Great Italian Gardens: Past Perspectives

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Villa Monastero, Varenna. From the loggia, a lyrical view overlooking Lake Como.

Although two of Lake Como’s best known gardens are located only a few miles apart, they are separated by several centuries of divergent landscape principles and aesthetic values. Villa d’Este’s polished and complex garden is admired for its elegant decorum. While retaining its Renaissance-styled tribute to the glory and grandeur of ancient Rome, the garden is further enhanced with 18th and 19th century Baroque, Neoclassical, and Romantic flourishes. In contrast, Villa Monastero’s more informal botanical garden is less systematic, composed of weathered architectural tableaus, a variety of landscape motifs, and countless plant species, best appreciated as the backdrop for spectacular views and its romantic interpretation of bygone pastoral Italy. However dissimilar their perspectives, each captures aspects of Lake Como’s enduring appeal.

The Garden at the Villa d’Este
Via Regina, 40 – Cernobbio

Having visited several of the Italian Lakes’ splendid gardens, among them, Villa Carlotta’s kaleidoscopic azaleas and rhododendrons, Villa Olmo and Villa Melzi’s idyllic retreats, and the operatic spectacles at Lake Maggiore’s Isola Bella and Isola Madre, none rival Villa d’Este’s extraordinary artfulness. During my last visit several years ago, it was raining and I was unable to spend time in the gardens. My friend had lost her sunglasses, resulting in an afternoon search through Cernobbio. Later, she was certain she lost them on the boat.

Portions of Villa d’Este’s garden can be traced back to fresco artist and architect Pellegrino Pellegrini’s original 16th-century plans although a lower lakeside oval-centered park bordered with ornamental seasonal blooms adjoining an outdoor dining terrace appears more inspired by The Regent’s Park.

From there, the garden becomes a series of ascending terraces beginning with a double winding staircase that leads from the lower park into Pellegrini’s Nymphaeum enriched with fountains, bas-reliefs, statues, and marble-chip mosaics. An alley of cypress, magnolia and holly trees frame dual rows of granite basins catching a cascade of water that spills from a hillside temple grotto that shelters a waterfall and a colossal 18th century statue of Hercules.

Perched high above the hotel, benches allow the visitor to contemplate Lake Como before setting out on footpaths across bridges and bluffs. A downward sweep of rolling lawn, more common to 19th-century English gardens than 5th century Rome, leads past a simulated Spanish fortress, added in 1809 by the widow of Marquis Calderara who had remarried Domenico Pino, a Napoleonic general. The battlements were the stage for after-dinner entertainment, mock combats staged by military cadets that were followed by fireworks. On the lower slope, a Temple of Telemachus contributed a decade later by the next owner Princess Caroline of Brunswick who is credited with the landscape narrative’s early English influences.

Cardinal Villa, lakeside marble terrace. Originally built in 1568 for Tolomeo Galli, the Cardinal of Como, and designed by Pellegrino Pellegrini, the villa was first named Villa Garrovo. During the early 19th century, Princess Caroline renamed the property Nuova Villa d’Este. Drawings from c, 1815 show the villa was built directly on the lakefront without the current terrace. After Caroline’s brief tenure, a succession of owners expanded and refurbished the villa.
Cardinal Villa, lobby. In 1873 the existing villas and additions were converted into a deluxe hotel catering to the nobility and the privileged bourgeoisie. During my recent visit, it appeared Russian and Arabic phrase books might be helpful in communicating with the guests.
The Queen’s Pavilion was built in 1856, named to honor “the tragic Caroline of Brunswick,” one of the villa’s owners who died only a few months after she became Queen of England when her husband King George IV was crowned in 1820. More popular on Lake Como than in England, Princess Caroline also built the first road between Cernobbio and Como, thus the name Via Regina.
From the swimming pool deck afloat in the lake between the Cardinal Villa and the Queen’s Pavilion, the view affords a profile of Villa d’Este’s various additions and a glimpse of the towering centuries-old tree that shelters the garden.
The more than 500-year old tree casts a morning shadow on Villa d’Este’s iconic garden.
A double staircase leads from the oval lawn onto the first level of the Nymphaeum.
The Nymphaeum’s geometric and figurative compositions contrast with the Cardinal Villa’s stately 19th-century presence.
The Nymphaeum’s semi-circular arched walls enclose a grotto and an oval pool with a central fountain.
The Nymphaeum’s oval pool and fountain are on the lower level.
Grotto, detail.
Flanking staircases lead up to an elevated terrace.
Nymphaeum, view from the upper terrace to the lower level pool and the park beyond.
The Nymphaeum’s upper terrace is embellished with ornamental flower beds.

Nymphaeum, detail
Mosaics & Bas-reliefs

In ancient Rome’s Nymphaeum’s, the earliest mosaics were geometric; figurative forms were added later.
From the Nymphaeum, the garden traverses the Via Regina thoroughfare that passes beneath in the tunnel below.
Flanked with 130 stone basins, the garden’s central axis leads to the hillside grotto’s temple added during the 19th century.
The cascade of water flowing into the granite basins commemorates ancient Rome’s intricately engineered water systems.
Hercules and Lica statue stands in front of the garden grotto’s waterfall.
The Hercules and Lica statue is the garden summit’s focal point.
A waterfall above the grotto.
On the downward ramble, the Spanish-style fortifications make for an anomalous element however picturesque.
The early 19th-century Temple of Telemachus adds to the garden’s scenic interest.
Temple of Telemachus.
The hedges, winding paths and staircases in this area of the garden introduce an English flavor to the ambiance.
A garden wall located on one of the garden’s lower levels..
Villa d’Este garden, the view from the top. Center, the garden’s original Renaissance-inspired central axis. Left, the picturesque Spanish fortress and the English garden additions. Right, a chef’s garden of vegetables and herbs. Beyond, Lake Como.

Villa Monastero & Garden
Viale Giovanni Polvani, 2/4 – Varenna

Built on the site of a 13th century Cistercian convent, Villa Monastero is a result of “continued restructuring,” rebuilt during the 16th century and completely refashioned in the 19th century. The existing villa is an expression of the era’s aristocrats who wanted “… to live in the 18th century, dine in the 16th century, and bathe in Pompeii …” The multi-terraced lakefront garden extends for two kilometers from Varenna to Fiumelatte. The garden’s design and assemblage of artifacts are more of an early 20th century creation as were the additions of a waterfront loggia and a Moorish pavilion. The existing grounds feature more than 1,000 indigenous and exotic species.

Villa Monastero’s waterfront loggia serves as the garden’s public entrance from the main road. The villa and garden are owned by Italy’s National Research Center and operated by Province of Lecco cultural officials.
From the villa’s entrance loggia, a view of the adjacent Villa Cipressi.
The nearby Villa Cipressi is a 32-room hotel built during the 15th century with 19th century enhancements and a terraced garden.
The villa’s proximity to the lake makes for remarkable views while limiting the expanse of the gardens. The existing villa owes its name to the 12th century monastery no longer distinguishable and its present appearance and configuration to German industrialist Erich Walter Jacob Kees who between 1897 and 1909 undertook a major refurbishment. Kees expanded the villa to the south and north and designed the present-day garden. The lakeside Moorish pavilion is a 20th century addition.
Moorish pavilion, tile.
Terraces provide scenic panoramas.
Staircases lead to higher footpaths and terraces.
The elevated terraces provide picturesque views to the west.
The view northwest toward Menaggio.
The ornamental flowerbeds were being planted during my visit in April.
From the villa’s second floor, a view to the northwest.
The central fountain awaits.
The staircase from the garden to the lake.
Villa Monastero’s garden features an assortment of palm trees.
Bas reliefs and busts populate the landscape.
Architectural fragments hint at Villa Monastero’s 800-year history.
A promenade of palms is flanked by orange, lemon, and kumquat trees.
A distinctive plant recently shaped.
The garden’s plants and trees are identified.
Some of the garden’s multi-level architectural elements extend from the lakeside to a terrace close to the public road.
A view to the north across Lake Como.
A 19th century sculptural ensemble of La Clemenza di Tito by sculptor Gian Battista Comoli. To honor the sculptor, who died before finishing his work, an 1820 engraving reads, “Death drew away the chisel from Comoli’s hand …”
A decorative stonework recreates the early Roman era of shields and tunics.
An enchanting fountain bowl is utilized as a base for a planter.

Villa Monastero

Following the closure of the 13th century monastery, the property had several owners before it was bought in 1569 by Paolo Mornico who rebuilt the monastery into a luxurious villa. The Mornico family owned it for several centuries. In 1897 German industrialist Erich Walter Jacob Kees acquired the lakefront indulgence, enlarging and remodeling the villa as well as adding the present-day garden. The Italian government took over the property until 1925 when it sold it to Milanese naturalist Marco De Marchi, a hummingbird expert.

Following Marco De Marchi’s death in 1936, his wife Rosa established an Institute for Hydrobiology named for her husband. Subsequently, upon her death the property was willed back to the Italian state. During the 1950s the villa was utilized for research conferences. Nobel Prize physicist Enrico Fermi organized the first conference. In 1977 the De Marchi Institute was incorporated into the National Research Council that today owns the property. Since 1995 the property has been managed by Province of Lecco.
Villa, door knocker.
A prerequisite enormous tapestry in the Red Room. While the villa contains some of the De Marchi’s furnishings, much of the existing décor appears to be German Baroque pieces introduced by industrialist Erich Kees.
Door openings have elaborate carvings.
Accessorized with several black carvings and tables, the marbleized double staircase hall is decorated with lavish Majolica panels depicting prominent German cultural figures.
The Majolica tiled panels depict Bach, Kant, Helmholtz, and Schlueter, the great German Baroque architect.

Between the Majolica panels and multi-color marble pilasters, a cherubic marble relief.
A chair back stylized panel inset.
The necessary gilded mirror.
A second-floor chandelier.
A Pompeii-style bath, described as a “King Farouk” bath tub. I have been to King Farouk’s Palace in Alexandria but cannot recall this style of bath tub.
Bath tub tiles, detail.
Villa Monastero’s evocative mix of marvel and make-believe.

Photography by Augustus Mayhew.

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Lost in Wonderland – Reflections on Palm Beach.

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