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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Via del Rossellino, 72 50135 Settignano – FIRENZE
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