IN HER 1904 BOOK "Italian Villas and Their Gardens," Edith Wharton wrote that the reader should not "content himself with a vague enjoyment of old Italian gardens, but…extract from them principles which may be applied to home." Wise counsel. Many of the villa gardens of Italy appear grand and out of reach but they offer lessons that can be useful and scalable. The Italian-style walled garden at the Mount, Wharton's home in Lenox, Mass., is a prime example of one of these translations.
An avid motorist, Wharton put her Mercedes through some rigorous road tests while touring in France and Italy with Henry James and others. "Italian Villas" details the architecture and ornament of the gardens she encountered and how they flowed into the landscape. While I read the book years ago, it remains a steady reference for me and was once again pulled out in planning my Tuscany trip this summer.
Italian gardens are characterized by a dominance of manicured green, statuary and water features that often involve stone cascades and ciottolato (mosaic stonework). Villa gardens have a balance of cultivated greenery and natural forest, known as boscoor boschetto, depending on the scale of the villa itself. Architects responsible for hallmarks of the Italian landscape, from the Renaissance through the 20th century, include Cecil Pinsent, Luigi de Cambray Digny, Gaetano Baccani and Niccolò Tribolo.
Villa garden designs were modified to accommodate changing needs over time. Medieval gardens were strictly business, as they had to feed the household. It was not until the Renaissance that embellishments like benches and statues were judiciously added. Rosemary, bay, myrtle and other herbs and medicinal plants were introduced as the garden evolved into a place of pleasure and contemplation. Many gardens contain topiary of yew, cypress, box and ilex, bringing green architecture into the mix.
The role of the garden today in our technology-driven lifestyles may be even more important, and "the principles" of old gardens, as Wharton called them—"to escape, to enjoy, to behold our own patch of beauty and pleasure"—can be applied to your own backyard, rooftop and window box. (Note: Follow in Wharton's footsteps with an Italian tour led by the Mount later this month; visit edithwharton.org for more information.)