Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Still Life

In a bathroom I recently designed for a client here in Italy hangs a mirror, of my design, in poplar, completely untreated with any kind of finish. Today it's as white as fresh cut wood—but a year from now, after many showers and changes of seasons? This is the fun of it to me; who knows what the future brings. The cabinet, in Renaissance style, is my design, lacquered a deep Bordeaux, and the two exquisite pots are from Rossoramina by Stefano Gambogi, Lucca.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Gifts for a Man

"Alas, poor Yorick I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest . . ." A funny idea for a birthday present, you might think. A friendly reminder that all is not what we see before us in the mirror. The skull speaks. It says, "Et in Arcadia ego," or simply, "Vanitas." I've always enjoyed the feel of a stick in my hand—perhaps that's why I like tennis so much. I've yet to take a walk with this one though. One fine day. This stick is by Cannes Fayet, a French company that's been making canes since the 19th century. It has a beautiful ebonized wood stock and a very heavy bronze head done in the "mi-lord" style—straight up and not curved under the hand.

And men like games. I received this wonderful backgammon set for my birthday in July. This one is by Hector Saxe, Paris. Backgammon, of Persian origin, is one of the oldest board games there is. I'd never played backgammon before owning this set. I once observed people playing many years ago and I didn't understand a thing and so I'd worried that I wasn't up to it, but with a good set of rules and explanations you can quickly get the hang of it. It's great fun, and a wonderful alternative to surfing the web for excessive hours on end, a tiny bit challenging, but not too much.

Friday, August 27, 2010


On the matching pair of white slip-covered sofas in our entry hall here at Villa Massei is a collection of gentleman's hats. On the left is the Cadillac of summer hats, the "Super Fino Montecristi Optima" Panama by Borsalino—you can fold it up and pack it in your suitcase and it comes out without a wrinkle. On the right is an Italian 100% paper hat bought in Saint Tropez a month ago.

On the left is a Panama knock-off bought from a Senegalese vendor on the beach at Ramatuelle in July, while on the right sits a well-toasted "Quito Panama Fedora." The best Panama hats come from Ecuador, and not from Panama at all; Quito, the capital city, is known for a particular quality and weave. These hat bodies were made for Italy's Borsalino Hat Company who blocks them with their distinctive styling.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Still Life

In a corner of my bedroom here in Massa Macinaia three blooms of Anthurium andraeanum, sometimes called the "Flamingo lily," stand upright in a blue crystal vase; this particular flower is a hybrid of a species found in the tropical mountains of Ecuador and Colombia. Beside it is a tile bought from an antique dealer in Shiraz, on a botanical/horticultural visit we made three years ago to Iran, a portrait of Karim Khan Zand. The black dish is an Etruscan reproduction from Orvieto. The two seeds it holds are souvenirs of Brazil, and with them is a rosebud from last May still rich in its suggestive perfume. The bedside table, of adjustable height and full of hidden drawers and vanities, is Italian, early 19th century. The wonderful walls are by Laura Hoffmann, of Lucca.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Update: La Foce

If you enter the garden at La Foce, take a few steps, then turn around and look back, this is what you see: a simple country girl of a manor house dressed in the robes of a princess. We're in the world of "Renaissance revisited" here, not in an historic Italian garden. In fact, in the classic Vander Ree, Smienk, Steenbergen book Italian Villas and Gardens, La Foce isn't even mentioned. Still, this is one of Italy's greatest horticultural treasures, and while purists will dismiss it as a folly of foreign fantasy its beauty and charms are undeniable.

An Anglo-Italian hybrid, the garden at La Foce was fashioned, between the wars, by English garden designer/architect Cecil Pinsent for the Marchesi Origo of Rome. The Marchese's wife was Iris Origo, an American, and the distinguished author of War in Val d'Orcia, Images and Shadows, and many other highly successful books. This is a garden of terraces, of climbing steps and looking back. The high pergola of wisteria and roses seen above meanders for more than 400 m before it disappears into the woods.

Iris Origo was a keen gardener and visionary and with Pinsent's help she created a stunningly structured formal garden in the Renaissance style; but they weren't afraid to include more modern elements, such as these imposing hedges of Cupressus sempervirens that frame out the lower garden. Here we see La Foce in August, and though the grass is irrigated the Italian sunshine has burned it to a golden earth color. It would be pointless to plant this out with flowers, as one would do in England, they would never prosper. Italian gardens are about design, form, and the limitless shades of green such as those we see here.

Clipping is the mainstay of gardens in this style and these beautiful old hedges have taken on impressive proportions over time. The estate is now in the hands of the Origo's daughter, Benedetta, who cares for the garden with all the commitment and capability of her parents. In the summer there's a wonderful concert series in a courtyard of one of the outbuildings, making this a unique tourist destination for the more decerning traveler.

The Origos dreamed up this iconic landscape of a winding distant road accented with cypress trees, one of the most photographed views in Italy. www.lafoce.com

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Party

Summer evenings are for parties, and here in Lucca there are parties every night if you want them. The warm leisure inspires us to entertain, days at the beach in Forte dei Marmi or lazing by the pool. Here at Villa Massei we meet at nine for an aperitivo on "The Dolphin Court" where there's plenty of space for forty people or more to circulate, to greet old friends and make new ones.

At dinnertime we pass through the house and enter the rear garden. A candlelit walk and a visit to our 16th century grotto sets the mood of pagan pleasure—tomorrow's cares wait in the wings as our thoughts are hear and now.

The loggia in its evening dress stands ready for those who slip away for a smoke.

Tables for ten. Sit with whomever you like. The conversation will be light—we've all read the news, we all have our opinions, we can keep them to ourselves just this once. No long sad stories tonight, no wistful memories. Allegria! In fact, this party was nicknamed "The Water Party" because the automatic sprinklers went off at midnight (unplanned) and we all had a good laugh.

And finally, the guest book (hand-crafted in red goat skin by Terry Collins).

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lamps by Anna Lari

In my house here in Massa Macinaia I've used the lamps of Anna Lari & Co., of Nuvolento, in Brescia, to lend a clean, new modernist tone to my old world (revisited) Lucchese interiors. Beautifully hand-crafted they represent the best of "Made in Italy," a distinction ever more rare in these times when so much of what we buy has been sourced out. Founded in 1966 by Anna Lari and Giorgio Gandellini, Anna Lari & Co. is a family success story, and you can find these distinctive, timeless contemporaries in the chicest hotels and homes of the world. The lamp shown above, in my "Red Room," is called "Emi," and the finish, one of six available, is "bronzed brass."

This floor lamp, called "Ambra," is one of my favorites, and I've used it in two of our bedrooms here. Standing next to an early 19th century chair, made in Lucca, there's something distinctly neo-classical about it, and yet it brings us up to date. The finish is "mat black," and the entire upper part can be aimed to cast light where you want it.

This dazzling "Emi" table lamp makes a great companion to a 19th century French clock; it's dipped in a 24K gold bath.

In my bathroom I've placed three "Eco" chrome wall lamps, designed by Giorgio Gandellini, above a pair of sinks. They're cheery to come upon first thing in the morning!

And in my bedroom I've placed yet another pair of "Ambra" lamps in mat black. Anna Lari produce dozens of other wonderful models as well, each one by now a classic. You can see the "Giada" in my post called "A Privete Study."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

More Edgartown

In this second of my two-part series on the garden at The Charlotte Inn of Edgartown Massachusetts we see a clever border along the carriage house terrace. This bit of garden will look great even in the dead of winter as it's not dependent on annual floral planting for interest. The mix of greens and the Japanese-like waves of shape give it visual fluidity and order.

More shapes along the porch and a bowling green-like lawn are in keeping with the dignity of this simple post-colonial architecture.

The green cast-iron fountain livens up the stasis of all this ivy and box with its moving presence as a focal point. I very much admire the snow-drop-shaped copper lamps found everywhere in this elegant little masterpiece of a garden.

Space is at a premium here in these narrow garden rooms; the gardener has cleverly stacked his pots on a wall-mounted shelving unit painted glossy black. Very smart!

One of the most inventive side trips in this diminutive garden journey takes you to this cast-iron urn, and offers a pair of seats for a meditative pause. The four young sycamore trees lend a note of French formality here and play tricks of scale perception—shades of Le Notre! A little world is enormous in the inspired hands of this garden's creator. I never asked who made it; it's enough to me that it happened.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Garden in Edgartown

This is one of the most exquisite little gardens in the United States and it's in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on the island of Martha's Vineyard. It's the erstwhile haunt of whale hunters, a captain’s house in pure traditional British style. Built in 1864 for Samuel Osborne, a prosperous merchant, the Charlotte Inn, now a five star hotel, is "a window into another time."

One of many gardens within a garden this small, narrow space behind the main house invites you to a quiet sitting room at the bottom for conversation or a cool drink. Perhaps no more than eight feet wide, the space is given grandeur by this narrow meandering raked dirt path with a central statue feature. Its high wall to the right isolates it from a neighboring garden on the same property, and the dignified, freshly painted low latticework fence to the left protects it from the quiet roadside beyond. The mono-planting of Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny spurge) lends simplicity to the piece and solves the problem of green carpeting in the shade, and in poor soil.

The trick of wiggly walkways adds incident to this tiny space—a straight one would have sent the eye quickly onward and out! It's an ingenious idea, and I've never seen it handled so well as it is here. The lacquered wood fencing, the overhead bits, the use of tables and objects in this tiny spot supply narritive, giving you the sense that it's lived in, used, enjoyed.

So often in this delightful garden we enter private-seeming spaces, such as the one just shown above, via doorways like this one; it prolongs the visit as it plays odd little games with your emotions—am I intruding? I love the touch of a little pot in the tiny arched window, the scheme of its paving stones, the destination of still more secret gardens beyond.

The old carriage house faithfully preserves the style of its wooden doors—it now houses a collection of vintage cars. The palms, the wicker furniture, the iron lanterns, the fine brick paving, these are details you can't help but admire, ideas you're tempted to steal. In short, this garden is a treasure-trove of imagination, the result of a hugely talented designer's dreamy, passionate quest to create a unique and even thrilling little corner of the garden world.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Public Gardens

It's common practice here in Lucca to show your collection of home-propagated plants to passers-by. Gardeners group them along the roadsides, a foot away from rushing traffic, sometimes in very good terracotta pots, but more often in plastic ones—people don't seem to be at all worried that some admiring, acquisitive stroller might make off with one of them.

The public plants of choice are cacti and succulents. These are plants that endure adverse conditions in their natural habitats and so living by the side of the road, half-forgotten, they still thrive—you can take your summer vacation and scarcely give them a thought!

Above, "Fico d'India" pricks its Mickey Mouse ears alongside Agaves, Faucarias and Kalanchoes. There's a passion for plants residing here just beyond that ocher wall. Thank you! Keep it up!