Italian Villas and Their Gardens


Usually considered Wharton’s first published travel book, this work is marked by a high level of scholarship.  The volume was commissioned by Richard Watson Gilder, editor of the Century Magazine, to accompany the watercolors of Maxfield Parrish, and also includes drawings of some of the gardens and villas, as well as black and white sketches.  Other artists who contributed were C. A. Vanderhoof, Malcolm Fraser, and Ella Denison.  
The book is primarily a learned survey of garden architecture and ornamentation rather than a study of the villas.  We may imagine Wharton visiting the gardens in 1903 with a scholar’s eye, detecting, beneath the palimpsest of eighteenth-century horticulturists bent on transforming every garden into an English park, the original garden outlines and plantings.  She sketches the history of the villas, most of which were built during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  Her mission is to evoke, for the reader, the original tripartite relationship between villa, garden, and surrounding landscape.  Wharton was disappointed that the Century Company refused to include detailed plans of each garden, a defect noted by early reviewers, which would have undoubtedly clarified much of the text.  The book contains descriptions of more than 75 villas and their gardens;  Wharton is careful to point out that “villa,” in Italian, connotes both house and pleasure-grounds rather than the house alone (IV 54).  The volume has a bibliography of reference works in four languages, capsule biographies of 55 architects and landscape gardeners of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, and a detailed index.  As was the case with most of Wharton’s travel books, serial publication preceded compilation of the book.  In addition to the introduction and four chapters discussed below, there are chapters on Sienese villas, Genoese villas, and Roman villas. 

Introduction, “Italian Garden-Magic”:  In this chapter Wharton analyses the underlying approach to garden design that has caused the traveler to return from Italy with his “eyes and imagination full of the ineffable Italian garden-magic.”  She advises her readers not to try to reproduce Italian gardens at home, but to extract from them principles that might be applied to American gardens.  “A marble sarcophagus and a dozen twisted columns,” she warns with some severity, “will not make an Italian garden.”  A gardener ought, instead, to bring home from his visits to Italian gardens the “informing spirit — an understanding of the gardener’s purpose, and of the uses to which he meant his garden to be put” (IV 13).  

The chapter called “Florentine Villas” is devoted to the villas and gardens in and near Florence.  The designers of the Tuscan “pleasure-garden” showed a certain restraint in importing “Baroque exuberance” (IV 19), which Wharton attributes to “Florentine thrift and conservatism.”  The surrounding hills are rich in ancient villas, but many have been owned by foreigners whose owners eradicated the old parterres and vineyards under the influence of the English    landscape architects Humphrey Repton and Lancelot (“Capability”) Brown, who promoted the “Britannic craving for a lawn.”  Florence does contain, however, one of the most splendid and accessible of all villas and gardens: the Boboli Garden on the hillside behind the Pitti Palace.  Wharton describes these gardens in detail, as well as other villas and gardens in the vicinity, including the Villa Corsini and the Villa Gamberaia at Settignano.  [Settignano is also the site of the Villa i Tatti, formerly the home of Bernard Berenson and now the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies; the library may be used, with advance permission, by scholars.] 

In the chapter called “Villas Near Rome,” Wharton describes many villas outside Rome, including the Villa Farnese at Caprarola, the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, and several at Frascati.  Many were built by cardinals.  Some date from the Renaissance; others were built in the sixteenth century, in a period of transition between the Renaissance and the Baroque.  Wharton admires the classicism of the Renaissance villas, but, throughout the chapter, her interest in the Baroque is quite evident.  The Villa Farnese at Caprarola, dating from the late sixteenth century, with its “huge sylvan figures half emerging from their stone sheaths, seems “born, not built,” a phrase used by the architectural historian Vasari.      

The gardens Wharton praises most are those laid out in harmony with the surrounding terrain.  If a garden boasts “architectural effects” such as ornamental statuary, busts in niches, curving steps, grottoes, and vases, they must be subordinated to the overall garden-plan and in keeping with the scale of the house and garden as a whole.  Two features of Italian gardens that Wharton finds particularly appealing are “pleached ilex alleys” (where thick twisted ilex trees meet to provide a shady walk) and the teatro d’acqua, or water-theater (a system of terraced gardens in which water is pumped to the top and splashes down through various fluted basins and intricate stone channels) is at the Villa Conti (now Torlonia).  She praises water-theaters, not only in this chapter but throughout Italian Villas and Their Gardens, as the pinnacle of the garden architect’s art during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, combining natural topography and hydraulic engineering in a brilliant spectacle.  Among those open to the public today are the Villa Farnese at Caprarola, the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati (park only), and the Villa Lante at Bagnaia. 

In “Lombard Villas,” Wharton describes gardens she considers perhaps the most remarkable in Italy, those on the Isola Bella, the ancestral island home of the noble Borromeo family, in Lago Maggiore.  The palace is at one end of the elevated formal gardens, which culminate in a wall several stories high, with intricate turrets and colorful flowers through which fountains of water once descended. The reverse side, facing the water, has ten terraced gardens circling the entire end of the stony island.  The island has been a major tourist site in northern Italy since the seventeenth century, and is easily accessible to tourists today by ferry from Stresa and other points on the lake.  Wharton quotes the description of Bishop Burnet, who visited them in 1685: “the beautiful Prospect and the delighting Variety that is here makes it such a habitation for Summer that perhaps the whole World hath nothing like it” (IV 205). 

Throughout Italian Villas, Wharton values historic authenticity.  She distinguishes, for instance, the sixteenth-century Villa Pallavicini alle Peschiere from the nineteenth-century Villa Pallavicini at Pegli (outside Genoa and still advertised today).  She pities the “unsuspecting tourists” who visit these gardens and “come back imagining that this tawdry jumble of weeping willows and Chinese pagodas, mock Gothic ruins and exotic vegetation, represents the typical ‘Italian garden,’ of which so much is said and so little really known.” (IV 185). 

In the final chapter of the book, “Villas of Venetia,” Wharton focuses on examples of the Venetian maison de plaisance, or pleasure house, in the environs of Venice, on the Brenta Riviera, in Padua, Battaglia, and Treviso, and in the Euganean hills.  The villas on the Brenta Riviera, the canal/river running from Venice to Padua (about 30 miles), are of particular interest.  About 70 villas were built along the Brenta, beginning in the fifteenth century.  The Brenta was well known to Dante, who mentions it in The Inferno and The Paradisio, and it was painted by Canaletto.  Goethe traveled its length on a canopied barge in 1786 and described it in his Italian Journey; other famous visitors included Carlo Goldoni (whose comedies Wharton admired), Voltaire and Byron (both mentioned in the chapter), and George Sand. The Venetian nobility spent the villeggiatura, or vacation season, here (and many owners still follow suit).  Architectural styles range from the austerity of the sixteenth century to the more fanciful Baroque of the seventeenth and the restrained classicism of the eighteenth.  The commedia dell’arte (the improvisatory strolling theater that began during the sixteenth century, much admired by Wharton), is significant in this chapter, since some villas have garden statuary based on the stock characters.  In The Valley of Decision Wharton describes life in an imaginary villa on the Brenta and causes a traveling troupe of actors to give a performance of the commedia dell’arte, another instance of her enduring interest in this theatrical genre.   Among the villas and gardens described in this chapter are several that can be visited today, including Malcontenta, La Mira, and Strà, all on the Brenta, as well as the Villa Valmarana near Vicenza (with frescoes by Tiepolo).  This chapter contains the only formal garden plan in the book, of the Botanic Garden at Padua, which is open to the public.  

Discussion Questions:

1. What assumption is Wharton making about the travelers who visit the villas and gardens of Italy and wish to reproduce them at home?

2. Wharton’s travel writing is rich in literary allusion.  In Italian Villas, she refers to Robert Browning (IV 13); William Shakespeare (IV 75); John Evelyn (IV 86 ff.; 152 ff.); Bishop G. Burnet (IV 201 ff.); Michael Bryan, Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (1886; IV, 252).  Would you consider any of these writers particularly relevant for further study before a journey focusing on Italian gardens, and why?  Which of their works might you read?  

3. The book is dedicated to Vernon Lee.  Who was Vernon Lee, what was her connection with Italian gardens, and why was she Wharton’s dedicatee? 

4. Compare the Italy of Italian Villas and Their Gardens with the Italian settings of one or more of Wharton’s short stories: “The Muse’s Tragedy,” “Roman Fever,” “A Venetian Night’s Entertainment,” “The Duchess at Prayer,” “A Glimpse,” “The Hermit and the Wild Woman,” or “The Letter.”

5. Wharton’s first novel, The Valley of Decision, set in Italy, was published in 1902.  Compare the representations of the nobility, the Roman Catholic clergy, or Italian palaces and gardens in the novel and in Italian Villas and Their Gardens.  

6. Italian Villas and Their Gardens is possibly the most scholarly and objective of Wharton’s travel texts, with personal details about her travels, efforts to obtain permission to visit villas, and difficulties with Maxfield Parrish suppressed.  At the same time, it is in some ways the most passionately argued.  With whom is she taking issue, and why?  Uninformed Americans trying to construct Italian gardens from imported artifacts? Deluded Britons in Italy, eradicating authentic gardens in favor of “correct” lawns?  Italians who failed to preserve marble, stone, and stucco walls and ornamentation or who eradicated terraces and original vistas?  Proprietors of non-authentic gardens trying to lure tourists?  Does the volume make you long to visit the villas and gardens she describes despite the losses she mourns?

7. Do you find Wharton’s rich and varied literary references a welcome aspect of Italian Villas and Their Gardens or a distraction from her descriptions?     

Recommended readings:

Balestra, Gianfranca. “Italian Foregrounds and Backgrounds: The Valley of Decision.”  Edith Wharton Review 9:1 (Spring 1992), 12-14, 27. 

Benstock, Shari.  No Gifts from Chance:  A Biography of Edith Wharton.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1994.  

Craig, Theresa. Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms:  Architecture, Interiors, and Gardens.  New York: The Monacelli Press, 1996.

Dwight, Eleanor.  Edith Wharton:  An Extraordinary Life.  New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994.

Lewis, R. W. B.  Edith Wharton:  A Biography.  New York:  Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1975.

Prampolini, Gaetano.  “Edith Wharton in Italy.” Edith Wharton Review  9:1 (Spring 1992), 24-6.

Vance, William L.  “Edith Wharton’s Italian Mask: The Valley of Decision.”  In Millicent Bell (ed.)., The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton.  Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995.

Wright, Sarah Bird.  Edith Wharton A to Z: The Essential Guide to the Life and Work (Facts on File: 1999).

——-.  Edith Wharton’s Travel Writing: The Making of a Connoisseur (St. Martin’s, 1997).

–Contributed by Sarah Bird Wright, Midlothian, VA 

1 thought on “Italian Villas and Their Gardens

  1. Soveaux H

    Do you Know where she is living in Stresa when she visting isola madré and in trelezzina when she is visiting villa Carlota ?


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