Saturday, April 30, 2011

After Rain


When I woke up this morning and opened the side window that faces the custodian's house I felt the joy of spring at its height. It had rained in the night and the sky was still covered and low and all the plants were luxuriating in the moisture—we've had three weeks of of endless sunshine here and things were beginning to get a little dry.

The rose climbing the stone facade is Cooper's Burmese, an extraordinary species rose admired for its simplicity. Off to the left we see the rose La Folette, another species. I planted it twenty years ago to cover the wall next to the gate but it chose to climb the liquidambar tree (sweet gum)—if you blow up this image you'll see it flowering high up in the tree's branches.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Interior at Villa Aureli


The 18th century in Italy wasn't about "understated refinement." Here in Lucca, for instance, it was a period of "more is more," with every single decorative element fighting to take the lead in a rich show of "sumptuousness." I must say, it's not a style that appeals to me. But here and there we find wonderful examples of baroque simplicity—two words not often appearing side by side—and this lovely villa in Umbria is surely one of them.

The gallery at Villa Aureli (see my previous posts about the garden) features a limited pallet of vermillion damask with walls of faded-out blue-green and yellow. With such a light chromatic touch there's nothing jarring about the ornate cornices and stucco work, which almost seem to disappear in the chalky white.

The floors are most unusual for central Italy—you can find this sort of thing in Naples and in Sicily, however. These maiolica swirls, in the idiom of the era, featuring the family coat of arms, were locally made.

A few dark elements bring depth to the scene: the dark wood of the furniture and this stunning pietra dura table.

It's a sun-filled room, uplifting upon arrival in its purity and restful resolve.

This is a taste of the magnificent main "salone," which is now undergoing an exacting restoration. In my next post I'll show this work in progress.

Monday, April 25, 2011

An Easter Sunday Garden Walk


Why go out on one of the loveliest holidays of the year?

A walk in the garden is often enough.

In silence, better yet.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Déjeuner Privé sur Place


Every once in a while, all too infrequently perhaps, the elements that make up a moment somehow gel and the outcome is perfection. Some sun, yes, but not too hot a sun, some shadows, but not too many, a breeze, but not a wind. Our enormously refined hosts at Villa Aureli, among the many enviable skills they so effortlessly employ in ordering their beautiful lives, are obviously able to control even the weather.

Just as they have artfully orchestrated this mix of spring blooms, which so inspired us—the cameras were snapping furiously over this bed of anemones and wild flowers. We all intend to somehow copy it!

Order is what soothes us and gives us hope and confidence and this is an example of the kind of order we find in classic Italian gardens—the perfection of imperfection!

The precision of imprecision.

The untouched in which not a square inch of it has not been touched by man.

The lemon house and its garden, the beauty of understatement.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Villa in Umbria


A blessed stretch of untouched countryside, miraculously spared desecration by the suburban sprawl of the outskirts of Perugia—what we call in Italian, cimentificazione—preserves this old carriage entrance to what is without doubt one of the loveliest villas in the Italian region of Umbria.

We're near the border of southern Tuscany and we've been invited here to lunch with a group of French garden owners traveling together in search of inspiration. The weather is perfect: the sunshine, the delightful spring temperatures in the low 70s. The wild daisies are blooming in the parterre and below this terrace sheep safely graze in the meadow.

A clever use of spring flowers in the low grasses lends this formal garden a touch of nonchalance.

The wall along the main terrace is a cheerful element with its baroque curves and narrow finials.

The house itself is handsome and dignified. It was originally, in the 16th century, the villa of the counts Aureli, then later of the Meniconi-Bracceschi, and the Serego Alighieri (as in Dante).

There are two of these elegant fountains, and they're perfection in their baroque simplicity. We'll see more of this simple and lovely garden in my next post, and then we'll venture inside for a look at the enchanting interior!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Sunday Lunch


We can sometimes have lunch outside in January, if everything weather wise works out. Just off the kitchen we have this south-facing conservatory and it reflects sun and warms the table but this time of year you don't even need a sweater to enjoy a lunch outside.

It's a narrow terrace because most of the space here is give over to roses, which haven't quite opened up yet, but it's all right, I love small spaces and the intimacy they suggest.

We had an Iranian visual here today at the center of things. We bought the hand blown vase in Tehran a few years ago and what could be more culturally appropriate than a single tulip! The glasses are from Damascus.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Al Pastore in Early April


When we bought this place this small garden in front of the shepherd's house was darkened by a high hedge of scary pyracantha, overgrown and threatening with its vicious thorns. It ran all along the low wall you see to the right. Behind it were three fruit trees, an old pomegranate a pear and a plum. It didn't take much courage for me to pull them all out to make this sunny terrace with views to the Apuan Alps.

It's now a scheme of squares at varying angles to each other, some in box and some in rosemary. The little accent tufts are thyme and the tree to the right is Pear William.

This is where our family and friends stay when they visit in the warmer months—a short walk to the pool beyond.

And this is the view from the now free wall where the ugly pyracantha had once stood, to the Italian garden, here in its fresh new spring leaf.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Umbraculum in Spring


When a garden has structure it's easier to keep it in order, but this garden requires devoted care all winter to bring it to its spring flowering, which will happen in just a few weeks. We have our backs to it now, looking towards the Old Garden, but that pot has something to do with what we're about to see as it belongs to two different gardens at once.

This is the entrance to the Umbraculum, the old Latin word for pergola. The high hedge material is Cupressus sempervirens, the Italian cypress tree, which makes a manageable and dense hedge in time (this garden is just 8 years old).

In the bright light of early spring the roses, Claire Jacquier,  are well in leaf but it will still be another week before we see a flower. The half round bricks were made especially for this project in Chianti.

The basin at the end of the walk is full of goldfish now, and they're getting bigger and bigger every year. We don't feed them a thing, but a certain percentage of the water arrives fresh every day from our own stream and it must be full of unseen nutrients.

The other function for the pot in the Old Garden is this: we see it perfectly framed at the end of the pergola from the distance of the Memorial Fountain (dedicated to Gil's father, Martin Cohen, who passed away in 2003).

A side walkway is lined with pruned olive trees. The pot and garden seat in the distance are my design.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Old Garden in April


If we didn't have winter we would never know the promise of spring. I sometimes think I could live near the equator, but besides missing my wardrobe I'd miss the changes that come with seasons and all the different nostalgic thoughts that reawaken with the plants. Entering my garden this April day, from the side gate, we're about to view a production that's finally ready after long agonizing months of rehearsals and preparation. And so let the show begin!

The grass is green as it gets. It's been washed by the storms of a couple of weeks ago, and these glorious sun-filled days, so many in succession, so typical of our Mediterranean climate, have brought up the fresh points of each blade—primavera, the first green.

I created this bench/sofa many years ago and yet it still works, I feel, though I'm far more apt to look at it than sit on it—who has time to sit in the garden?

These crab apples have been here for just a few years, where once a 200-year-old old deodar cedar tree had stood. When it died it sent us through a terrible crisis and luckily we were in Brazil when they took it out. This substitute scheme of four apple trees and a vase in the middle took a hard sell on my part before Gil finally gave in and accepted the plan. (The fact that Penelope Hobhouse approved it might have had something to do with him coming round). The vase has a double function; you'll see the second one in my next post.

At the feet of each apple I've planted my favorite daffodil, Thalia. They're rather late flowering, timing their candid blooms with the pink and white canopy of apple blossoms. The trees are still new here but one day I hope to see them a bit sprawly and wizened.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Wedding Princess


It's all the rage these days, weddings! They haven't gone out of fashion for a minute. They're still big and memorable and glamorous and moving—but they can also be small and memorable and glamorous and moving. What's important is getting it right. You don't want to risk a flop on the biggest day of you life and so you put all your trust in the hands of someone who knows how to do it—if you're smart, that is! In the photo above I'm holding in my hand the elegant brochure for CRC Events, and the lovely lady with the dreamy smile in the background is my dear friend Princess Claudia Ruffo di Calabria.

I've know Claudia since she was a teenager. She once lived here in Lucca but now lives in Rome, upon the threshold of the Italian South she so adores. She comes from one of Italy's oldest aristocratic families—her aunt Paola, for instance, is Queen of the Belgians. Let this noble background attest to her elegance of touch and refinement. I remember her at eighteen going around on one particular summer's day of no special importance in the most striking pale blue linen dress with pastel orange piping. She's always had an eye for style. In fact, her friend, Hubert de Givenchy steps out of retirement long enough to dress her for the balls they sometimes attend together in Paris!

Her weddings take any desired form but Italy is always the uniquely evocative backdrop. She amused us over lunch the other day in Rome with stories of the new trend: mini-weddings (not her word). She recently did a wedding for four: the bride and groom and two witnesses. Doubtlessly Claudia has what it takes to make that moment in miniature enormous and unforgettable, as if the whole world participated.

Italy (Claudia's Rome in particular) offers a choice of romantic venues that most countries could only dream of providing. This conservatory in a castle in Lazio is extraordinary for the magic of its ambiance, but Claudia has an intriguing new possibility on her list of offerings. It's a villa on the famed Amalfi coast, not far from Positano and the glories of Sorrento with views off to Capri under a Mediterranean sunset. Perched right on the very edge of the sea, and with its own chapel, it can sleep up to thirty people for a house party wedding not to be matched anywhere on earth.

And perhaps the most distinguished guest at the wedding of your dreams (your dearest friends excepted) would be none other than Princess Claudia Ruffo di Calabria herself—she wouldn't miss it, she loves weddings! (Please tell her I sent you.)