What is it about Italian gardens?

I’m fresh back from my first trip to Italy.  I can’t remember ever being so infatuated with another country..  But I want to skip over the temptation to write a whole lot of gushing generalities, and go straight to one garden, Isola Bella, on Lake Maggiore, as part of me has refused to leave, and all I have to do is swing my thinking in it’s direction, and the rest of me’s there as well.

The story of it’s creation is fascinating, but is easily accessible elsewhere.  What I want to get a grip on is it’s current, overwhelming magic. It pressed so many buttons for me that I can’t tell whether it’s the collective effect, or the pressing of one button in particular that left me so charmed (and so very happy and smug about being back there in four months time).

Firstly there’s the stupendous setting.  That’s gotta count for a fair bit. (Top image – that’s Isola Bella – the island in the middle of the pic, virtually swallowed up in precipitous mountains – some picturesquely snow-capped).

Then there’s its unapologetic theatricality.  Gardens are theatre, and it’s sometimes a relief when this is declared outright.  Surely no other garden does so as overtly as Isola Bella.  Not only is it entirely over-the-top, there’s even a literal theatre in there.  You can’t really imagine old Cardinal d’Este (of Villa d’Este) or Cardinal Gambara (of Villa Lante) quite approving.  They knew how to mask their Renaissance extravagances behind philosophy, mythology, allegory, and mathematics.

There’s loads of crazy stuff, the undeniable appeal of which is beyond me to get a grip on in order to describe, like these repeated box balls.

Then, of course, there’s the design.  There’s so much that could be said about it, but I’m trying to keep these posts shortish, so I’m just going to stick with one aspect that I’ve come to love, and that’s the way that this (and a few other Italian gardens, that I hope to get around to writing about) have you winding, in virtual concentric circles, around their inner heart.  Not only does this make for good use of small space, it gives you almost infinite views and viewing angles, and it’s somehow magically enticing or modest, as if you’re skirting around the real point.  I mean, just check out all those terraces, each remarkably narrow..

And a bit surprisingly, for an italian garden, there’s some really careful and beautiful work with flowering plants.  The terrace that was lined with roses (above centre) was so beautifully trained and so heavily in bloom that from out on the water, looking back, it created a near solid block of colour.  Anyone who’s tried knows how hard that is to achieve.  Then there was a wall trained with Hibiscus syriacus (above right), which had recently been pruned, and will be at its floral peak in autumn.  This is considered a pretty boring plant in my climate (Melbourne, Australia), but this meticulous treatment makes me suspect I’ve undervalued it.  I’m a complete sucker for this level of horticulture, but it usually doesn’t, on it’s own, make me really love a garden.

See what I mean?  There’s just so many things going on.  Then there’s the fact that it’s early morning in late spring and I’ve dashed out there before the crowds, so there’s only me, one other photographer, and about 867 songbirds in the garden.

Finally, there’s the views back out to Lake Maggiore.  Sensational is a serious understatement.

Have you been to Isola Bella?  I’d love to hear where you think the magic lies…


  1. Thanks Michael for your wonderful photographs. I have just returned to Australia after touring Europe and the UK which included visiting Isola Bella, Floriade and Chelsea. While the latter are manufactured exhibitions, Isola Bella is a living wonder of nature. Thanks for sharing your experience. You are lucky to be returning later this year

  2. Wish I’d made it to Chelsea. I was there in 08,09 and 2010, got all proprietorial about it and was a bit cheesed off when it continued without me in 2011 and 2012..

  3. Love the pictures Michael, and love the place. What a surprise it was to find that a garden I’d always read described as over-the-top somehow manages to feel just right when you are in it! Just remembering those walls of red and pink roses makes me smile. I’m so envious of you heading back there in September to see what they do with the dahlias, oleanders, begonias, crepe myrtles….

  4. Thank you Michael. I so enjoyed your writings and your spectacular photos. I have been compelled to return to Lago Maggiore 3 times! I wonder too, what it is that draws me back, when there is so much to enjoy. Yes, I can absolutely relate to your comment that you only need to swing your thoughts in Bella’s direction and you are there. Isn’t it wonderful! I can do exactly the same – one year later – I look through my photos , and I am mesmerized by the charm. We are so lucky.

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