that other Italian garden..

I’m still not ready to leave Italy, and following a point made in my earlier Italian garden post, I want to indulge in some impressions of Villa Gamberaia, just out of Florence.   There’s been so, so much written about it over the last couple of hundred years, that there surely can’t be anything original left to say.

But I’m pondering that whole point about skirting around the heart of a garden, and this is the perfect garden to illustrate the idea.  The centre-piece of this garden is a box parterre.  It’s seen at its best from the upstairs loggia, which unfortunately visitors can’t get to.  When you’re down in it, you know that you’re really at the centre of things – that it doesn’t get more intense than this – but you sort of wonder at the point of it all.  I feel the same in nearly all of those crazy Renaissance and Baroque parterres. I stand there wondering ‘what now?’.  This is so marked here at Villa Gamberaia that I forgot to take a really obvious photo, standing in the centre of the parterre.  The above is the nearest I have.  But once you’re out of the centre, and just catch glimpses back into it at odd angles, you simply can’t stop looking at it, or taking photos of every new view.

I’m just loving exploring this idea – of deliberately designing in such a way that you only get snatched glimpses of the real centre of a garden.  I guess it’s the same experience, if far more literal, in a garden maze.  The destination is nearly always an anticlimax, and the real point was the journey there.

And while I refuse to see this as a metaphor for life in its entirety, it’s certainly been my experience of a heap of sub-destinations along the way.

This is only one part of a complex garden that feels spacious, generous and intimate all  at once.  It’s a rare achievement.  The only garden I can think of that does it better is the Prieure Notre Dame d’Orsan, in Berry, France.  Can’t wait to gush about that one.


  1. Hi Michael

    Love the story, wish I could visit the garden – I’ll add it to the long, long list (under Prieure Notre Dame d’Orsan which looks totally blissful).

    I’m interested in your comments about the ‘centre’ of the garden. I wonder how much that sense and fascination of the ‘centre’ depends upon a given garden’s level of formality? Formal gardens often seem to use this concept really well but I cannot, off the top of my head, remember an informal garden that really exploits this opportunity (without using a formal element).

    Cheers, ROZI

  2. It’s a good question, Rozi, and as I’ve only really started pondering the idea, I’m way off any informed response. Not that that would ever stop me having, and voicing, an opinion.

    There’s parts of Hidcote, either side of the long walk that are heavily planted, through which there’s paths that wind about informally. The planting is such that your view is usually funnelled along the paths, but then you’ll suddenly get a lateral view, like a tunnel, where only low planting is used over a great distance, so you’ll unexpectedly get great, long, site-lines that leap across, and visually connect, three or four open spaces – usually lawn areas. You cant help but want to get to those spaces, but there’s planting between you and them, and you can’t quite work out how you’ll achieve it. Of course, by simply following the paths, you eventually do get to them, but there’s this fabulous balance of fulfilment and anticipation, as you proceed. I know that that’s not quite the same thing as what I was talking about at Isola Bella, or Villa Gamberaia, but it makes me think that there’s be no reason why you couldn’t design an illusive goal/centre point/heart of an informal garden.

    Since I’m still half in Italy, and feel the need to stick with Italian examples as far as possible, you can imagine one of those deliciously macabre pieces of statuary at Sacro Bosco, Bomarzo, being repeatedly glimpsed at a distance, but not quite arrived at, while snaking your way around that very informal (or at least, very non-geometric) garden. How fabulous if you could never quite make it there, and you had to leave, knowing that there were secrets there that would never be fully revealed..

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