Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Castle

When we think of castles we hardly think of them as viable homes. We imagine drafty, torchlit, lofty halls, and beyond these, armories and musty cellars with the buried remains of eliminated usurpers. But this, above, is the castle of Montemagno in Piemonte, home of the counts Calvi di Bergolo. It stands at the ancient center of this tiny town, upon on a hill (Monte-magno), and it's built around its first, ancient fortification, which was once the fief of the Marchesi di Monferrato.

The castle was heavily reworked in the 14th century, but its final transformation took place in the 18th century, when part of it was converted into an elegant country home surrounded by a multi-level park. Today's warm and homey rooms date from that period.

The medieval moats and drawbridges are still here. Extending from the first fortification, which later became this imposing castle crowned with Ghibelline battlements, are twelve alleys lined by the remains of an "old enclosure." The structure was enlarged and reworked over the years, but this is how it looks today, endlessly evocative from every viewpoint!

What's of particular interest is that this is the family home of painter Gregorio Calvi di Bergolo. Perhaps the artist's best work celebrates the beauty of his much loved Piedmont countryside, its farm houses in a context of yellow grain and vineyards and pale blue, placid skies, but he was also adept at cityscapes, the regal architecture of his home town, Torino, with its harmoniously laid out streets and neoclassical palaces. And he was a great chronicler/illustrator of his own family life—something of an Italian Fairfield Porter. In this family sitting room shown above, little is changed from the era in which Calvi di Bergolo lived and worked here. A selection of his portraits of family and friends hang informally and unframed on the far wall just as they might have done in his studio long ago.

How beautiful the detail of this simple, 18th century door with its original hinges and lock, just a sample of the fascinating visuals a castle such as this proposes.

And Montemagno remains well looked-after even now, a view into the past, to an era in which the worry of invasion had long since passed, an era of peace and elegance replacing that of misrule and uncertainty. Below is a view to the lands of the Montelera, with its modern winery, home of Martini and Rossi Vermouth, without which the Martini would never have been invented!

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Maze?

So often visitors here stand on the shepherd's terrace and look down into our Giardino all'Italiana and say, "Oh what a wonderful maze!" But this, in fact, is not a maze at all! Nor is it a labyrinth. In colloquial English labyrinth is generally synonymous with maze, but many contemporary scholars observe a distinction between the two: maze refers to a complex branching puzzle with choices of path and direction, while a labyrinth has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to its center. A labyrinth in this sense has an unambiguous route to follow and is not meant to confuse you. The garden above is inspired by the old Italian gardens of the Renaissance, though its origins are in ancient Persia. It's center is life, the spirit, the source, and your way to it is self-evident.

This, at Longleat House in Wiltshire is truly a maze. Being a bit clostrophobic I'm not sure I would set out to solve the puzzle, even with these convenient bridges and lookouts to help you plan your course. But if ever there were a "wonderful maze," this then is surely it!

Friday, September 24, 2010

A New Book

Long awaited, this handsome new book by the very talented husband and wife team, Helena Attlee and Alex Ramsay appeared moments ago on my door step. There are so many books by now about the gardens of Italy, and our garden, Villa Massei in Massa Macinaia, has been featured in too many to list here, but Italy's Private Gardens takes a fresh approach. Most of the truly famous Renaissance gardens are not included in this volume relinquishing their long-held territory to us upstarts or minor players on the grand stage of Italian horticulture. I wonder, however, how obvious it might be to readers who know my garden well that that's us on the cover—a narrow, seductive view of our "Orange Garden."

The text is expertly written with great attention to detail, and it tells the unique, fascinating stories of each of the 19 gardens it discusses. I love Alex's photographic artistry, the way he centered one of the columns of our "Umbraculum" and found the curious backdrop of our as-yet-not-quite-filled-in cypress hedge.

And the "Old Garden" gets the "double truck," with our thick green carpet looking freshly mown and the peeking-out flowers of early Spring.

The views of the Apuan Alps fill in where the text leaves off, and my Cossack-hatted trionfi catch the photographer's eye.

Gil Cohen smiles with a rose and our "Umbraculum" shades the afternoon.

The cherries look delicious under their protective nets and the "Italian Garden" tames nature's exuberance with its geometry.

We're honored to be in the company of the great smaller gardens of Italy, side by side with Harold Acton's La Pietra, with Iris Origo's La Foce, with Ninfa and La Scarzuola and so many other marvelous little-known Italian gardens. To get a copy in the USA click here. In the UK, here.

And Pots

And these are the pots I cook with, in copper from Dehillerin, Paris.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pots of Pots

My pot, called Ulm, has this beautiful impression/stamp, which reads Paul Gervais for Archeo, meaning that I designed the piece for Archeo, a great terracotta pot maker in Pistoia, just outside of Florence. They use the clay of Impruneta, but the actual work is done outside of Impruneta, in an industrial zone that has far less glamor than does the Chianti area where most of the best terracotta pots come from. But when the quality is so obviously high as this, who cares?

This is the pot in it final stages of development, a clay model of the finished work, from which a mold would later be made. Eventually, the mold will be filled with clay. The resulting object will then be left to dry, and afterwards baked in a hellishly hot oven.

This is the base, a separate piece. The pot is available with or without, but I much prefer it with.

And here is the finished product, Ulm, named after the location of the latter day workshops of the Bauhaus school of design. It's a bit inspired by their coffee cups—but not too much!

Archeo makes a wealth of wonderful Tuscan pots in endless classic models as well. Perhaps you can't tell by this photo, but these lemon pots are enormous!

A variation of a classic Tuscan oil jar, this pot was made to my specifications, also by Archeo. Usually, it has a pair of handles—not real handles—on its higher curves, but I needed a pot without handles, to place in a position where an axis shifts. This pot is about five feet tall and it stands upon an antique French mill stone, bought by the Sinibaldi family in the 17th century—the best mill stones of that era were French and imported.

As patinas go, this is as rich as you could possibly want. There is no lichen known to man that has not colonized this very old olive oil jar, which sits in the center of our "Orange garden." The two pots in the back are hand made, recent reproductions of classic lemon pots, the kind often found in traditional Italian gardens.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


And the jasmine faint, and the sweet tuberose,
The sweetest flower for scent that blows;
And all rare blossoms from every clime
Grew in that garden in perfect prime.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley

This bulb produces tall flower spikes with numerous tubular blooms and a fragrance that is rich and sultry. With Mexican origins it's not hard to understand how this plant is ideally suited to warm weather gardening. I remember reading, perhaps in Tender is the Night, about a sea-facing garden in the South of France in which the scent of the tuberose was as intoxicating as all the vin rosé they drank. I've been in a lot of Riviera gardens but have never run into this bulb in flower. In fact, the tuberose, Polianthus tuberosa, remained a mystery to me until I grew a few bulbs in a pot this summer. And it's true, its perfume dazzles!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Flowers Now

As flower shops go this is genuinely new, Gartenbau Lederleitner at the Romische Markethalle in Vienna. This vaulted, vast underground space in the center of the old city attracts people in droves with its suggestions for living with flowers acted out for you in endless variation and creativity.

And garden furniture too, and pots and accessories—I was amused by these "plant stands" near the main entry.

In autumn it's time to think of uses for gourds and pods of all sorts that grow in our gardens and meadows; their natural vibrant colors work to great effect here in a backdrop of grays and blacks.

Black gardens are not unheard of and daring gardeners inventing new perspectives have been playing with the concept for years, but I especially like these black reeds in dark gray planters on a black and white floor.

Boots on tables—our mothers would never have approved!

Wreathes in Austria are not limited to Christmastime; perhaps these blue ribboned ones (bluish) await the birth of a boy in the family.

And these are just a few of the enormous variety of cut flowers waiting for our evening's hostesses—it's compose your own, but here, how can you go wrong?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


A mountain retreat is the perfect antidote to long months of hard work and to the dullness of all that convenient living we've arranged for ourselves in rooms in which the walls are true and all the angles are right. This is Cafaggio, the summer cottage of Canadian art historian and author of Picturing Time, Marta Braun, and her American husband, Toronto art dealer Edward Epstein. For more than thirty years they've entertained their guests in this house in the hills not far from Lucca, mostly people in the arts, from all over the world. Every night, in high summer, this terrace is alive with conversation and banter worthy of the fabulous meals Marta prepares and serves al aperto in the black silence of star-filled skies. No prose would be too purple to describe the pleasures.

Its old facade shows the layers of history that make this cottage what it is. Here, Edward has hung a found object on a wall under the pergola. It's now time for a bit of renewal, however, a thoughtful restoration. Should the old stucco be scraped and redone completely? There are various schools of thought on this, but it's now fashionable to conserve as much of the original plastering as possible—the quality of lime used years ago is so much better that what's available today.

More than ten years ago I laid out this terrace and front garden—before that, the ground had fallen off to the valley below which made outdoor living difficult, and even dangerous.

I designed this terrace, in a cross-hatch stone and terracotta brick motif. Now it's taken on the patina of age and looks as if it's been here forever.

And this is one of the views they enjoy in the quiet of summers here in the sometimes rugged, sometimes rolling hills of the Valdottavo (the valley of the eighth Roman mile from Lucca's city walls). So what will the future bring? Below is my little sketch, one idea as to how to bring much needed light into the kitchen. Next summer, things might be quite different here at Cafaggio. But we must tread lightly; if we wake the hermit he should still feel very much at home when he's back up on his feet again!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Here, that's what they're called, simply "funghi," but the other Italian name for them is porcini. Boletus edulis, which the French call cep, is a basidiomycete fungus of the northern hemisphere, and when the season is on, as it is right now, people flock to the high hilly woods in search of them. We don't have to go far from our own front door here at Villa Massei as just above us on the hills of the Monte Pisani they grow plentifully, in a good year. This perfect example shown is firm and totally white inside, as they're supposed to be, with no sign of entry by the tiny worms that can eat up their tender flesh in minutes.

Once chopped, you must leave them unstirred in the pan with a little olive oil until they turn a deep golden color at the edges. When they're almost cooked, in three or four minutes time, I add a little fresh cream, some grated parmigiano and chopped garlic. If you have an enormous quantity of mushrooms, leave out the cream and cheese—that's an ever better way to enjoy them!

The preferred pasta is dried tagliatelle, and the fresh green herb shown above, a must in any funghi dish, is called nipitella, a kind of marjoram that grows wild in our fields.

When the pasta's drained and added to the sauce it has to be tossed over a hot flame—any pasta dish must be served steaming hot!

And just in case it dries out a little in the process, add a drop of the pasta's cooking water, which you've conserved in a tiny pitcher (this one by Stefano Gambogi).

And there you have it, my simple Saturday-in-September lunch!

Perhaps a cheese course to finish up! These are two kinds of pecorino (sheep) cheese, from the mountains of the Garfagnana, just north of Lucca. The colorful dish on the left is azuela from Cordoba, Spain, and I found the wonderful turquoise covered dish in Istanbul several years ago.

The pear is from our own trees. The hand-blown glasses are from Damascus, and the yellow hand-painted plate is a Tuscan antique.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

End of an Era

This is Villa Reale, Lucca. Sometimes called simply, "Marlia," or "Villa Marly," referring to the name of the small town that claims this estate as its greatest landmark, this house has stood here at the foothills of the Pizzorne since the 18th century, though it's seen many incarnations. When Elisa Bonaparte bought it in 1806 it didn't look at all like my photograph posted above; it was she who transformed the villa into one of Italy's greatest dimore. Since the early 20th century Marlia has been summer home to the Counts Pecci-Blunt, a family and a name that will soon, sadly, be extinct. The house is now for sale, and when it's sold, only memories of its great era of grandeur, in the "time of the Pecci-Blunt," will survive.

The gardens were commissioned one hundred years before Elisa arrived, by the Orsetti family. This iconic swan basin has been immortalized in the watercolors of American painter (who happens to have been my cousin) John Singer Sargent. There are as many as 100 lemon trees in terracotta pots perched on the balustrade, and ten or more adult swans swim freely in the chilly waters that find their way down from a natural spring on a hill above—I didn't find any swans today, where were they? Packed?

Perhaps the most impressive sweet bay hedge ever planted leads to the stables with its great clock and amazing blue interior. These trees are more than two hundred years old—it took the patience of a great gardener to achieve this spectacle.

The 18th century grotto, encrusted with seashells and lava rock, had once belonged to the neighboring archbishop's estate, but Elisa swallowed it up in her relentless advance to own all in sight. The old archbishop's house is now abandoned, but the gardens surrounding it are rigidly maintained—for now at least.

The lemon garden is the epitome of classic Italian garden style, an example of what can be achieved with so few kinds of plants and a single clear idea—this garden is like a preliminary sketch of itself. No lupins and delphiniums here under this savage summer sun. It's all a matter of architecture, what's come to be called "hardscape" by garden designers, the beauty of cut stone against rigidly clipped grass, and of course it's all steeped in tradition and symbolism.

Cecil, the first Count Pecci-Blunt himself, fashioned this Islamic-inspired garden in the 1930s. It could never quite cope with its own ambition and scale, it seems, but against the backdrop of all the garden excellence that came before it, nothing could have lived up—the channeled waters have their charm, but the variegated euonymus balls, though commonly planted in Persia, were perhaps a mistake here in Tuscany.

One of the most famous "green theaters" in the world this one has been widely photographed and publicized. I had this to say about it in my book, A Garden in Lucca: "Its terrracotta actors, Columbine, Harlequin, and Pucinella enter center stage from niches carved through a towering yew drop, an infinite fly-space of sky above. The firmament is this theater's proscenium. Ovations might be the rain or a thunderclap. Standing here in the orchestra lawn, you're in a green audience behind green box ball footlights and a green box prompter's hole; for all practical purposes, you're a plant."

On a wall in the pool house, somewhat reminiscent of Brighton Pavilion in its colorful, whimsical Napoleonic style, is this enormous poster, a collage of all the years at the pool with all of the villa's famous guests in bathing suits, playing tennis or croquet, walking the gardens, each year's entries lovingly pasted up and hand-dated by Countess Mimi Pecci-Blunt, here are the illustrious visitors one and all, Ava Gardener, the Aga Kahn, Ari and Jackey, and all the world's crown heads and all of the world's ambassadors to Italy. Finished, no more! Nothing is forever. What will become of the poster, I wonder.