What does Gardening in Italy Involve?
How do Italians perceive gardening?, How do Italians design their gardens? or Is gardening important to the Italians?
These are just a few of the questions that I am constantly asked as a garden designer, living here in Italy, by my contacts back home in England.
Well, an interesting set of questions they are and, after nearly 15 years of being a gardener in Italy I can finally begin to answer them!
I am positive that gardening for the Italians would be instantly rendered far more interesting if it allowed an Italian woman to gain the kind of street ‘cred’ that carrying a Louis Vuitton, or Prada handbag allows. If a garden provided the same kind of thrill as cruising down the Ligurian coast in a Ferrari or Alfa Romeo ‘Spider’, or even screaming at his favourite football team from the terraces for an Italian man...but it doesn’t! It just doesn’t! Gardening, as most of us understand in the UK, is a pacifying means, by which one akin to and begin understanding the wonderful rules of natural physics that govern our very existence! Therefore, one requires a certain emotional sensibilità andhumiltà to allow for a sensitive and humble appreciation of the art of gardening’s many values and depths. Clearly Renaissance garden genius, such as Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola or Giovanni di Cosimi de Medici retained a superb understanding of the humility, yet at the same time, they understood the aesthetic grandeur of this art. This feeling that these two garden artists displayed for natural law was expressed wonderfully through their magnificent creations Villa Lante and Villa de Medici, respectively.
However, in this day and age that wonder, that humble courage and the faith in natural processes which allowed for such works of art seems to have distanced itself from the average Italian. As with so many other facets of Italian life, gardening, understanding the land etc appear to have been well and truly lost to fashion! One could be excused for placing the blame upon fashion in a society that has allowed itself to become a victim of this modern ’religion’. Getting one’s hands dirty or spreading compost in the garden has been relegated to a ‘work of peasants’ and it bears no relation to modern Italian life whatsoever! In the UK, Europe or, for that matter, the States spending an afternoon ‘pottering’ in the garden is still considered to be healthy for the soul and spiritually nourishing somehow. Here in Italy, however, gardening now appears to be perceived as a demeaning chore that somehow clashes with the ‘clean hands’, ‘clean shoes and ‘Armani’ lifestyle, which now seems almost as popular as the Catholic Church!
Whereas, showing friends a green lawn irrigated by expensive, computer-controlled irrigation systems can be considered 'cool', an afternoon of (essential) muck-spreading or skin-ripping rose pruning, most definitely is not!! The joy and essence of good, old fashioned, gardening seems to have left Italy in the 17th Century! This wonderful art was abandoned to the peasant farmers, who now hold the view that the cultivation of a plant that isn’t edible as being ... a complete waste of time! Gardening has always managed to cross and unite many facets of society and the Lords and peasant’s discussions, leant against farmer’s gates in the UK, on sunny afternoons have played a major role in countryside affairs/ decisions. Instead the battles fought between the ‘common man’ and the wealthy landowner here in Italy have resulted in soaring labour costs and even ‘Italian communism’. This has put a stop to the once available labour that allowed for those works of Renaissance genius to blossom! Therefore, gardening and all its aesthetic luxuries, appears to have become more of a thorn in the side of the common people, rather than of a way of enjoying one’s Sunday afternoon. The many gloriously cultivated vegetable gardens and vineyards still display an incredible, inherent talent for ‘gardening in Italy’.
However, it would appear that until someone invents a system of gardening in Italy, costing less than a handbag, not requiring hard work, providing delicious edible produce, which doesn’t require dirtying one’s hands gardening in Italy will remain a Renaissance enigma! Curiously I believe that, as a garden designer, I have managed to do just that... all I have to do now, it seems, is wait for fashion to catch up with it!