We previously excerpted an introduction to Vernon Lee (as well as Vernon’s essay, Old Italian Gardens) from Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton and would like to do so again in order to serve as an introduction to two excerpts from Wharton’s book Italian Villas and Their Gardens, to follow. Published in 1904, the book deals primarily (and for gardeners, fortunately) with the gardens of these sumptuous estates rather than the villas.

Wharton was an amateur devotee of architecture and design but by wide reading and study (and extensive, and expensive, building and renovations of her own) and through her wide travels developed her store of knowledge to the point where she became an acknowledged expert in both. As was common in late Victorian society she received little schooling – girls were trained to become wives – but, through access to her father’s extensive library from an early age became literate enough to become one of the most successful novelists of her time. For myself, her non-fiction writing is a pleasure to read and her insights into gardening and into past times which interest me means that I will be looking for more of her material in the future. A copy of Italian Villas and Their Gardens has eluded me for years.

Hermione Lee’s biography of Wharton is excellent; at 853 pages it is a doorstop of a book but that allows for the inclusion of sufficient detail to become submerged in the mists of time and to gain an insight into the society of the era. She also devotes space to an analysis of Wharton’s fiction, it’s characters and their backgrounds, as the life unfolds that would be of interest to fans of Wharton’s fiction. She devotes a few delightful chapters to Wharton’s two houses in France, one outside Paris and a winter retreat near the Riviera that illustrate her love of gardening. I was surprised to learn of the assistance given to her by Major Lawrence Johnston (of Hidcote fame) in the design and construction of both of her French gardens.

Her account of Wharton’s wartime efforts and travels provide an enlightening background to Wharton’s own personal, and now historic, insights into the realities of WWI, now in the process of being slowly forgotten as they are covered over by the debris of subsequent history. I have also recently finished reading Lee’s (892 page paperback) biography of Virginia Woolf which contains an equal measure of insight. Both books are highly recommended.

In the biography, Lee mentions an account of Wharton’s garden at Castel Sainte-Claire at Hyères, near the French Riviera, by Alice Vaughan-Williams Martineau and I’ve tracked it down and posted the relevant excerpt here; the link below it will take you to an instance of it online. It doesn’t seem to be available as an eBook or available for download.

Gardening In Sunny Lands [excerpt]

Alice Vaughan-Williams Martineau

London, R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1924

A Few Riviera Gardens Described

The garden of Mrs. Wharton (the novelist) lies in the enceinte of the ruined castle above the town of Hyères. A steep road overhung by prickly pear and Judas trees leads to the house. A series of little gardens, sheltered and sunlit, are tucked away on terraces under the old walls and towers of grey stone. In some of these gardens are freesias and narcissus, in others roses; on one terrace are mandarins, and in a shady corner grow camellias, azaleas, and arums. The glare of the stone walls is tempered by groups of giant carob trees, which give dense shade, and a very old Judas tree overhangs the courtyard with a great flush of rosy red.

Before the house is a wide stone terrace with just a couple of spreading plane trees for shade, and looking down upon the old town of Hyères, the plain and the sea beyond. At one end is to be found a beautiful example of Cocculus laurifolius, a tall tree-like shrub, with long, shining evergreen leaves of beautiful texture and colour. This interesting shrub deserves to be more largely grown.

In one corner of the rock garden the charming Diosma cordata purpurea is to be found, its little round bushes covered with fragrant mauve flowers, while the ground is carpeted with Cheiranthus linifolius, another good mauve plant of wallflower type, though dwarf and almost creeping. Beyond a tall rock one comes on a bold massing of blue Echium fastuosum, with copper-coloured cupheas near by; while on the other and steeper side of the path grow the white and blue biennial Echium Descainii, and behind it, among the rocks, many brilliant scarlet aloes, from the dwarf A. Hanburyana and A. spinosissima to the great branching A. Salm-Dyckiana, and A. arborescens climbing from rock to shrub. In still another corner a sheltered sunny place is given up to a collection of rare plants from Morocco and the Canary Islands; beyond, among the rocks and grey agaves, drifts of the orange and red antholyza, like some giant montbretia, melt away into bushes of lentisk (the wild mastic) covered with its velvety red flowers. The vivid orange Mesembryanthemum aureum carpets the ground under groups of lilac Statice canariensis.

Libonia penzhorisus, with yellow and red flowers, Correa bicolor (also red and yellow), and C. cardinalis (red) are grouped with some of the red-flowered grevilleas, and in another part of the grounds Grevillea Pressei (red with a touch of salmon) is combined with G. rosmarinifolius (crimson) and G. alba.

On the entrance side of the house the great Judas tree in the centre of the courtyard is flanked by a wide border of veronicas, shading from deep purple to pale pink, and facing them, on the farther side of the court, is a bold group of blue echiums, the side of the house being draped with purple hardenbergia, and a brilliant note of orange and silver being given by a handsome specimen of Buddleya madagascariensis growing on a wall beyond. Above the buddleya are seen bushes of Viburnum suspensum, whose creamy fragrant flower-clusters are in great beauty through February and March; and higher still are terraces of freesias and roses, broad walks of white iris, and a level stretch of greensward overhanging the view of sea and plain.

View online

Here then is an excerpt from Hermione Lee’s biography that will set the stage for our two following posts, excerpts from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens.

Edith Wharton

Hermione Lee

Chato & Windus, London, 2007

Hardcover, 853 pp, approx 6 1/4 X 9 ½”

The Valley of Decision, out in February 1902, was a success, had a rapid second printing, and sold about 25,000 copies in six months. The two Italian books that followed it rode on the back of that success. Italian Villas and Their Gardens involved negotiations with her publishers which show what a firm sense Wharton had by now of the kind of writing on Italy she wanted to be known for. Italian Villas and Their Gardens was commissioned for the Century Magazine as a vehicle for illustrations by the immensely popular American artist Maxfield Parrish, whose dream-like pictures of castles and magic landscapes illustrated children’s books like Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days. But in Wharton’s arguments in 1903 with the magazine’s editors, Richard Gilder and Robert Underwood Johnson, during the transition from magazine articles to book, she did not see herself taking second place to this famous illustrator, whose ‘fairy-tale’ paintings of the villas she thought sentimental, evocative of ‘moonlight and nightingales’, not of her serious technical and historical analysis. (She and Parrish did not visit the villas together, and he was always falling behind on their deadlines.) She was dismayed to hear, when she sent Gilder her first article, that he thought it too ‘dry’ for the illustrations, and had something more popular in mind. ‘I regret very much not having written exactly the kind of article that you & Mr Johnson were hoping for’, she wrote haughtily to Gilder in August 1903. ‘I have written a new introduction which I trust is more in the key you want, & I shall do my best to amplify and simplify the articles … though architecture and desultory chat are not easy to amalgamate.’ She was not impressed by being asked to write as though for a ‘young lady from the West’. She told Vernon Lee: ‘I am going to do the long deferred articles on Italian villa-gardens; not from the admiring-ejaculatory, but, as much as possible, from the historical & architectural stand-point; & I shall want all the help & advice you are willing to give me.’

While the book was being produced, she argued with the publisher over everything. The rules of English spelling must be respected. ‘In the magazine I suppose one must submit to being Websterized; but I can’t stand the thought of being made to say clew & theater permanently … In a book about beautiful gardens, there ought not to be any vulgar orthography!’ The proof-reader’s corrections exasperated her: ‘[they] are not of the slightest use to me … I am a very careful proof-reader, & do not need to have my attention called to details of spelling & punctuation, as they seldom escape me.’ She had immersed herself in ground-plans, guide-books, architectural treatises, diaries and travellers’ accounts, from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, in four languages, and she was bitterly disappointed that the publishers would not let her use as illustrations the historical garden plans she had laboured to track down. (Rightly so, as reviewers complained at their absence.) And she wanted more money ($2,000 for six articles instead of $1,500) since she was writing ‘with some sort of system & comprehensiveness on a subject which, hitherto, has been treated in English only in the most amateurish fashion’ and ‘it is sure to have a popular success’. (‘I receive $500 for a short story, which is much less hard work.’) The same kind of professional perfectionism that had already gone into her book on American house-design, her planning for her Italianate house in Massachusetts and her research for her Italian novel, were brought to bear on Italian Villas and Their Gardens.

Though she told Gilder that the introduction would be ‘more in the key you want’, it was not a simplifying account of her subject, but a severe and practical exhortation to her American readership to look at Italian villa gardens with their history and function in mind. The point of her book was to explain, not to bask in ‘vague admiration’ of, the enchantment of Italian gardens by studying ‘the garden in relation to the house, and both in relation to the landscape’. Her analysis is always trying to ‘go deeper’, to excavate the ‘underlying design’. How is it, she asked, that the garden and the landscape seemed to ‘form part of the same composition’? How did ‘nature and art’ become ‘fused’ in this way? The answer could only be found by looking at the history and the techniques of these compositions of the ‘landscape-architects’ from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and working out the ingredients that made up their ‘deeper harmony of design’. It was not just the use of materials (water, stonework, foliage), it was the ‘grouping of the parts’, the care taken with transitions and contrasts and ‘the relation of the whole composition to the scene about it’, that had to be judged. Above all, each Italian villa-garden needed to be appreciated for its ‘essential convenience and liveableness’. Design was always at the service of utility. ‘The old Italian garden was meant to be lived in.’

This is the voice of an authority. Wharton’s study of over seventy-five villas – Florentine, Sienese, Genoese, Lombard, in and near Rome, and in the Veneto, some famous, some obscure and hard of access – was a pioneering achievement, and an astonishing one for a self-educated ‘amateur’. It is still much cited by writers on garden-history. The Anglo-Florentine writer, aesthete and socialite Harold Acton, an acquaintance of Wharton’s through the Berensons from the 1920S, often referred to her admiringly in his own book on Tuscan villas. (He knew his subject intimately, having inherited La Pietra from his father, Arthur Acton, who had created ‘an English Edwardian interpretation of a Florentine garden’.) Of the Villa Vicobello, near Siena, for instance, which Wharton commends for ‘discretion and sureness of taste’, Acton says (in 1973): ‘Her description of it in 1904 cannot be bettered.’ Garden-historians have returned to Wharton’s book for its importance in the resurgence of interest in her time in the ‘classic Italian gardens’. One authority calls it ‘the book which led to dozens in its wake and spearheaded the revival of an interest in Italian principles in the style of landscape’. The American critic Van Wyck Brooks, who describes Wharton, misleadingly, as a ‘collector’, like Isabella Stewart Gardner and Pierpont Morgan, says that her book became ‘a working manual for landscape gardeners and architectural students.

Wharton’s book was all the more impressive because there was so little for her to go on. Apart from Vernon Lee, when she started there were as few writers in English interested in researching the history of these gardens as there were specialists in eighteenth-century Italian culture. In her bibliography, Wharton cites mainly French, German and Italian sources. She omits her most significant competitors, though, of whom she must have been aware. One of these was Janet Ross, Vernon Lee’s neighbour (and frequent antagonist) at Poggio Gherardo, across the hill from I Tatti. She was one of the most knowledgeable of the Anglo-Florentine chatelaines, and published a stream of lively and informative books on Tuscan gardening, cooking and architecture, starting with Florentine Villas in 1901 and Leaves From a Tuscan Kitchen in 1903. Florentine Villas had more historical than architectural information, but was beautifully illustrated with reproductions of etchings by Zocchi, dating from 1744, which Wharton cites in her book. Another competitor was the American writer and garden-designer Charles Platt, who published Italian Gardens in 1894, the first book in English to introduce Italian villa-gardens to an American readership. Platt had a network of American links to Wharton – he was a close friend, for instance, of Maxfield Parrish. They agreed on many things, from large issues like the importance of ‘harmony of design’ to detailed points about particular gardens: the absence of ‘magic’ in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, or the grotesque sculptures in the water-theatre at the Villa Aldobrandini above Frascati, which Platt thought ‘bad’ and Wharton ‘pompous’.

Italian Villas coincided with the other major book of the period on this subject, The Gardens of Italy (1905), a lavish two-volume production dedicated to the King of Italy, with gorgeous photographs by Charles Latham and a sprightly text by Evelyn March Phillips, entirely lacking in architectural analysis and doing exactly the sort of thing Wharton did not want to do. Where Phillips rhapsodises, on the gardens of the Villa Medici in Rome, about going into ‘a deep, dark ilex wood, a haunt for fauns and dryads’, Wharton has a technical analysis of what makes them so magical (‘it is worth the student’s while to try and analyze the elements of which the sensation is composed’), noting the contrast and relationship between the ilex walk, the flower-garden in front of the house, and the view: ‘This is one of the first of the gardens which Gurlitt defines as gardens to look out from, in contradistinction to the earlier sort, the gardens to look into.’

Wharton, Ross, Platt and Latham were at the head of the fashion for such books – mostly by English writers – which in turn influenced the restoration of old gardens in Italy and the planning of new ones in America. After Wharton came Sir George Sitwell’s The Making of Gardens (1909), Harold Eberlein’s Villas of Florence and Tuscany (1922) and Inigo Triggs’s immensely grand The Art of Garden Design in Italy. Triggs notes in his preface, written in January 1906, that a great many books had been published on this topic in the last few years, in particular ‘a very interesting series of papers, recently contributed to the Century Magazine by Edith Wharton, [which] contain much valuable criticism,.

Wharton’s criticism was directed against the nineteenth-century fashion for Anglicisation and restoration. She is wonderfully scathing about what she calls ‘senseless change’. In Tuscany and Lombardy in particular, ‘the enthusiasm for English gardens’ had swept in ‘like a tidal wave, obliterating terraces and grottoes, substituting winding paths for pleached alleys, and transforming level box-parterres into rolling lawns which turn as brown as door-mats under the scorching Lombard sun’. ‘Almost everywhere the old garden-magic has been driven out by a fury of modern horticulture. The pleached alleys have made way for lawns dotted with palms and bananas, the box-parterres have been replaced by star-shaped beds of begonias and cinerarias, and the groves of laurel and myrtle by thickets of pampas-grass and bamboo.’ The ‘spirit of improvement’ has also involved, to her disgust, the scrubbing of fountains and statues ‘to preternatural whiteness’ and the repainting of grottoes, destroying ‘that exquisite patina by means of which the climate of Italy effects the gradual blending of nature and architecture.

Gardens are made, and gardens change: they are not natural, or static. Wharton knew this very well; she was utterly realistic and unsentimental about them. (One of her terms of abuse for the nineteenth-century English garden is ‘sentimental’.) She thought the argument for ‘sincerity’ produced by the followers of Repton and Capability Brown, who shuddered at the ‘frank artifice’ of the Italian garden-style, ridiculous. One kind of garden was as mannered or artificial as the other: each should be judged, ‘not by any ethical standard of “sincerity”, but on its own aesthetic merits’. Her passion for the old Italian garden did not arise from an elegiac feeling for the vestiges of the past or the slow workings of time (though she responded strongly to villas with mysterious haunted glades or wild romantic woods) but from a conviction that, from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, a style of gardening had developed that was organic, harmonious and serviceable. Hence her preference for box-parterres over flower-gardens. By ‘thinking away’ the flowers, she says, one can get at ‘the deeper harmony of design’. This, for instance, is her ideal, at the Villa Muti, ‘in the Roman countryside on the hill above Frascati’:

On the right, divided from the court by a low wall surmounted by vases, lies the most beautiful box-garden in Italy, laid out in an elaborate geometrical design, and enclosed on three sides by high clipped walls of box and laurel, and on the fourth by a retaining-wall which sustains an upper garden. Nothing can surpass the hushed and tranquil beauty of the scene. There are no flowers or bright colours – only the contrasted tints of box and ilex and laurel, and the vivid green of the moss spreading over damp paths and ancient stonework.

All the other books of the time on Italian gardens make similar points, but Wharton’s personal tastes and feelings come through strongly. This is another version of her fiction’s preoccupation with evolution and adaptation. She likes to discern the traces of a medieval garden hidden inside a Renaissance setting, or to work out how architectural lines have been adapted to a particular site, such as a steep hillside or a narrow ledge of rock.

Italian Villas and Their Gardens shares with The Valley of Decision her passion for the theatrical. She takes huge pleasure in dramatic structures: layers of terraces, flights of steps, groups of statues, contrasts between dark shady walks and sudden vistas, surprising perspectives or revelations. Sensational water-effects bring out her best writing: the ‘tragic grandeur’ of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli with its ‘omnipresent rush of water’ (‘drawn up the hillside at incalculable cost and labour’), or the cascades and beautiful fountain-architecture at the Villa Torlonia at Frascati (equally admired, and painted in 1907, by Vernon Lee’s great friend John Singer Sargent), or the amazing torrent of water pouring through the centre of the Villa Pliniana on Lake Como, echoing the mountain torrent on the cliff behind:

The old house is saturated with the freshness and drenched with the flying spray of the caged torrent. The bare vaulted rooms reverberate with it, the stone floors are green with its dampness, the air quivers with its cool incessant rush. The contrast of this dusky dripping loggia … with the blazing blue waters of the lake … is one of the most wonderful effects in sensation that the Italian villa-art has ever devised.

What she loves about that torrent is that it fits perfectly into its landscape. Grand theatrical gestures must be harmonious, like the famous sculptures on the upper terrace of the great Villa Caprarola, whose ‘audacity’ has ‘a quality of inevitableness’ about it. She does not like grandiosity or monumentality for its own sake. She finds Palladio, on the whole, too stately, cold and formal. Grotesque grotto-ornamentation is not much to her taste (‘humour is the quality which soonest loses its savour’) and she resists the heavier, more elaborate aspects of the baroque. As for later imitations, she has nothing but scorn for the ‘ridiculous’ Villa Pallavicini near Genoa, ‘a brummagem creation of the early nineteenth century’ and a lure for ‘throngs of unsuspecting tourists’. Wharton’s sure judgements can be harsh, like her revulsion at the ‘dismal’ manufacturing suburbs around Genoa, where the villa-hunter has to persevere through ‘squalid tenements’ and ‘waste ground heaped with melancholy refuse’, or her preference for grounds laid out at the back ‘secured to the private use of the inmates, instead of being laid open by a public approach to the house’.

But that preference for privacy is part of her tender feelings for these places. She loves the little secret gardens, or the tiny points of detail, like (in the small grounds of the Villa of the Knights of Malta, her old heroes) the ‘green tunnel’ framing a Roman prospect, where ‘by a touch peculiarly Italian, the keyhole of the gate has been so placed as to take it in’. She adores the little open-air theatre of the Villa de’Gori (La Pallazino), near Vicobello in the Sienese countryside, surrounded by ilex hedges, with rows of cypresses running up to the back of the stage. ‘No mere description of its plan can convey the charm of this exquisite little theatre, approached through the mysterious dusk of the long pleached alley, and lying in sunshine and silence under its roof of blue sky, in its walls of unchanging verdure.’ She likes woodland temples, marble dolphins, miniature garden-houses, trompe-l’oeil. She has fun with stucco (an acquired taste), for instance, in the palace of the Isola Bella, that fairy-tale seventeenth-century ‘pyramid of flower-laden terraces’ on Lake Maggiore. Its lower rooms, ornamented with ‘delicatedly tinted stucco’, pebble-work and shells, gave her ideas for her own house-design:

These low vaulted rooms, with marble floors, grotto-like walls, and fountains dripping into fluted conchs, are like a poet’s notion of some twilight refuge from summer heats … As examples of the decoration of a garden house in a hot climate, these rooms are unmatched in Italy, and their treatment offers appropriate suggestions to the modern garden-architect in search of effects of coolness.

As so often, fancifulness is balanced here by practicality. Emotion must be controlled, just as ‘audacity’ must be ‘harmonious’ and, where possible, simple. One slightly anomalous garden chosen for the book was the sixteenth-century Botanical Garden at Padua – not a villa-garden, but one she likes for its practical functionality, which she describes in appropriately plain language, as well organised and serviceable as its subject matter: ‘In the garden itself the beds for “simples” are enclosed in low iron railings, within which they are again subdivided by stone edgings, each subdivision containing a different species of plant.’ The opposite of that are the passages where she conjures up visions of Renaissance courtiers or eighteenth-century Venetians. But even at her most Vernon Lee-ish, where, at Caprarola, for example, she imagines the soldiers outside and the ladies and cavaliers in the rose-arbours ‘discussing a Greek manuscript or a Roman bronze’, the point is to show that the sixteenth-century architecture is in transition from fortified castle to pleasure-house.

The mixture of analysis and emotion is perfectly combined in Wharton’s treatment of the early seventeenth-century Villa Gamberaia, ‘overlooking the village of Settignano and the wide-spread valley of the Arno’, every connoisseur’s favourite Florentine villa. Wharton thought it ‘the most perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale’. She saw it after it had been taken over (in a neglected state) by the reclusive Princess Ghyka and her companion Mary Blood. These two eccentric and dedicated ladies set to work to create an elaborate, box hedged water-parterre and a dazzling flower-garden with rose-arches, backed by yew hedges, on the south side of the house. Wharton refers, warily, to the remodelling of ‘the old fishpond’ as being ‘unrelated in style to the surroundings’. Otherwise, the Gamberaia enthrals her, and she describes it eloquently and judiciously. The villa is a substantial, typically Tuscan house, with projecting eaves, and an unusual pair of flying arcades at each end (from one of which a little spiral staircase connects the principal bedroom with the water-garden below). On the west side of the house, there is a grassy terrace with a low stone wall decorated with urns and ‘solemn-looking stone dogs’, overlooking the farmland above Settignano. On the east side a very long bowling-green or alley runs, for 630 feet, in between the side of the house and a high retaining wall set with statues and geraniums. At one end the bowling-green ends in a dark semicircular grotto with a fountain and baroque statues overshadowed by giant cypress trees. At the other end, it reaches a balustrade looking out over the Arno valley and the hills beyond. A gate in the retaining wall leads to a narrow, secret ‘cabinet’ garden with playful rococo statues and shells and stones set into the walls, and another fountain. A little flight of steps leads up to a lemon garden with its ‘limonaia‘ (or ‘stanzone‘, as Wharton correctly calls it) where ‘the lemon and orange trees, the camellias and other semi-tender shrubs are stored in winter’. On either side of the cabinet garden and lemon terrace are dark ilex woods or ‘boschetti‘. Wharton’s commentary on this magical and complicated place expresses all the qualities of her Italian writing: accurate informed observation, pleasure in the relation of parts, and a feeling for ‘utility’ (a term derived from her grounding in architectural theory). Her emotions are banked down, but they play through the passage’s coherence, like a fountain in its stone basin:

The Gamberaia … 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 … Here, also, may be noted … the value of subdivision of spaces. Whereas the modern gardener’s one idea of producing an effect of space is to annihilate his boundaries … the old garden-architect proceeded on the opposite principle, arguing that, as the garden is but the prolongation of the house, and as a house containing a single huge room would be less interesting and less serviceable than one divided … so a garden which is merely one huge outdoor room is also less interesting and less serviceable than one which has its logical divisions. Utility was doubtless not the only consideration … Aesthetic impressions were considered … But the real value of the old Italian garden-plan is that logic and beauty meet in it, as they should in all sound architectural work.

Could such ‘logic and beauty’ – of design, architecture, garden-planning – be adapted to America?