Friday, July 30, 2010

Update: La Casella

This is one of dozens of quite corners in the garden of La Casella, a house near Grasse in the South of France. Perhaps the garden's owners have whiled away many a summer afternoon here over a backgammon board. Or maybe no one has ever sat here at all, maybe it's just a vision, a work of art that serves no terrestrial purpose. What difference does it make? This is a moment in a garden—one of the most elegant and spirit-laden gardens of the French Riviera.

Just a few years ago there were only a handful of Echium pininana on these densely-planted terraces, but now they've been allowed to self-seed. Suddenly they're a recurring theme, as in a piece of music. These rosette-forming biennials from the Canary Islands are poking up their 12-foot-tall, lance-shaped, silver-hairy leaves everywhere you turn.

Here you see them along the edges of this rose walk, striking their temperate oceanic pose—you know you're on the shores of a warm sea here and not in Oxfordshire.

The designer Claus Scheinert's taste in the garden reflects his Bavarian exuberance—not everyone could get away with the myriad layers upon layers of ideas and features he employs in making the magic of this place. Several years ago this bit of the garden was a simple lawn with a geometric planting of small trees underplanted with lavender, and now it's a rich tapestry of soft color and even softer shape. Standing in this spot you can't help but savor the joy of Claus's creative process and this extraordinary end result.

I love datura (Brugmansia arborea) in the garden. They come from the Andes and the trumpet-shaped flowers seem to evoke the music of old Ecuador. Here Claus has let them get the upper hand; they're self-seeded underfoot and allowed to flourish wherever they please. It's like a walk in the jungle, a visit to this spot—only the formed hedge brings you back to La Casella, one of the most delightful gardens in all of France. Note: La Casella is not open to the public.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Visit to One of My Gardens

In high summer here in Tuscany it's hard to keep things growing and happy. There's a relentless sun overhead and much as we love it and are here for its benevolence it makes things hard for us gardeners. This fountain, in a private garden near Lucca, was built a year ago, and the planting that frames it is taking hold on this July day though the sun is bearing down in a sky that's as blue as the Mediterranean in high pressure when the weather is "stuck," and rain, or any hint of it, is weeks away. The terracotta path, of bricks from Chianti, is still a bit new, but will take on a patina in time. The Lucca-style bench is hand made of stone from Matraia.

This seating area had already been laid out by my clients' architect when I came upon the job, but the box hedging was planted by me and the furniture is of my design. My clients entertain here in the evening, a drink before dinner, with a view towards the fountain shown above and the Apuanne Alps in the distance.

One of the borders along the front lawn is filled with Agapanthus, a clump-forming, evergreen perennial from Africa, which stands up well to our cool winters here and loves the summer sun. There are dozens of cultivars of Agapanthus, but I tend to favor the blue ones, and I especially like them planted in the company of rosemary, as seen above. What we have here, in the end, is two Mediterranean plants of two different cultures, one European, the other South African, growing happily side-by-side.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Private Study

I've just finished redecorating Gil Cohen's study here in Massa Macinaia. A 17th century Tuscan scrivania hosts a 1970s gouache by Paul Gervais (that's me), a pair of lamps by Anna Lari, a wedding portrait of Gil's mother, Alice Wander, a desk-top watercolor by Jessica Carroll with a bronze bee, a picture of Gil and his favorite painter, David Hockney, taken on David's last visit to Villa Massei in 2008, a photo of Gil and his brother Burt in Amsterdam in the 1960s, and Gil's beloved collection of birds-nests.

The photograph on this 17th century kneeler was taken on the moon. The red bowl is by Stefano Gamboggi, the green one by Peter Gutkin. The Neapolitan biscuit of two putti was a birthday gift from me. The lamp is 18th century.


The chair I sometimes sit in when I visit Gil at work is Florentine and from the 16th century (once exhibited at the Strozzi Palace); fabric by Zimmer + Rohde.

Since we now live in a world of techno-gadgetry—and it's no longer desirable nor possible to hide them—we let them take their role on a stage that presents the present as well as the past. The painting over Gil's desk, of my design, is of Sir Phillip Sydney, 5th Earl of Leicester by Hermann Verelsdt, (1680 c.). His printer stands on a hamper from Fortnam & Maison. The chair is by Charles Eames from the 1950s. The rug is Berber, died with mint leaves. The mantovani are fashioned with a new flame stitch fabric but the fringe is from 1870. The walls were painted more than 20 years ago.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Tree-like Succulent

Euphorbia canariensis is called a "tree-like succulent," and yesterday I planted one in this old jar by my swimming pool here in Lucca. I love the temperate summer sun-drenched mood it casts, the verticals in a tall narrow Italian pot, the columns against columns, that deep light-filled green in a context of gray pastels and shaded sun. In my garden of more that 700 species of plants, many of which are from the Mediterranean, we include plants from the Canary Islands, a place I've never visited—but I'm afraid I'll have to put this plant under cover for the winter here where temperatures dip well below 12 degrees celsius on a winter's night.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Clever Berceau

I love garden berceaux. They're typically northern European and wouldn't look at all at home in my garden in Lucca, but I admire them and study their style whenever I see them. Who knows, someday I might build one for a client in France or Holland, or even in the UK.
This is a detail of a berceau at the Petit Trianon at Versaille, forming a passageway from the main pavilion to Marie Antoinette's theater. The structure is made of steel but it's covered with wooden slats giving the impression that it's entirely made of wood.

The non-structural verticals are half rounds of milled wood, attached with wire, flat side in.

This is the entry from the theatre end. Made of steel, and anchored in cement foundations, the structure retains its shape.

And this is the centerpiece of the berceau with climbing roses, a lofty classic-style roof and portals to either side which lead you to gardens beyond. The entire structure, wood and steel, is painted a deep sage green. You could do pretty much the same thing in a smaller garden anywhere; the biggest investment is in the steel structure, but what fun it would be to have something like this, a stunning architectural element that lends order and elegance to a garden.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Old Ideas in the Garden


I pass this road to an old villa, in Meati, near Lucca, often in my daily life and I always gaze in with admiration. Who would have thought to line a road with twin "pergolas" rather than making one pergola only, shading the road from above? Notice that on the left there's quite a deep ditch and that the pergola spans and covers it, while on the right there is no ditch; suddenly, in this way, the roadway has its symmetry and stature. I love the simplicity of rough wood cut from the wild, and here, in Tuscany, the grapes are absolutely right. This is the kind of garden idea that comes to the naive and the unsuspecting, and not to us "garden designers," and it gives me great pleasure to come upon solutions such as these and add them to my garden imagery bank.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Bedroom


This is a newly done bedroom at Villa Massei. I've left out the modern world for the most part; here time has stood still since 1870. The bench at the foot of the bed is inspired by the Middle East and the covering is Bedouin tenting material bought in Damascus. The carpeting is coco. The walls are by Laura Hoffmann. The antiques are mostly Italian. The hand-woven cushion in the foreground, on a 19th century leather armchair, is from Antiqua, Guatamala.

Summer at Villa Massei

The pool at Massa Macinaia. It's 27 years old, but its look has evolved over time. Here it is now for the new millennium in its all white simplicity and bank seating under a pergola. Flowers in spring, all green in summer.