Book Review: Italian Gardens

Helena Attlee (Frances Lincoln, £30)

This is a much-needed book. It seems incredible that, up until now, the only access-ible introductory text in English on the history of Italian gardens has been that by Georgina Masson, first published in 1959.

Since then?and particularly since about 1980?there has been a cornucopia of scholarship, in the main by Italian and American academics, which has revolutionised the subject. Research, in particular, has focused on the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with less attention given to the later ones.

Helena Attlee’s main problem would have been how to synthesise all this material, and order it in some way to make it both informative and comprehensible to the general reader. In this, she triumphantly succeeds.

The book is presented chronologically, and part of her success in taking the reader through the evolution of Italian gardens lies in hooking them onto people.

In this, she is fortunate, as the great seminal gardens were all creations of mega-personalities. A whole parade of Medicis takes us with ease from the early Renaissance to the Baroque period, with gardens such as the Villas Medici, Castello, Pratolino, Madama and the Palazzo Pitti. To them, we can add the likes of Vincenzo Orsini and Bomarzo, the Cardinal Gambara and the Villa Lante, and the Cardinal d’Este and the Villa d’Este.

Miss Attlee keeps clarity by having separate chapters on botanical developments, plant collecting and the garden as a social arena. Inevitably, some gardens have been dropped, and I regret the omission of the Villa Farnese at Caprarola.

I also regret the omission of plans, which are essential for the understanding of the evolution of garden style, but the choice of pictures is always pertinent, visually developing the argument of the text.

The problem with any book on this subject is that it is difficult not to be downhill all the way. A lot of new research has gone into the English-style gardens of the 19th century, which had their own Italianate quirkiness.

I would have liked more on these.

The 20th century cannot escape being a ragbag of Cecil Pinsent, Susana Walton, the Hanburys, Russell Page and Pietra Porcinai. Miss Attlee doesn’t essay public parks which, I think, is a shame. Those open spaces in an urban environment are so quintessentially Italian.

In the past, the privileged paraded in their palace and aristocratic gardens; today, the municipal garden is for Everyman to enjoy. This is a handsomely produced book, a snip at £30.

If its style appears vaguely familiar?echoing that of a Yale University Press publication?it is not surprising, as Frances Lincoln is now headed by the latter’s former director. This book is not only beautifully presented, but also extremely informative.

Also reviewed this week: Mark Johnston: The Authorised Biography,>