Category Archives: Reviews

My Favourite Gardens: Villa Lante

April 22nd, 2021 | 3 Comments »

Yesterday I gave an on-line talk about Glen Villa to a group of well-informed, well-educated women, many of whom attended the same single sex college I attended years ago. (What used to be Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia is now the co-ed Randolph College.) In the question period afterwards someone asked if I had a favourite garden. It took me only a moment to respond. Not one, I said, but several.

I named four or five gardens, and today as I think back, I am struck by  how different those gardens are yet how closely they are linked by a single concept. Each tells a story, and each uses history and allusion to ideas outside the garden itself to make the story understandable.  This is something I’m doing at Glen Villa, in the garden and as part of Timelines, the trail through fields and forests that explores ideas about history, memory and our relationship to the land, and this may well explain why I like the gardens as much as I do.

Today I began to re-live my visits to those gardens. In a series of posts, I plan to look more carefully at each of my favourites, starting with the oldest, the Italian garden Villa Lante.

 

This fountain stands in the wooded area that once formed part of the garden.
This fountain of Pegasus surrounded by the nine muses stands near the entry to today’s garden, in a wooded area that once was integral to the garden’s story.

 

Villa Lante was built in the mid 1500s by the famous Italian architect Vignola for an important man, the Cardinal Gambara.  It is a very sophisticated garden that tells a story about the relationship between art and nature, showing how humans were transformed from a ‘primitive’ existence in the Golden Age to the ‘civilized’ society that the Cardinal was part of. And with extraordinary versatility, Vignola tells this story through the use of water.

The garden, located on the side of a hill in the province of Viterbo, is divided into three terraced levels. At the highest of the three, water enters the garden as a destructive, chaotic force. As it moves down the hill, it becomes channeled and controlled, tamed as it were by the power of art.

 

Villa Lante (1 of 8)
The rough tufa wall and the informal vegetation provide a strong contrast to the more refined fountains and formal arrangement of plants that will follow.

 

The power of the Cardinal himself is glorified throughout. As water moves from the top-most to the middle terrace, it passes through a channel edged by scalloped shells, each slightly different.

 

Villa Lante (4 of 8)

 

A giant lobster or crayfish head at top of the chain and over-sized claws at the bottom make a pun on the Cardinal’s name, Gambara, the Italian word for crayfish.

 

The crayfish symbol appears throughout the garden.
The crayfish symbol appears throughout the garden.

 

Water falls from this scalloped chain into the Fountain of the River Gods, two recumbent figures representing the rivers Arno and Tiber. These are the rivers that water the Cardinal’s property, and its abundance in the fountain is a metaphor for the fertility of the land – and for the Cardinal’s generosity as landowner and governor.

 

Villa Lante (3 of 8)
Crayfish claws are visible at the top of the waterfall.

 

Generosity and hospitality are hallmarks of the middle terrace where a long stone rectangle meant to suggest a dining room table continues the symmetrical layout. The table’s central trough is filled with water where wine could be cooled. For the sophisticated visitor of the period, the reference made by this staging would be obvious: Gambara is comparing his garden to that of the Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who floated antipasti in little boats in a polished marble basin.

 

Villa Lante (5 of 8)

 

The lowest terrace is a hymn to civilization where man finds salvation through his intelligence and creativity. Formally arranged as a parterre divided into twelve compartments, this level now centres on the Fountain of the Moors, a magnificent work designed by the sculptor Giambologna.

 

Villa Lante (2 of 8)
The design of the parterre has changed over time but remains formal and symmetrical.

 

The fountain sits on an island; in the pool surrounding it, little boats contain men with ancient guns and trumpets, their accoutrements signalling their roles to protect and celebrate both the prestige of the Cardinal and the triumph of civilization.

 

Villa Lante

 

As water moves from terrace to terrace, the sculptures and fountains and all that surrounds them become more ‘civilized.’ The garden becomes more elegant, more controlled. The balustrades that flank staircases from one terrace to the next widen to give fuller views onto the town – or previously the countryside – below, embracing it symbolically to make it the Cardinal’s own.

 

Villa Lante

 

Plantings support this ‘civilizing’ movement. Informal plantings on the uppermost terrace culminate in the square parterres and clipped fruit trees that originally filled the area around the Fountain of the Moors. Two small buildings, or casinos, that offered a place for the Cardinal to entertain his guests are on this level. Large central buildings were common in most Italian gardens of the period, but unlike more imposing constructions, these two small ones do not dominate or compete with the garden but rather are part of it, unifying and harmonizing with the whole.

 

Villa Lante casino (1 of 1)

 

This masterpiece of Renaissance design is smaller than many of the period, yet despite its size, it cannot be seen in its entirety from any one spot.  I think this makes it easier to grasp the garden’s central message about the shift to civilization as art came to dominate nature.  We may not accept that idea but we can admire the garden that demonstrates the concept so beautifully.

 

The Medicine Wheel and the Four Directions

September 20th, 2020 | 4 Comments »
Paul stretched the deer skin for his drum and holds workshops to teach others how to do the same.
Earlier this week I was fortunate to visit a new installation on the Tomifobia Nature Trail in the company of its creator, Paul-Conrad Carignan, and Paul's partner, Sylvia Bertolini. Paul is a Metis Algonquin-Anishnabe Elder and the site he designed is dedicated to spiritual and healing teachings of the Indigenous Medicine Wheel and its four directions. At a clearing beside the trail, located in Quebec's Eastern Townships close to the border with the United States, large granite slabs, or stelae, rise up at the four directions. Each stone is engraved with an

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A Three Part Garden

August 3rd, 2020 | 2 Comments »
Meagher, Timelines-010
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to visit a garden in the small village of North Hatley, Quebec, where I live, to see the work of garden makers Jane Meagher and Jean Vanaise. Here, over about ten years, they have transformed a one-acre town lot into a lushly varied garden. The transformation began when they decided to renovate and enlarge their house.  Before they began, the garden around the building was mostly grass plus a few bunches of flowers scattered more or less randomly. Not so today. Now their mini-paradise is set off from the street and

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Bosco della Ragnaia: A Garden for the Mind

July 13th, 2020 | 6 Comments »
This overview of the sunny side of Bosco della Ragnaia illustrates how the garden maker has played with perspective and historic precedence.
Gardens and the peace they can bring are much on my mind today, as the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to grow.  It is a fact that gardens can heal the body as well as the mind. Research from around the world tells us that even brief contacts with nature are beneficial, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress as effectively as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. Almost any reconnection with nature has a powerful physical and mental healing effect, even something as simple as weeding a flower bed.

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Kiftsgate Court: A Garden Review

October 21st, 2019 | 17 Comments »
Oh, my. Luscious.
Kiftsgate Court is one of those English gardens included on many garden tours, in part because it is so conveniently located, just down the road from Hidcote, the iconic garden created by the Anglo-American Lawrence Johnston. The gardens at Kiftsgate were created over the last hundred years by three generations of women -- grandmother, mother and daughter -- each of whom made her own contribution to the garden as it is today. Renowned for the Kiftsgate rose, the garden contains some wonderful areas and some fine plantings, with sumptuous flowers like this one that

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Haseley Court and Making History Visible

January 22nd, 2019 | 6 Comments »
The topiary chess set at Haseley Court was one of many things I admired there.
My last blog post, about making history visible and listening to the land, struck a chord.  Many readers responded via the Site and Insight web page or commented on Facebook and on the blog itself, saying they were touched by the piece. Several described how experiences in their pasts affected their responses today, both to their own garden and to gardens they visited. I know that is true for me. I grew up in Virginia, in a house with a big back yard where I could hide under bushes and pretend to be an explorer

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Houghton Hall: A Garden Review

January 6th, 2019 | 8 Comments »
Add something about building
England has many fine gardens. Houghton Hall in Norfolk is one of the finest, offering a stimulating combination of horticulture, contemporary art and history that is far too much to absorb in a single visit. The most popular part of the garden is the five acre Walled Garden. Divided into contrasting areas, the Walled Garden contains a double-sided herbaceous border, an Italian garden, a formal rose parterre, fruit and vegetable gardens, a glasshouse, a rustic temple, antique statues, fountains and contemporary sculptures. With so many aspects, the area could feel muddled or over-crowded,

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Monuments and Memorials

November 20th, 2018 | 6 Comments »
This statue on Richmond's Monument Avenue shows Robert E. Lee astride his horse Traveller.
Paintings on rock made by indigenous people many years ago give us insights into their daily life and the events and objects they valued. (I wrote about rock paintings here.) Monuments and memorials serve a similar purpose. So what do they show about what we value today? Traditionally monuments were erected to great men and generals who led us in war, and to those who fought and died. I grew up surrounded by this type of memorial. The statues of Confederate leaders that lined Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia left no doubt about

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Garden Hits and Misses

September 30th, 2018 | 13 Comments »
The fountain rises 70 feet into the air. On a sunny day it is beautiful to see. It works via a remote control!
At home after three marvellous weeks visiting gardens (and  friends) in England, I find much to criticize in my garden. After many years of travelling, I've come to expect this -- and to accept that a garden in Quebec's harsh weather conditions will never resemble an English garden, with its lush foliage and flowers, topiary and ancient walls. I've also come to expect that gardens other than my own will disappoint me. On every tour I've hosted, there has always been one garden I particularly looked forward to seeing. On

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Garden Centres and Garden Reviews

September 24th, 2018 | 10 Comments »
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Gardening in Canada can be frustrating. The range of plants available through nurseries or garden centres is minuscule compared with the number available in England. And seeing so many wonderful cultivars that won't survive in my Quebec garden makes me envious of England's more temperate climate. Still, for anyone who loves plants, a visit to a garden centre is always a treat. The group I was hosting on my final garden tour spent a few happy hours wandering around the Burford Garden Company, an Oxfordshire-based enterprise. At this time of year

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