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

Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden: Helsinki


I have just returned from a trip to Finland and Estonia. While traveling I received notification that Landscape Notes was awarded the prestigious 2014 Silver Media Award of Achievement from the Garden Writers Association for best overall site. While both thrilled and humbled to be recognized for my work, I am also challenged by one of the judges’ comments to consider ways to make my articles easier to skim and expand my use of social media. Can videos be far behind?

While I do tend to get lost in reading about the places I explore, limitations do occur when the places that intrigue me are not well documented or, even more frustrating when I arrive, camera in hand, find that there is a truck erecting an event tent in the main forecourt, thunder clouds threaten or as in the case of the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden in Helsinki, the site I wish to photograph is under construction and/or restoration as the garden staff cheerfully informs in the sign below.


Botanic Gardens in historic cities are a particular interest of mine and, timing aside, Helsinki’s Botanic Garden, located in the city’s core just minutes from the Central Rail Station, provided an excellent example of how a Botanic Garden can be integrated into a dense urban neighborhood.

Many of the earliest Botanic Gardens were similarly sited in Italian cities and dedicated solely to the academic study of medicinal plants.  Developed by Universities in Pisa (1543), Padua (1545), Florence (1545) and Bologna (1547) these “Physic” gardens provided the prototype for similar endeavors throughout central Europe, most often in academic settings (such as Oxford in 1621), until the age of exploration and international trade shifted their focus to newly discovered plant species, public entertainment and education.


Plan of Turku Botanic Garden

Associated with the University of Finland, the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden is considered the country’s oldest scientific garden. It was founded in 1678 in Turku by Peter Kalm (1716-1779), a naturalist, botanist and agricultural economist. A student of Carl Linnaeus, Kalm traveled widely throughout North America where he befriended both Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram. Linnaeus named the native american species Kalmia (laurel) in his honor. The map above, of the Botanic Garden at Turku, is attributed to Kalm’s tenure.

Following a devastating fire the garden was relocated to Helsinki in 1829 and sited within a municipal park designed by architect Carl Ludvig Engel as a “walking area for the denizens of Helsinki.” Engel’s park design included formal tree-lined promenades and a landscaped garden with a winding path system in the English romantic style.

1881 Unknown artist swan lake in K park

Kaisaniemi Park

Similar design elements are visible in the Botanic Garden’s plan which has two distinct areas including formal gardens and an arboretum. According to sources, the plan was designed by Franz Faldermann, head gardener at the Saint Petersburg Botanic garden.

In the 1837 map below, by C.W. Glyden, the decade-old Botanic Garden is located in the upper right hand corner of the Kaisaniemi Park with its formal and informal path systems clearly visible.


The 1837 map can be compared to the plan below of the garden today.  Consistent with the original plan, the formal design elements are contrasted with the informal path system of the arboretum. Principal structures remain sited along a main axis with a forecourt and visitor services provided at the entrance to the glasshouses directly accessible from a tree-lined avenue.


The first glasshouse was erected in the garden in 1832. A series of structures followed with the beautiful, existing wrought iron buildings  designed by architect Gustaf Nystrom from 1889 to 1896.  Damaged during the Continuation War (1941-1944) they were rebuilt in the 1950’s and restored from 1996-1998.


A central feature of the gardens, the ten interconnected glasshouses are open year round and contain 800 species of plants originating  within the same longitude as Finland. A cross-section of environments is represented including the Mediterranean forest, African savannah and desert, South African rain forest and species representative of Australia.

Although I visited in June, when the light is at its longest arc, I imagined how wonderful these glasshouses would be to visit during a dark and snowy winter afternoon. To read more about the glasshouses and their salubrious effects during the winter months visit:


A goal of the original garden was to support a collection of all of the species in Finland as well as those that would thrive within its climatic conditions.  Today, the garden is divided into a series of outdoor spaces that include the french formal garden (under restoration), designed in the 1830’s “to reveal the secrets of the classification system of flowering plants” and compliment the glasshouses.

To see a plan of the garden detailing the location of individual plant species visit:


The reflecting pool contains this bronze sculpture of a pair of rather daunting eagles. I have been unable to locate information about the artist or divine their significance and date of installation.


In 1884, a rock garden with plants from torrid environments, the first of its kind in Finland, was established.


A more recent addition is a sensory garden designed to stimulate vision, smell and touch. Rare and fragile species that barely survive the harsh climatic conditions in Finland are planted close by.





The arboretum surrounding the garden offers a contrast to the urban environment in which the garden is sited providing cooling shade from the long summer days and a habitat for diverse species. When I visited the rhododendrons and azaleas were in bloom.




Affiliated with the Finnish Museum of Natural History Helsinki’s Botanic Garden maintains 2,800 species of plants for use in research as well as education.  The outdoor garden is just over four hectares in size (approximately ten acres) and is one of Helsinki’s most popular visitor attractions.  Open year round the grounds are accessible free of charge.  There is a modest admission fee to the glasshouses which also host exhibits.


The garden has a small seasonal cafe.  It also has a series of educational facilities including a herbarium used for research and accessible by arrangement.



As I mentioned earlier the garden is being restored and much of it was under construction and/or restoration. I was unsuccessful in obtaining information about the plans for the project although I did learn that the work is being undertaken by landscape architect, Gretel Hemgard, designer of the Botanic Garden in Kumpula.


And finally a word about the word LUOMUS.  You may have noticed that it is prominently featured on the sign informing visitors that the garden is under construction.

Its literal translation (according to Google) is creation and it is the name through which the Finnish Museum of Natural History, Kaisaniemi and Kumpula Botanic Gardens are identified as interconnected research and educational institutions through the University of Finland.  The Natural History Museum is also conveniently located in the city, within walking distance of the garden.



Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved 






In the Royal Domain: Drottningholm


While we might never be royals we can appreciate their proclivity for creating landscapes and gardens that are available to the public, particularly those that are free of charge.

Sweden’s first World Heritage site, the Royal Domain of Drottningholm, is such a place; an ensemble of architecturally significant structures comprised of a palace, a perfectly preserved theater dating from 1766 and a Chinese pavilion set within 315 acres of gardens, parks, farmland and natural areas.


The Theater Complex

Deemed the best royal residence built during the 18th century in Sweden, Drottningholm is also the finest example of a northern European royal residence inspired by the work of French landscape designer Andre Le Notre.


Known as “The Domain” Drottningholm’s palace and landscape have evolved throughout three centuries of ownership by the Swedish Royal Family.  Portions of the palace and all of the gardens and landscape are accessible to the public year round. I visited last June.

I am embarrassed to share that until I glimpsed an aerial view of  Drottningholm on my flight into Stockholm it was not a garden with which I was familiar.  What I did discover is that the magnificent Baroque gardens, so visible from the air, are complemented by a series of aditional landscapes including a romantic garden in the English style. The gardens from each period remain intact and provide a rare opportunity to experience the evolving taste in landscape styles.  The plan below illustrates the two garden plans with the formal and naturalistic gardens visible.

img052Records reveal that Drottningholm has been owned by the Royal family since the 16th century. The name Drottningholm (“Queen’s islet”) derives from this period when a stone palace was built by John lll of Sweden for his queen, Catherine Jagellon.

Catherine, on the left in the image below, was the first of three Queens whose imprint can be found on the gardens today. Dowager Queen Eleonora Hedvig (1636-1715), center, is credited with the grand vision evident in the palace and layout of the Baroque gardens while the Chinese Pavilion and gardens were a birthday present for Queen Louisa Ulrika, (1720-1782) on the right, in 1753.

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In 1661 Queen Eleonora Hedvig, 23 years of age, initiated planning for the palace and accompanying grand garden after an original structure, begun in 1576, was destroyed by fire. To achieve her vision she employed Sweden’s most famous architect, Nicodemus Tessin the Elder (1615 – 1681). His design for the landscape, heavily influenced by André Le Nôtre’s work at Vaux-le-Vicomte in France, included formal avenues, embroidered parterres and a series of canals.

The image below, “The Noble Swedish palace to Drottningholm against the garden” is attributed to Jean Benoit Winkler, 1700.

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Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (1654-1728) assumed responsibility for the garden’s completion upon his father’s death and expanded the original design so completely that the work is considered his own independent creation.  The image below, a wall fresco at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm by Swedish artist Carl Larsson, depicts architects Nicodemus Tessin the Younger and Carl Hårleman.

Slottsbygget med Nicodemus Tessin dy och Carl Hårleman.

Influenced by Le Nôtre, Tessin the Younger traveled extensively in Europe studying in Italy, England and France.  On a visit to Versailles it is reputed that he toured the garden with King Louis XIV. It is also speculated one of Drottningholm’s garden plans (dated 1665) was drawn in France under the supervision of Le Nôtre. The sketch plan of Vaux le Vicomte, seen below, is attributed to Tessin the Younger.


Laid out in the 1680‘s the Embroidery Parterre with its borders of flower beds, grass, gravel, crushed brick and black hyperite stone was the first area of the Baroque Garden to be built. It combines with a water parterre to create a series of outdoor rooms extending the Palace’s interior into the landscape. The parterre was restored in 1998.



The Baroque garden, extends from the Palace westward in four sections. A formal parterre connects to the water garden followed by cascades and bosquets leading to a large wilderness known as the star.


The Crown Fountain, sited on the central axis of the garden is a pivotal feature in the garden. It is by Flemish sculptor Adriaen de Vries.


Avenues of European limes form a three-dimensional framework for the Baroque Garden reinforcing its longitudinal axis.


Originally planted in 1684 the avenues took 40 years to complete and contain 792 trees arranged in ditches dug and filled with soil, fertilizer and peat. Between 1997 and 2011 the National Property Board, which manages the Palace property, rejuvenated the lime avenues one section at a time. As part of the project cuttings were taken from trees near the Palace and force grown until they were large enough to plant in later stages of the restoration.

Garden of the Chinese Pavilion:


In 1753 on a rise in the hunting park, a Chinese Pavilion and park were constructed as a birthday gift for Queen Lovisa Ulrika. She  described her delight in a letter to her mother;

“He led me to one side of the garden and suddenly to my surprise, I found myself gazing upon a real-fairy tale creation, for the King had had a Chinese palace built, the loveliest imaginable.”


Queen Lovisa Ulrika, founder of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities was a formidable collector of art and natural history objects.  Within the Palace she created a forum for scholarship and intellectual exchange. The Chinese pavilion, sited at a distance from the Palace and designed in a new, informal style offered refuge from the rigidity of Palace life.

The pavilion, built in 1769 to replace a wooden pavilion from 1753, is considered one of the most important examples of this type of structure conserved in Europe. The French Rococo architecture has an exotic character, with Chinese and oriental elements, the height of fashion during the period. The interiors are considered among the most splendid in Swedish Rococo. The exterior of the Chinese Pavilion was renovated in 1943-55 and the interior in 1959-68.


The garden with flower beds surrounded by box hedges included aviaries, pheasantries and a menagerie complemented by walks lined by chestnut trees.  Its naturalistic design contributed to its appeal.


Seating, promenades and viewing areas were arranged within the surrounding woodlands where, as a complement to existing conifers, large stands of deciduous trees were planted.  Queen Louisa Ulrika and architect Carl Frederik Adelcrantz collaborated on the landscape design.  The plan below, was drawn by surveyor Lars R. Kokeritz in 1779.


When the Chinese Pavilion was rebuilt the garden was modified to include a series of lime bosquets adapted to the contours of the land.  Aviaries and trellis pavilions planted with honeysuckle, lilacs and mulberries added to the romantic, secluded feel of the landscape  providing a sense of being in a cabinet de verdure, a secret green room.

Today the landscape areas near the Chinese Pavilion include a series of educational gardens and displays.


The gardens designed for the Chinese Pavilion provide a transition for the English landscape garden that was to follow.

The Landscape Garden:


In 1777 King Gustav III assumed possession of Drottningholm and began work on an “English Park” in an area north of the Baroque gardens.  While an active participant in the design process, Gustav  collaborated with Adelcrantz and architect and landscape designer Frederick Magnus Piper.

Piper, like Tessin the Younger before him, traveled extensively in Europe, spending time in England where he apprenticed with William Chambers a Scottish-Swedish architect based in London. Familiar   with the theory and practice of the “new” English style of gardening Piper visited and recorded Stourhead, Painshill and The Leasowes and used his experiences to inform the design of the new landscape park at Drottningholm.


IMG_2361Nature reigned supreme and the formal paths of the Baroque landscape were modified to complement a series of picturesque elements including ponds and islands. Access was by meandering footpaths through meadows and fields punctuated with artistically sited stands of trees and classical sculptures.



Sculptures acquired by Gustav in his travels abroad were artfully juxtaposed within the natural landscape. Buildings and monuments were added to the landscape including a Gothic Tower in 1792.


In 1797 Piper developed a master plan of the gardens and grounds of Drottningholm. The watercolor drawing below depicts site lines as well as the formal elements sited within the naturalistic landscape.


During the 19th century the park and gardens were not well maintained and the manicured French character of the landscape was partially lost. Inscribed a World Heritage site in 1991, the landscape and gardens continue to be restored.


The 2007-2012 Drottningholm World Heritage Site World Heritage Management Plan notes the area is an important garden and park environment. The palace establishment “includes three distinct stylistic ideals, with the Baroque garden, the gardens around the Chinese pavilion in Rococo style and the English Romantic landscape park.The gardens and parks with their clear characteristics bear witness to both changing style ideals and long continuity.”

Accessible by ferry from Stockholm Drottningholm receives more than 500,000 visitors a year.



Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved



The Avenue Gardens Regent’s Park


The last several days have been particularly gloomy and damp adding to the sense that the seemingly endless winter will not relent. To add insult to injury it is May, the month when the “sweet April showers….do spring May flowers.” At least in theory.

As an antidote to the capricious New England weather, I have put aside the piece I have been writing to share a brief overview of The Avenue Gardens in Regent’s Park, London which I visited last weekend. The Regent’s Park is one of my favorite public spaces, a verdant refuge in the heart of the city. It is also a horticultural delight where riotous displays of ornamental planting beds, artistically designed, are displayed.


As I wrote in an earlier post, The Regent’s Park is preserved as public open space by the failure of an early nineteenth century development scheme that sought to build garden villas and a summer palace for the Prince Regent on the site.  When conceived, the development scheme incorporated the park into the design, carefully integrating it within the surrounding residential fabric.  It is possibly one of the first parks to have been created in such a manner, providing an early model for subsequent garden cities. For additional information about The Regent’s Park visit:


According to the The Regent’s Park & Primrose Hill Management Plan Draft (2014 – 2024) by Burns+Nice, The Avenue Gardens represent the only formal avenue shown on John Nash’s 1811 master plan for the development scheme that was implemented, part of a concept for “a grand carriage drive through north London linking Carlton House through Regent Street and Portland Place to a proposed guingette (a tavern where friends and families gather to eat, drink and dance) for the Prince Regent’s residence in Regent’s Park and to the villas around and beyond.”

Regent's Park c. 1833

The Schmollinger Map of 1833 depicts Nash’s formal, tree-lined avenue aligning with Park Square.

The Avenue Gardens date from 1861 when advice was sought from horticulturists regarding the trees planted as part of Nash’s design. William Andrews Nesfield (1794-1881), a prominent Victorian garden designer/landscape architect, whose extensive work includes Castle Howard and the planting beds, radial avenues and parterres outside the Palm House at Kew Botanic Gardens, was engaged to redesign the area. His plan, for a formal Italianate/Victorian garden, set within the framework established by Nash, featured ornamental fountains and urns. Completed in 1864, it became known as the Italian or Avenue Gardens and immediately became a popular sensation.

I pause here for a moment for a word about Nesfield who according to Nina Antonetti in the essay, William Andrews Nesfield and the origins of the landscape architect, notes that Nesfield, “helped initiate the evolution of landscape gardener to landscape architect; redirected Victorian thought and design by instigating fresh ways of articulating old ideas; led his generation in the revival of formal gardens during a great period of modernization; and worked in tandem — as an equal — with the great country house architects of his generation.”

More importantly though, is that according to Antonetti, “Nesfield practiced at an opportune time in landscape history to perpetuate a shift in the focus of the practitioner from the private rural estate to the public urban park.” To read more about Nesfield visit:

The undated plan of The Avenue Gardens below is from A Family Affair: The Avenue Gardens and Picturesque Shrubbery, Regent’s Park, London by Dr.  Shirley Evans.  It can be found on The Garden History Society’s web page:


The design of The Avenue Gardens is strictly formal with a promenade accentuated by vistas and axes bordered by flower beds that contain both annual and perennial plantings. Topiarized evergreens provide visual identity and evergreen hedges create a sense of enclosure from the park.


There is a rhythm to the planting beds which while formal are not symmetrical. These are ornamented with a series of vases, pedestals and Tazzas, the most prominent of which, the Lion Tazza by Austin and Seeley, acts as a centerpiece to the garden.



Despite their popularity The Avenue Gardens were not immune to decline and according to Burns+Nice by the early 1990s few of the original elements of Nesfield’s scheme remained. In 1996 The Avenue Gardens were restored reestablishing “the elaborate and exuberant formal character of the gardens with its colorful and ornate bedding schemes.” Twenty-four garden ornaments were recast to their original designs including eight fountains and the lion tazza centerpiece.

According to the management plan,“The Avenue Gardens will be conserved and maintained with their current historic and restored design to the very high standard of maintenance and horticultural excellence demanded.”



Among other objectives this will be achieved by managing the shrub and tree plantings to ensure they remain in scale and not become over-mature; controlling the design and color-schemes of the bedding to ensure the gardens retain a high and consistent standard of quality whilst allowing for seasonal variation and variation between years to maintain visitor interest and delight; maintaining the axial relationship of Broad Walk and Park Square and coordinating with the Crown Estate Paving Commission to establish a visual connection between the park, Park Square and Park Crescent.

If like me you wonder how a public space can be maintained to such high standards both The Regent’s Park with Primrose Hill Operations Plan and Landscape Management Plan are available at

A Landscape Maintenance Contractor, Veolia, plc, provides all of the day-to-day landscape maintenance work employing a minimum of 48 full-time staff with seasonal staff as required during busier periods. R.A. Meredith & Son (Nurseries) Ltd supplies the bedding plants (for all of the Royal Parks) which are grown, the The Regent’s Park on-site nursery, to specific requirements.


The design of the Avenue Gardens contributes to the essential character and “genius loci” of The Regent’s Park, where a sense of grand internal spaciousness is augmented by the strong formal relationships of the garden elements. It is also a reminder that gardens, gardening and gardeners play an important role in public spaces.


Frieze London Contemporary Art Fair will take place in Regent’s Park from Wednesday 15 October to Saturday 18 October, 2014.

For a panoramic view of the gardens visit:


 Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved





Savannah: City of Parks and Squares


“A Sense of Urgency and a Need for Simplicity.”  That is what Birgitte Svarre, coauthor of the book How to Study Public Life, posits in a recent post about cities and the field of “public life studies” on Gehl Architects’ blog, Cities for People.   You might be thinking (since more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities) that of course, cities are for people and wonder what the sense of urgency is all about.  Or you might wonder how public life studies, which according to Svarre “deals with people’s behavior, the built environment and how we can make cities better for people” relates to simplicity.

That’s why a visit to Savannah was such a delight.   Last May I attended the symposium “The Historic Center and the Next City: Envisioning Urban Heritage Evolution” sponsored by US/ICOMOS.  A goal was to advance recommendations adopted in 2011 relating to the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL), an initiative encouraging the use of a landscape approach to study, conserve and inform decisions for future development in cities, their broader urban contexts and geographical settings

Savannah, a city whose cultural identity is intimately linked to its historic squares and parks, provided the perfect backdrop in which to explore the ideas discussed at the symposium.  Here, more than two hundred and seventy-five years ago a plan, widely lauded as the most intelligent grid in America (if not the world), was developed that in its simplicity became a model for the integration of open space and built form.



Designed by Colonel James Oglethorpe in 1733, Savannah’s layout is simple, elegant and innovative.  It provides, according to urban planner and author Edmund Bacon, “one of the finest diagrams for city organization and growth in existence.”


Perched on forty foot bluff overlooking a bend on the Savannah River, Savannah was founded by Oglethorpe as the last colonial capital established by Britain in the United States.  An English philanthropist and member of Parliament, Oglethorpe was involved in prison reform and hoped, according to Elizabeth Barlow Rodgers in Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History,“to transport incarcerated debtors who wished to seek a fresh start in life as well as persons experiencing religious persecution and others eager for economic opportunity.”  His social philosophy, elucidated in his democratic design for Savannah, was informed by ideals of the enlightenment.

Wards, 600 feet to a side in the north-south direction, and 540 feet to 600 feet in the east-west direction were established and streets and building lots within each ward were organized around a central open space or square. Each ward was named and organized as an urban neighborhood with garden and farm lots sited in an expanded regional plan system. Individual house lots were 60 x 90 feet with a 5 acre garden plot. Four “trust” lots on the east and west sides of each square were reserved for public buildings, including churches.

The image below, of Peter Gordon’s 1734 engraving depicts the city a year after it was founded with the first four wards, squares and building plots.


As the city expanded squares were added at regular intervals. Today twenty-two of the original twenty-four exist providing a green infrastructure that, in its logic and accessibility, is a model for the design of cities today.


Johnson Square, the largest, was laid out in 1733.  Named for the Royal Governor of South Carolina when Georgia was founded, it served (like many of the early squares) “as a marketplace and haven for people and animals in the event of an attack by the Indians or by the Spanish of Florida.”


The square contains two fountains, an obelisk commemorating Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene and a sundial, dedicated to Colonel William Bull, credited with assisting Oglethorpe in the layout of the city and after whom Bull Street is named.  It is seen below in an undated postcard.


Selected by the American Planning Association as one of the Great Streets of America, Bull Street serves as Savannah’s central spine.  Four squares, Johnson, Chippewa, Madison and Monterey are located along its route before it terminates in Forsyth Park.


J.W. Hill’s 1855 birds-eye view of Savannah looking north from Monterey Square up Bull Street to the State House.

Although conceived as a whole, each square has a unique identity based upon its history and embellishments which vary depending on the age, location and civic function of the space.  For those who like their history tidy keeping it all straight can be a bit of a challenge. For example although there is an Oglethorpe Square the monument commemorating Oglethorpe graces Chippewa Square.

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Oglethorpe by American sculptor Daniel Chester French dated 1910

While there is a Greene Square Nathanael Greene is buried in Johnson Square.


Johnson Square

Although there is a Pulaski Square the monument to Pulaski is located in Monterey Square.


Georgia troops parade before the Pulaski Monument in Savannah (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, 1861)

Monterey Square is also the location of the Mercer House the setting for the 1994 John Berendt novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  The house, visible at the right in the photo below, is open to the public.


Wright Square, the second square established in 1733, provides a particularly poignant example of how, over time, each space has evolved.  Originally named for Lord Percival, 1st Earl of Egmont, who as a colleague of Oglethorpe with an interest in prison reform became the President of the Trustees empowered by George ll to found Savannah in 1732, the square was renamed in 1763 in honor of James Wright, the last of Georgia’s Colonial Governors.


More poignantly the square was also the burial site of the Creek Native American Tomochichi, friend of Oglethorpe, who ceded the land upon which Savannah is built. Upon Tomochichi’s death, at the direction of Oglethorpe, he was buried in what was then Percival Square.  ln 1882 a monument to William Washington Gordon was erected in the square and Tomochichi’s remains were relocated.   A monument to Tomochichi was later added to the square.



While all of the squares contain civic elements some are more deeply embedded in neighborhoods with a more intimate feel. Troup Square, completed in 1851, contains a large iron armillary sphere, mounted on six turtles. While I am unaware of the significance of the turtles, the sphere is described as a “modern” feature.  Named for Georgia Governor, Congressman and Senator George Troup, the square is the site of the Myer’s dog fountain, the centerpiece of an annual “blessing of the dogs.”



Whitfield Square, completed in 1851, was the final square to be built.   A gazebo serves as its focal point.


Forsyth Park, 30 acres in size was begun in the 1840’s in response to the southern expansion of the city.  It is one of the city’s most popular spaces and an important component in the open space system.


As noted in the sign above, the park’s original 10 acres of land were donated by William Hodgson.  The park was expanded to its current size through a land contribution by Governor John Forsyth and named for him in 1851.


With a distinctly European feel, Forsyth Park was thoughtfully designed to provide a dramatic “green” terminus to Bull Street.  Its  broad tree-lined promenade leads to an ornate water fountain installed in 1858 and modeled after a water feature found in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

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While Forsyth Park contains walking paths, a cafe, children’s play space, a fragrance garden for the blind and Savannah’s Confederate war monument it is the open areas and remarkable trees that are (at least for me) its most compelling feature.



According to the Forsyth Park Arboretum Self-Guided Walking Tour, Savannah’s history is intimately linked with its trees and the city, along with Philadelphia, was the first in America to ‘plant trees in an organized manner along streets and boulevards and in parks and squares.”   Savannah takes its trees seriously with an advocacy organization, The Savannah Tree Foundation empowered to promote “through direct action and education, an awareness of trees as vital environmental resources and an important part of our cultural heritage.”

The diversity of trees planted in Forsyth Park is evident in the plan below.

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Savannah is beautiful with a simple and clear plan that integrates open space and built form within a framework that, through its legibility, allows for creativity.  Its squares share a simple form yet are profoundly unique, informing a sense of place in which that which is ordinary becomes extraordinary.

For more information about Savannah’s Squares:

New Georgia Encyclopedia: Savannah City Plan

Visit Savannah: Squares and Parks

City of Savannah: Tour Guide Manual

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Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens by Trea Martyn


Two gardens, one queen and a competition fueled by passion, power and politics.  In the meticulously researched book, Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens, Trea Martyn recounts the decade-long struggle between Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and William Cecil, Baron Burghley to win the favor of Queen Elizabeth I by building lavish gardens and providing extravagant entertainments.

Elizabeth’s passion for gardens was legendary.  Each summer she and her court abandoned London for the countryside where they would lodge, often for weeks at a time, with noble families. These visits were highly coveted by Dudley, a close confidant harboring romantic intentions, and Cecil her chief political advisor intent on keeping Dudley at bay. To entice Elizabeth to visit, and amuse her once she arrived, they created gardens and landscapes of increasing complexity, each bolder and more elaborate than the next.  The end results were masterpieces of Renaissance design.


Queen Elizabeth l and the Earl of Leicester at Kenilworth by Dirck Hals (1591 – 1656).

Of the two Dudley was the more flamboyant combining sensory experiences with landscape improvements on a grand scale.  On one visit he was rumored to spend what would today be more than ten million dollars improving Kenilworth Castle and grounds, building towers with deluxe suites and creating wide-open open spaces resembling piazzas.  Elaborate firework displays and entertainments lasted for hours and entire villages were submerged to create a lake on which a dramatic, emotionally-charged performance designed to woo the queen was enacted.  A sensational Italian garden, filled with exotic flowers, herbs, statuary and fountains added to Kenilworth’s allure.


The painting of Kenilworth Castle (after a fresco dated 1620) is from the English Heritage Photo Library.

Not to be outdone Cecil hired English botanist John Gerard to oversee the gardens at Theobalds Palace.  Gerard, the leading expert on herbs and rare plants had contact with the greatest plantsmen in Europe and he slowly established the garden with such delicacy and seasonal subtlety that it resembled a paradise on earth.  Elizabeth, devoted to herbal cures, had a refined sense of smell and particularly enjoyed visiting Theobalds Palace during the spring season.

First published in 1597 Gerard’s Herbal was dedicated to Cecil.  His garden at Holborn was one of the earliest botanic gardens in Europe and the Herbal the most widely circulated botany book of the 17th century. Illustrations from two editions are seen below.



Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry and Spectacular Gardens contains multiple plot twists as the two battle for Elizabeth’s affection.  She, ever the monarch, “played on off against the other” and in the process changed the course of English garden history.

Sadly, there are no remaining Elizabethan gardens in England.  Martyn notes that Theobalds Palace does not even exist on a modern map and is now subsumed by a public park, The Cedars, laid out in the 18th century landscape style.  While plans are afoot to develop a conservation plan for Theobalds Palace, the garden at Kenilworth Castle, overseen by English Heritage, has been recreated utilizing advances in garden archaeology and a 1575 description of the garden (the last year Elizabeth visited). It opened to the public in May, 2009 and additional information and a garden plan can be found at:


Providing a new perspective on landscape history, Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry and Spectacular Gardens, reveals the importance of gardens and horticulture during Elizabeth’s reign.  As political currency gardens and landscapes provided a  powerful expression of status upon which to pursue both romance and drama.

The book is extensively notated with a select bibliography.  In the epilogue Martyns brings the past into the present, reminding the reader that the gardens were indeed fit for a queen.

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

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

Park Angiolina: Symbol of Opatija


January is often a month for reflection.  Named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, gates and doors, it provides an opportunity to look at the past and future simultaneously.


Republican coin, a silver didrachm from Rome or south Italy dating to 225-12 BCE

During 2013 I attended conferences and symposiums in two professional spheres. “Placemaking” brought me to Detroit and Stockholm (might two places be more different?), where a coalition of organizations met to develop a “new urban agenda around people and places” with a goal of informing UN Habitat III in 2016. Focusing primarily on urban development, the conferences explored how the quality of public spaces including streets, parks and markets fosters social, cultural, economic and environmental convergences that are just and equitable.

While the “Placemakers” consider an international platform regarding urban public space, UNESCO, through the auspices of the World Heritage Program and its partner organizations, continues to pioneer the conservation of historic and cultural urban and vernacular landscapes using models designed to promote a balanced and sustainable relationship “between the urban and natural environment… the needs of present and future generations and the legacy of the past.” Perhaps in 2014 the two initiatives will converge.

If all this sounds somewhat bureaucratic let me assure you that it is.  Which is why I frame my posts within the context of places that I visit exploring the elements I know best – parks, gardens and the public realm. To begin the New Year I am backtracking to share  some of these, which leads me (in the midst of an endless cold spell) to Opatija – the “heart” of Croatia’s Riviera.


“Maiden with the Seagull” by sculptor Zvonko Cav, completed in 1956, is considered an emblem of Opatija. 


Located southwest of Rijeka, Opatija is situated at the gateway to the Istrian peninsula on the Gulf of Kvarner.  Supporting a mild climate ideally suited for horticulture Opatija’s geographic location, just over two hours by car from Venice and four hours by car from Salzburg, is augmented by a physical beauty accentuated by a  rugged coastline connecting historic villages framed by gently sloping mountains.

The poster below, “The Pearl of the Adriatic” is from the period in which Opatija was part of Italy and referred to as Abbazia. Throughout history the region was also part of Yugoslavia.  In 1991 Opatija became part of Croatia.  Vestiges of all three cultures can be found in the architectural and landscape elements of the region.


Opatija’s early history is closely tied to the development of the Benedictine abbey of St. Jacob mentioned as early as 1453.  St. Jacob, protector of pilgrims and travelers, is Opatjia’s patron saint, a fitting reminder of the role of tourism in the city’s evolution.


St. Jacobs was built about 1420, renovated at the end of the 18th century and expanded in the 1930’s.

Today St. Jacob’s, the oldest building in Opatija, sits within an integrated network of open spaces, gardens, promenades and parks with Park Angiolina, deemed the most beautiful park on the Adriatic coast at its center.


Villa Angiolina constructed in 1844 and renovated in 2000.

Built by Ignio Ritter Scarpa, a wealthy merchant and ship-builder from Rijeka Villa Angiolina, one of the grandest structures in Opatija, houses the Croatian Museum of Tourism.  Scarpa, described as a “lover of nature,” named Villa Angiolina after his wife and the creation of its garden consumed him.


Scarpa’s passion for horticulture was enabled by his profession as a merchant with botanic specimens from China, South America, Australia and Japan acquired for the garden on trading expeditions. One such specimen, the Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica), became the symbol of Opatija.  For the past five years an Association of Camellia lovers, named in his honor, has sponsored an exhibit “Camellias of Opatija Riviera”  in the Art Pavilion Juraj Sporer located in the garden.


Today the garden contains more than 150 plant varieties of trees and shrubs including bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), yulan and southern magnolia (Magnolia yulan, Magnolia grandiflora), windmill palm and European fan palm (Chamaerops excelsa, Chamaerops humilis), Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), Serbian spruce (Picea omorika), cedar (Cedrus), Japonese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira), pine (Pinus pinea), cherry laurel (Prunus lauricerasus), olive (Olea sativa), Sylvester date palm (Phoenix sylvestris) and sequoia (Sequoia). The trees are labeled and a map details their location.



In 1852 Ljudevit Vukotinovic described the Villa Angiolina’s garden as,“A lovely park with a beautifully constructed pavilion; a very cosy park of this pleasant summer apartment which is much contributed by the beautiful location by the sea….Paths though the park wind through laurel, fig and olive trees and have in such way all the sweetness and charm of southern parks and that seductive air celebrated by all travelers visiting Italy…..” 


The Scarpas were well-known for their hospitality and the Villa Angiolina and its grounds became a fashionable social destination attracting wealthy guests from throughout the continent.

As Opatija’s popularity grew as a tourist destination so too did its infrastructure.  Amenities, including a modernized water supply and sewage system, were installed enabling the establishment of doctor’s offices, sanatoriums and bathing places. A new railway facilitated access and luxury hotels, spas and villas were built to service the burgeoning tourist trade centered on taking “the cure.”  In 1882 Villa Angiolina was purchased by the Southern Railway Company as part of an overall plan to enhance tourism facilities.


Villa Angiolina circa 1900

Wealthy Europeans flocked to Opatija including the Royal family of Austria, assorted kings and princes and famous writers, dancers and musicians.  These included the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, the German Emperor Wilhelm, the Swedish Norwegian King Oscar ll, composers Gustav Mahler and Giovanni Puccini, the author James Joyce, Noble prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Russian novelist Anton Chekhov and dancer Isadora Duncan who, according to legend, found inspiration for her dance moves in the fluttering leaves of Opatija’s palms.

Portions of Park Angiolina were reconstructed and additional areas, including St. Jacob’s park created under the direction of Carl Schubert, the head of the Viennese imperial society for construction of parks.


St. Jacob’s Park

Schubert linked Park Angiolina with its Mediterranean feel, palm trees, camellias and exotic shrubs to St. Jacob’s Park, a formal, manicured Viennese-style garden.  Both were enhanced to complement the elegant Belle Époque villas and grand hotels built along the coastline many of which, including the Hotel Kvarner finished in 1884, remain today.

Hotel Stephaniejpg

Hotel Stephanie and Saint Jacob’s Park

The model below created by Milivoj Hrelja in 2012 depicts Opatija around 1900.


Park Angiolina


Park St. Jacob

The original architectural appearance of the parks has been preserved representing two distinct landscape styles and experiences. The informal, curvilinear plan remains in the botanic garden adjacent to Villa Angiolina while formal French/Viennese influenced gardens are sited in front of the Villa and within St Jacob’s Park. Both spaces are ornamented with seasonal flowers


The image of Villa Biedermann by Theodor Blatterbauer depicts the seaside promenade (1892).

Connecting the  3.64 hectares of parks and gardens is an internal landscaped path system and the Lungomare, a coastal promenade linking Opatija to Lovran and the historic harbor, Volosko.



The construction of the promenade, initiated by the Society for the Embellishment of Opatija, began at the end of the 19th century, a visible reminder of  Opatija’s transformation to a tourist destination.  During this period the first travel guide, Abbazia, Idylle von der Adria, was published. Many guides followed as well the travelogue, “Three Months in Abbazia” by noted British explorer and ethnologist Sir Richard Francis Burton who was distinctly underwhelmed by his stay.


In 1889, the first section of the Lungomare was developed simultaneously to Opatjia’s official declaration by the Austrian government as a “climatic health resort.” Twenty-two years later the final section of the Lungomare was complete.


The Lungomare frames the harbor and is characteristically unchanged, as seen in the historic image above and recent photograph below.

The coastline of Opatija is home to aged oak trees that form irreplaceable part of the region’s natural heritage and culture. The trees have been incorporated into the landscape and Opatija remains one of the rare places, within Europe where as many as five species of oak (Turkey Oak, Downy Oak, Sessile Oak, Holm Oak and Cork Oak) grow along the coastline.   An effort to preserve the oaks within Opatija is ongoing.


This combination of formal and informal spaces remains today and it is the contrast of the two historic landscape periods that contributes to Opatija’s charm. When writing this piece I researched how the parks and public spaces are managed and maintained.

According to records in 1968 Park Angiolina and St. Jacob’s Park received special protection as national monuments (monuments of garden architecture – parks) and were listed in the “green book” a register of specially protected natural objects maintained through Croatia’s State Institute for Nature Protection  Their category is defined as the  “conservation of artificially developed areas or trees having aesthetic, stylistic, artistic, cultural, historic, ecological or scientific values.”


The parks are maintained by a company “in social ownership,” “PARKS” Ltd. Opatija incorporated in 1995 to “perform communal activities of maintenance of public areas.”  Responsibilities include: lay-out and maintenance of landscape including parks, public green areas and beaches, cultivation of flowers, decorative plants and seeds, civil engineering, wholesale and retail sale of flowers and seedlings, retail sale of books, newspapers, magazines and stationary and management.  The Company is owned by the City of Opatija and employs an average of 78 employees. Unable to translate the city website it remains unclear to me whether this is a public-private partnership arrangement.


Throughout Park Angiolina works of art and sculpture are sited. The art pavilion “Juraj Matija Sporer” built around 1900 provides space for exhibitions and cultural events.

In 2011 the mural seen below was created on a wall surrounding Park Angiolina’s open air theater.  Dubbed the “Wall of Fame” it depicts the images of famous guests to the city including recent visitors (Robert DeNiro) and historic personages.  For more information about the mural including a slideshow of each image visit:



One space on the mural is empty to provide tourists an opportunity to become part of the picture.  And yes, I was in Opatija, too!


Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved


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