description of the villa and gardens beginning with the approach from the village of Settignano where one passes through a tunnel in the narrow roadway leading to the villa’s recessed gateway.



Upon entering, a hedge bordered roadway leads to the villa, its forecourt and a wide side terrace lined with sculptures (including the canine below) providing a dramatic view of the countryside and the city of Florence.


According to Newton, “the serenity of the villa ….rests upon the calm simplicity of the house….and gentle harmony between warm stucco walls and reddish brown stone trim at openings and corners.”


On the villa’s eastern side is a turf viale, a lawn that extends the length of the property and serves as a central axis connecting the cool and shaded cypress enclosed nymphaeum to a sweeping, balustraded overlook.


The Viale


The Nymphaeum

In Italian Villas and Their Gardens Wharton concluded that Villa Gamberaia is “Probably the most perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale… because it combines in an astonishingly small space, yet without the least sense of overcrowding, almost every typical excellence of the old Italian garden: free circulation of sunlight and air about the house; abundance of water; easy access to dense shade; sheltered walks with different points of view; variety of effect produced by the skilful use of different levels; and, finally, breadth and simplicity of composition… ”



As mentioned earlier the Villa has guest houses available for rent.  In addition plans are being developed for a Gamberaia Cultural Association which will offer an annual program of guided tours, conferences and seminars conducted by specialists in landscape architecture and they are in the process of developing a series of cultural events linked in the study of landscapes and gardens.

Villa Gamberaia
Via del Rossellino, 72 50135 Settignano – FIRENZE
Tel: +39 055697205 – +39 055697090 Fax : +39 055697090 E-mail:


Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Chelsea Physic Garden


While I have never considered the connection between gardens and the quality of masters degree programs, I recently received and shared a list of the 50 most stunning University Gardens and Arboretums developed by a site professing to be “Your online Guide to the Best (however defined) Masters Degree Programs.” After wondering how I might obtain a job where I was required to compile such a list and checking to see how many of the 50 I have had the pleasure of visiting (a paltry seven), I returned my focus to writing about the Chelsea Physic Garden, which as a center for horticultural research for more than 350 years is, despite its lack of affiliation to a university, stunning. I visited the garden in early September.


Founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries of London to provide apprentices with an opportunity to grow medicinal plants and study their uses, the walled garden is sited on four acres of land contiguous to the River Thames where market gardens, orchards and “great houses” belonging to King Henry VIII, his Chancellor Sir Thomas More and Sir John Danvers once flourished. Try as I might to uncover why the sign above, located near the garden’s entry on Swan Walk is dated 1686, I was unable to do so.

While the riverside location provides a microclimate suitable for cultivating tender species (including the largest olive tree growing outside in Britain) it also provided an important transportation corridor where, according to their website, the apothecaries housed “the gaily painted barge” used for royal pageants and processions, conveying members to and from the Physic Garden and for their celebrated ‘herborising’ (the Society’s term for educational, botanical field trips). It is London’s oldest botanic garden.

The garden is visible in Cary’s New and Accurate Plan of London and Westminster, 1795, seen below.

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In 1712, Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) acquired the Manor of Chelsea which included the freehold of the Garden. He granted the Apothecaries a lease on the land for a rent of £5 a year in perpetuity on the condition it be for ever kept up and maintained as a physic garden. And for more than 300 years, it has.

IMG_1626The image below,  An Accurate Survey of the Physic Garden in 1751 by John Haynes, includes elevations of the green houses and the layout of planting beds.   (Copyright: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries (RBKC, Libraries).


Upon his death at 93 years of age, Sloane’s collections and library formed the nucleus of the British Museum. He also appointed Phillip Miller (1691-1771) as head gardener, who, in a 50 year tenure, nurtured great talents and expanded the reach of the garden’s influence.


Sir Hans Sloane

A replica of a statue of Sir Hans Sloane created by Michael Rysbrack in 1733 keeps watch over the garden. Close by is the oldest man-made rock garden in Europe, built with pieces of stone from the Tower of London and basaltic lava used as ballast on the ship that transported Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland in 1772.


Pond Rockery

Among other notable botanists, in the 1730‘s, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) made several visits to the Chelsea Physic Garden where he made important contacts that influenced his research and growth as a scientist. The garden is one of thirteen sites in eight countries in Europe and North America connected to Linnaeus that have been tentatively nominated by the UNESCO World Heritage Program in a proposal titled “The Rise of Systematic Biology.” Other sites I have visited and written about include Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia and the Linnaeus Botanical Garden and Museum in Uppsala, Sweden.


In 1983, an independent charity was created to support the garden and, for the first time in 300 years, it was opened to the public. Today the Chelsea Physic Garden remains dedicated to promoting education, conservation, and scientific research and is a partner in the joint initiative, the Ethnomedica Project, with medical herbalists at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, the Eden Project, the Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, and the Natural History Museum in London.


Glass Houses and Tropical Corridor

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Together, they collect data about herbal remedies used over the years in Britain. While a modest in size, the garden contains a collection of approximately 5000 taxa, focusing on medicinal plants and those of ethnobotanical interest, as well as rare and endangered species.


Systematic Order Beds

Plants introduced into cultivation by garden curators and notable botanists associated with the garden, including William Hudson, William Curtis and botanist, naturalist and patron of the sciences, Sir Joseph Banks are planted along a historical walk.


The herb and medicinal collections include gardens showcasing edible and useful plants as well as those used for pharmaceutical purposes.


The Garden of Useful Plants


Garden of Edible Plants

In April a newly designed 3/4 acre garden of medicinal plants opened showcasing an ethnobotanical display of plants from every region of the world and their key medicinal uses.


Garden of Medicinal Plants


The mandrake, a plant that, according to legend, screamed when pulled from the ground.

A peaceful oasis of living history in the heart of the London and home to a unique collection of medicinal and rare plants, the Chelsea Botanic Garden is an independent self-supporting charity with two main goals: to conserve a ‘living history’ of medicinal herbs and plant introductions and help children understand more about the environment.  The map below, complete with an ominous warning about poisonous plants has been designed for them.

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In 2014, Scottish artist and poet Alec Finlay, installed a series of bee libraries, collections of bee-related books converted into nests for bees in the garden.  The nests are constructed with books, bamboo, wire-netting and water-proofing, and provide shelter for solitary bees, whose numbers are in steep decline.


As in many of London’s parks, gardens and green spaces, Chelsea Physic Garden has a café, an attraction in and of itself. The Tangerine Dream Café, listed as one of London’s Best Park Cafés, is open from April through October serving a seasonal menu of “attractively presented British, Italian and European style dishes” and renowned “own-made cakes, desserts and lavender scones” prefect for afternoon tea.  It’s a busy spot and on a sunny Sunday the overflow crowd ate on the benches and lawn adjoining the café.



The garden is accessed off of Swan’s Way and is located adjacent to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Home of the Chelsea Pensioners and site of the Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Chelsea Flower show to be held from the 19th through the 23rd of May.

As I was finishing this post I received notification that the Chelsea Physic Garden had been nominated as Britain’s Favorite Garden in Land Love magazine.  While Land Love celebrates the very best things about the countryside (and the garden is in the city) to cast a vote visit: However, in a small sense this juxtaposition encapsulates what I love most about London and wish most that the city I have lived and worked in for a very long time, Boston, could emulate.

To learn more about the Chelsea Physic Garden visit:


 Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved 

Book Review: André Le Nôtre in Perspective: Edited by Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin and Georges Farhat      

9780300199390 Published to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth, André Le Nôtre in Perspective celebrates the life and legacy of France’s famous royal gardener through an exploration of his achievements as a designer, engineer and collector of fine art. Containing forty essays written by academics, curators, landscape architects, gardeners and hydraulic engineers, the book provides fresh insights into Le Nôtre’s extraordinary genius and enduring influence on landscape and garden design. The essays consider, in parallel, Le Nôtre’s position in society, the material conditions in which his art and work developed and the role his work played in shaping the design profession. It is divided into three sections; Le Nôtre and His Times, Le Nôtre’s Art and Work and Elsewhere and After. IMG_5724 Impeccably researched and lavishly illustrated, André Le Nôtre in Perspective, is a work of art, in and of itself, combining scholarship with exquisite illustrations, photographs and plans as well as designs and drawings from Le Nôtre’s notebooks. The essays present new research culled from documents unavailable in previous studies and provide a fresh perspective on Le Nôtre’s origins, family relations, social standing and clientele, reducing the aura of mystery surrounding the “famous and obscure” gardener to King Louis XIV. Le Nôtre’s multi-faceted relationship with Louis XIV is explored within the context of his role as architect of the king’s gardens, a responsibility that included providing designs for all of the royal establishments.  For forty-three years Le Nôtre served as Contrôleur general, overseeing finances for construction projects and monitoring their progress.  However, he maintained his passion for horticulture and never “were the spade and the rake completely replaced by the ledger and the pen”. IMG_5743 While André Le Nôtre in Perspective pays homage to Versailles, it fully explores other facets of his work, including that at the Tuileries Gardens (seen above), where recent historical and archaeological research have revealed his skill as a “master craftsman working in soil”. Chapters are devoted to individual elements of his designs, including vistas, sculptures, hydraulics, parterres, trees and groves, and each is placed within its historical context.

The formal French garden, as defined through Le Nôtre’s vision, has been extensively copied and adapted and is at once both historic and modern. While vilified by proponents of the picturesque, his work inspired the avant garde, providing inspiration for twentieth and twenty-first century designers as diverse as Fletcher Steele and Le Corbusier.  Versailles, Marly and the Champs- Elysees were the spatial models used by L’Enfant when he designed Washington, DC in 1791. In Landscapes of Clarity – Dan Kiley’s Modernist Origins in Seventeenth Century France, a recent post written by Charles Birnbaum, President of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Le Nôtre’s influence on the  landscape architect Dan Kiley was revealed in a 1982 lecture at the University of Virginia, when he shared, “the person who inspired me the most is Le Nôtre.”


Vaux-le-Vicomte: 17th Century Engraving

This is not a book to be taken lightly.  With a shipping weight of 6.6 pounds, it contains 440 pages, 180 color images and 170 black-&-white illustrations (all of the highest quality). Despite its heft, André Le Nôtre in Perspective will not languish on your bookshelf (dusty or not) but will instead be read and reread, a rare treat to savor.

André Le Nôtre in Perspective
Edited by Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin and Georges Farhat
Editions Hazan: 2013

This review appeared in Leaflet: A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, September, 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved 

Tower of London Remembers: The First World War

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To commemorate the centennial of the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the first World War the art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red has transformed the famous moat surrounding the Tower of London into a field of bright red poppies, the flower that symbolizes the sacrifices made in war. It is a beautiful and evocative piece of public art that captures, in a simple yet eloquent manner, the enormity of that sacrifice.

Conceived by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and realized through a partnership with stage designer Tom Piper, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red will include, upon its completion, 888,246 individual ceramic poppies each representing a soldier from Britain or a British colony who died in WWI. The poppies are hand made, take three days to fabricate and each is unique. They are “planted” by volunteers.


Eschewing formality the poppies are not arranged in orderly rows but instead undulate, forming a sea of red within the moat. They encase portions of the Tower flowing from a window and, in a 30 foot cascade, encircle its main entrance.


As an interactive, evolving installation, the poppies appear strikingly alive, a lyrical homage to an event that having occurred one hundred years ago is just out of grasp of direct experience. Yet the installation has distinctly captivated the public, selling more than 200,000 poppies in just four days and raising £5 million by August 8, 2014. It is anticipated that £19 million will be raised when the project is completed.


Individual poppies can be purchased for a £25 donation with the proceeds donated equally among six service charities dedicated to the support of veteran services. Buy a poppy and it will be sent to you when the installation concludes. The last day poppies will be added is November 11th, Armistice Day.


But why the red poppy?

Among all the flowers that evoke memories and emotions of war it is the red poppy which gained this distinction first. In 1915 following the funeral of a friend and fellow soldier who died at the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, Col. John McCrae of Canada composed the poem “In Flanders Fields” which begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

The field poppy (papaver rheoas) is a resilient plant that flowers annually and in Western Europe it is the first wildflower to appear when soil is churned up. It was, along with the lark’s song, one of the few signs of nature sustained on the battlefield. A delicate, red flower, the poppy grew in disturbed ground including burial fields and for many soldiers was a sign of renewal.


Its transcendence as a modern day symbol of remembrance is attributed to two women, American Moina Michael and Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin. Each devoted their life to securing the memory of those who lost their lives in the war and each campaigned to make the poppy a national and international memorial symbol. To read the full story visit:


The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States adopted the poppy as its official memorial flower and organized a nationwide distribution in 1922. Beginning in 1924 disabled ex-servicemen, started making poppies to distribute in support of veterans, in “poppy factories” throughout the world where they continue to be made by disabled, needy and aging veterans in VA Hospitals who are compensated for their work. Donations provide financial assistance to maintain state and national veterans’ rehabilitation and service programs while supporting veterans’ orphans and widows.

Cummins, the ceramic artist whose studio is hand making each poppy using techniques utilized by potters during WWI, found inspiration for the project in a line from a Derbyshire man who when surrounded by death and blood on a Flander’s field wrote “The Blood Swept lands, and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.” By transforming the poppy, symbol of remembrance, into a sea of red he has created a powerful metaphor that contrasts starkly with both the historic Tower and the modern city that surrounds it.


What then of memory and loss?  With each passing generation the immediacy of loss is lessened. As a memorial Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is remarkably vibrant.  When complete, individual poppies will be sent to those who supported the project.  Each evening the Roll of Honour is read citing those who lost their lives in the war.  Responding to huge interest this is filmed and made available at:

As so much energy and time is spent erecting memorials I conclude  with the acknowledgement that Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red engaged me in a manner few other memorials have.  For certain on the Sunday I was there it was thronging with visitors.  But more importantly, I was driven to explore and understand more deeply the significance of the poppy which I purchase each year outside my local supermarket.  This tangible reminder of lives lost holds a deep connection to the ongoing sacrifices and horror of war.

Papaver rhoeas by John Curtis (1791-1862) © RHS, Lindley Library

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved 

The Codman Estate: A Precious Jewel

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Every summer I develop two lists.  The first is of the books I plan to read.  The second is of the gardens I hope to visit.  By mid-August, as the possibility looms that I will complete neither task, I set out to visit local gardens to see them before the season changes.

Fortunately, there are many to choose from and, as is often the case, those that are geographically closest to my home are the ones that I am least likely to have visited. Many of these were created by wealthy families that maintained residences in Boston proper and summered in the countryside.  Here they engaged in rural pursuits as an antidote to city life while maintaining active social schedules.  The Codman Estate, (also known as the Grange) is one such example.


Comprised of sixteen acres of land that are the remnants of a seven hundred acre working farm assembled by Charles Chambers of Charlestown in the early 1700’s, the Codman Estate is located in Lincoln approximately 20 miles from downtown Boston.  The property has been occupied by Chamber’s descendants (with the exception of a 50 year period in the first half of the 19th century) until acquired by SPINEA, the predecessor of Historic New England, in 1969.


A ha-ha separates the formal from the informal landscape known as the Octagon.

Each generation shaped the landscape in their own fashion and as a result the Codman Estate contains diverse landscape features. Elements remain of the original plan, modeled in the English style. An Italianate garden, created by Sarah Bradlee Codman at the beginning of the 20th century is nestled below the house and a cottage garden, passionately tended by Sarah’s daughter Dorothy reflects the sensibilities of the Colonial Revival period.

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The plans above and below, were drawn by landscape historian Alan Emmet and are included on Historic New England’s web site and in the essay, “The Codman Estate – “The Grange”: A Landscape Chronicle.” The plan above details the current property while the plan below depicts Chamber Russell’s farm ca. 1767.  The boundaries of the current property are visible at the center and delineated with a dotted line.  Land that was once part of Chamber’s farm is now part of Drumlin Farm, Lincoln’s business district and conservation holdings.

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In the 1790’s John Codman lll remodeled the house in the Federal style with a plan attributed to architect Charles Bulfinch. Codman, a founder of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, developed ambitious plans for the estate although it is unclear how many of these were realized.

Upon his death in 1803 the property passed to his son who, with no interest in farming, incrementally sold off parcels of the estate. Most egregiously, a seven acre strip of land was eventually sold to the Fitchburg railroad and as a result the commuter rail passes less than 200 yards from the house.


In 1862 John Codman III’s grandson, Ogden, acquired a portion of the original estate with the intent of restoring his grandfather’s “demesne.”  Ogden harbored a deeply romantic connection to his grandfather and the property and ardently wished to restore the estate as an agricultural enterprise.  Married to Sarah Fletcher Bradlee the previous year he named the property “The Grange” and he and his children, an eclectic bunch (none of whom married), lived at the estate until 1969 bequeathing it to SPINEA with a desire to preserve their family’s stories.


Water color of the house and terrace gardens by Sarah Bradlee Codman painted in 1898.

An enthusiastic gardener, Ogden Sr. studied horticultural trends and planted a diverse assortment of ornamental shrubs and trees while developing an ambitious farming operation. He maintained horses, ponies for sport, a dairy herd, hens and pigs and cultivated corn, hay and all of the family’s vegetables. In collaboration with his brother-in-law, architect John Hubbard Sturgis, Codman improved the house and grounds adding plumbing, heating and a carriage barn.


The carriage barn as seen from Dorothy Codman’s cottage garden.

However it was Sarah who created the property’s defining landscape feature, the “secret” Italian garden.

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The statue of Bacchus is sited at the end of the lily pool on axis with the statue of Flora.

Located at the Northwest corner below the house in an area described as the “Pond Hole,” the Italian garden was begun by Sarah in 1899 when she was fifty-seven.  It’s classical style is attributed to the influence of her son, Ogden Jr, the successful architect and interior designer who collaborated with Edith Wharton on the influential book, The Decoration of Houses, and is in sharp contrast to the surrounding picturesque landscape.  Sarah designed and maintained the garden’s  plantings which included shade tolerant plants (ferns, foxglove and wildflowers) as well as roses, day lilies, phlox, lupine delphinium, gladiolas and peonies.

The garden’s construction and its architectural features were completed by the family’s coachman, handyman and Sarah’s son, Tom, who built the pergola’s concrete columns.  Sarah worked in the garden daily, often accompanied by her daughter, Dorothy.

The Codman’s maintained extensive records (including Sarah whose diary spans from her engagement to her death in 1922) providing detailed accounts of plant purchases and installations.  In 1892 Sarah’s diary records a visit by landscape architect Beatrix Jones Farrand a niece of Edith Wharton who most likely shared her expertise with the family.

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The curved arbor is supported by marble columns with Corinthian capitals taken from a building in Exchange Place, Boston owned by Odgen, Sr.


The pergola was made from concrete with rough poles placed across the columns.

Eschewing the formality of her mother’s Italian garden, Dorothy created one of her own, in the style of an English cottage garden.  Located near the carriage barn Dorothy’s garden lacks a formal axis yet contains planting beds that are geometrically arranged and connected by narrow walks. It is enclosed with a simple fence and accented with wire arches planted with climbing roses and clematis. Herbs were planted amongst the flowers and a lily pool was surrounded by Japanese irises.


Sarah’s garden in 1911 (above) and today (below).


According to sources, Dorothy was inspired by the writing of Gertrude Jekyll whose books, including Colour in the flower garden published in 1908, were extremely popular. Among her many accolades, Jekyll, the most influential garden writer in the English-speaking world was awarded the George White Medal of Honour in 1929 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.



As I was writing this piece the article “The dusty, important, endangered, historic House Museum” was published in the Boston Globe.  It appears that a vigorous debate is raging within the historic preservation community about the role and function of historic house museums. Historic New England, which owns and operates 36 public historic sites, including The Codman Estate, has assumed a leadership role in this debate.

The Codman House and its surrounding landscape form a remarkable ensemble shaped by individual dreams and aspirations.  Preserved as an example of an “elegant country estate” it is best described by historian Thomas Boylston Adams, a childhood neighbor, as “nothing but a silent exclamation point of beauty in a landscape itself as beautiful and arranged as the setting of a precious jewel.”


The Codman children with their ponies in 1872.

The House is open on the second and fourth Saturdays from June 1 to October 15 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.   The grounds are open to the public year round.


Flora in the Italian garden.

For additional information and to see a virtual tour of the house visit:


 Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved




Kadriorg: The People’s Park


“Who really owns public spaces?” begins a review of the exhibition Open to the Public: Civic Space Now on exhibit through September at the AIA New York Center for Architecture.  Posted on The Atlantic’s City Lab, the review describes the changing function of parks and other urban open space in light of the shift from public ownership to those developed through private initiatives, noting “A park is no longer just a park; as a stage for the theater of public life it has become more complicated.”

Complications aside, parks have served as “stages for the theater of public life” for a very long time and perhaps none for as long as Kadriorg Park in Tallinn.  Described as the most outstanding palatial park in Estonia, it has been open to the public for 300 years at the wish of Russian Tsar Peter the Great who acquired the land that became the park in 1714.

According to records, “After Peter the Great’s wish, anyone interested could freely walk in the park; thus the royal park was a public place from the very beginning.”



Located approximately two and half miles from Tallinn’s medieval historic center (nominated as a World Heritage site in 1997) Kadriorg Park is sited in a neighborhood that began as a summer enclave for  affluent merchants outside the city’s walls.  Here Peter the Great purchased a small building and large tract of land for a rural retreat to escape the confines of court life.  His vision of a composition that harmonized with nature left room for wilderness as well as the development of formal gardens.


The balance of formal and informal landscapes is evident in the plan of the park below.

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By 1718, a summer palace was planned on the site, named in honor of Peter’s wife, Catherine I (in Estonian Kadriorg translates as Catherine’s Valley).  To fulfill his vision of a seaside park and palace modeled after Peterhof in Saint Petersburg, Peter hired Roman Architect Niccolo Michetti and apprentice Gaettano Chiaveri.


The original gardens, inspired by Italian-French-Dutch design included a series of formal walkways, an oak grove, meadows and groupings of trees.  Chestnut trees, imported from Holland, were planted before being transported to Saint Petersburg.  The plan below is dated from 1823 and details the layout if the formal gardens.


As a setting for the Palace, three tiers of garden spaces were developed. These included a garden forecourt and lower and upper flower gardens to the rear of the Palace separated by the Mirage Fountain Wall.  Today the lower flower garden is the most tangible remnant of the original plan.



Beyond The Mirage Fountain Wall in the upper garden was the Mirage Pond.  Today this area of the garden is occupied by the Office of Estonia’s President who, I was told, rides his bicycle to work.  While I cannot confirm this, apparently he was out of the office on the day I visited as the flag was not flying.  The Office was built in 1937.


The Fountain Wall remains, adorned by sculptures depicting Olympic Gods while fountains in the shape of face masks modeled after Greek Gods line the wall panels.




“Poseidon” by sculptor Mati Karmin was placed in the fountain cascade in 2005″

Despite Peter’s elaborate plans and desire that “the park astonish visitors with the artistic cascade and its sculptures and water games,” upon his death in 1725 work on the gardens ceased.

At the end of the 19th century plans to renovate the park in the English Romantic style were developed reconfiguring the lower garden, reestablishing vistas to the sea and adding bicycle lanes and naturalistic landscape features.


In 1902 the “Russalka” monument, by sculptor Amandus Adamson, was installed at the end of one of the principle walkways to the sea in commemoration of the ship of the same name shipwrecked in 1893.



Russia ceded its assets in Tallinn to the Estonian Republic in 1920 “including moveables and immoveables, among them Kadriorg Palace and its land and park.”  Valuing the park as a representation of Estonian culture was seen as nationally important and “essential for expressing independence, dignity and awakening, all crucial at that time.”

A plan, to restore and redesign the park as a beautifully landscaped “People’s Park” suitable for hosting entertainment and political events was developed.  Buildings would be minimized to create a park equal to its European counterparts.


In 1934 the Kadriorg Committee was founded and a competition, won by Anton Soans, to create a truly modern park reflecting Estonia’s culture was held. A year later the State Parks Government was created and tasked (apparently without significant funding), to work with existing resources to develop a “comfortable and usable” park for “people of all ages and interests.”  Soans’ design was executed by Carl Kemkes and a German horticultural company.


The Swan Pond, prominently located near the park’s main entrance was refined and a decorative garden, the Kivilia Triangle completed.  Lawns, accentuated by a sundial and flower beds planted in traditional Estonian colors were added.

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A Youth Park, which also contains a children’s museum, was added near the Swan Pond and remains a popular destination for families.



Formal and informal elements were added to the landscape including monuments to Estonian political figures.  The Apollo Belvedere sculpture (seen below) was sited in a meadow.



Pathways lined with perennial plantings lead to the formal rose garden.

The Kadriorg Park small enterprise association was founded in 1990 to oversee renovations to the park and its structures. The restored Palace re-opened as an art museum in 2000 complemented by a restoration of the contiguous formal flower garden and fountains.  This was followed by a reconstruction of the Mirage Fountain Wall and the creation of the rose garden planted with 5,600 roses.  The Swan Pond and surrounding landscapes were also restored.


In 2010 approval was received through the EU to reconstruct a pond in the North-East corner of the park and create a Japanese Tea Garden as a special feature to attract walkers beyond the Swan Pond and upper gardens. The garden, designed by Kyoto garden master Aiakujundaja Masao Sone, has become so popular that when I inquired about visiting Kadriorg Park, everyone I spoke with mentioned it as the one place within the park I had to see.


According to the website (translated from Estonian to English) the garden’s design was inspired by the Tallin’s old town roof landscape and each element, mountains, stones, ponds, touched by the hand of the garden master.


The garden is scheduled to be completed in 2015 and gates, a traditional tea room, lanterns, pagodas and “hand washing” dishes installed.


Designed using traditional Japanese elements, the garden’s plantings have been selected to adapt with Estonia’s climate.  According to Tallinn’s 2011 annual report 1,192 trees and 928 shrubs were planted in the Japanese garden, which contains the largest collection of rhododendrons in the region.

To view a 360 degree view of the Japanese Garden visit 360 Cities.



In the same spirit of independence and nationalistic pride that maintained Kadriorg Park as a place accessible to the public for three hundred years, the Tallinn Song Festival grounds, built upon land that once supported a nursery for the park are located at the edge of the park and identified in the drawing below as number 10.


A public venue, the Festival Grounds were the site where the “singing revolution” occurred, leading to the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from Russia in the 1980’s. Here, upon the stage of a public space, political protests created real and lasting change.


My main objective in visiting Tallinn was to explore the medieval town center.  To my surprise 27% of Tallinn is green and in the Tower Square Park the Tallinn Flower Festival, on display from the end of May until the end of August, was in progress.



My afternoon in Kadriorg Park was an afterthought and my original goal was to visit the Japanese Garden.  Exploring the history of the park has been an adventure in and of itself a felicitous byproduct of my travels.

Additional information is available at Kadriorg Park where a schedule of 2014 events is listed.  On July 22nd the park celebrated its 296th anniversary.

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 Copyright 2014 Patrice Todisco – All rights reserved 

Book Review: The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World’s Grandest Garden by Alain Baraton

gardner of versailles

For more than thirty years Alain Baraton has worked and lived at the Park of the Palace of Versailles, the world’s greatest garden. Here, amidst the venerated landscape designed by André Le Nôtre for King Louis XIV, he honed his horticultural skills, evolving from a seasonal ticket taker to gardener-in-chief. The Gardener of Versailles recounts his journey, serving as both a memoir and love-letter to the place that shaped his sensibilities and stirs his passion.

Baraton begins with the tragic storm that devastated Versailles in December 1992 when more than 10,000 trees, including some of the park’s most historic, were destroyed. In disbelief at the park’s damage, he was immediately called into action, tasked with overseeing the clean-up and restoration efforts. These activities empowered Baraton to write his story and acquire “a voice” to use in  the service of the gardens he loves. (More about the storm and its aftermath can be found on the website Chateau de Versailles).

The Gardener of Versailles is neither a sentimental or overly romanticized view of Baraton’s tenure at Versailles. Determined to show the public face of the park he regales the reader with tales of idiosyncratic encounters with colleagues, bureaucrats, tourists and the “regulars” who visit daily for any number of reasons, including a desire for solitude, the delusional belief that they are Marie Antoinette or to engage in romantic escapades.

Woven throughout is Baraton’s personal narrative which takes him from a directionless teen, haphazardly riding his motorbike throughout the French countryside, to a committed horticulturalist and gardener-in-chief with oversight for 80 gardeners and 350,000 trees. In this capacity, Baraton oversaw the restoration of the park to André Le Nôtre’s plan, employing historic techniques while experimenting with wildflowers and grasses in ancillary areas.


Baraton in front of the Parterres du Grand Trianon (Toute les Nouvelles).

As for Le Nôtre, to whom he devotes a chapter, Baraton expresses ambivalence. “A good gardener, son and grandson of gardeners” who wished to be a painter, André Le Nôtre is described as deeply sad, a social climber who was more of an architect than a gardener with “good connections, means and a king who adored him” in whom Baraton finds no trace of genius. For inspiration, he looks instead to his trio of gardening greats: Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, founder of the King’s potager, botanist Claude Richard and Jacques Briot, head gardener at the Trianon.


A bust of Le Nôtre at the entrance to Jardin des Tuileries.

Historical commentary aside, The Gardener of Versailles, provides a rare, personal and unprecedented view of one of the most iconic landscapes in the world and complements the existing canon of scholarly publications about the Palace, Gardens and Le Nôtre. Read it for fun or, as Baraton would suggest, joy, the essential ingredient that makes a good gardener.

The Gardener of Versailles was published to popular acclaim in France in 2006 and has been translated into English by Christopher Brent Murray.

To learn more about the gardens visit:

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, July 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved


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