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Exploring Northern Italy’s Villa Gardens

In May the garden is aglow with azaleas and rhododendrons. A Moorish pavilion placed right at the water’s edge, a well-manicured allée of pollarded sycamore trees, and a delightful Japanese water garden are among the attractions.

Unlike Villa Melzi, the complex of Balbianello, the next place we visited, is owned and maintained by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano—the Italian National Trust. The peninsula on which we find the estate juts dramatically into Lake Como and has views of three different shores. In addition to the gardens, a magnificent 18th-century loggia, which has columns delicately laced with well-tended garlands of ficus, is open to the public. Originally commissioned by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini at the end of the 18th century, the gardens of Balbianello have been modified by subsequent owners and reflect French, English, and Italian influences—all quite typical of the pleasure gardens of this period.

Built around 1690, Villa Carlotta was once known as the Villa Clerici, but was renamed in 1843 for Princess Carlotta of the Netherlands when she received the home as a wedding present.

Before Carlotta and her husband, Prince George of Saxe-Meiningen, added to the garden, previous owner Gian Battista Sommariva left his mark. He’d bought the estate in the early 1800’s and embellished it extensively, adding statuary, a stone tower, and thousands of plants to the already extensive collection of shrubs and trees, perhaps in competition with his political rival Francesco Melzi d’Eril, the owner of Villa Melzi, across the lake.

In the summer months, one is drawn to the woodland dell dotted with blue hydrangeas behind the villa that Carlotta and her husband expanded. Also, you can stroll, as guests once must have done, in what appears to be a stunning rain forest complete with numerous collections of exotica—ferns, giant magnolias, bananas, and orchids—that had become a passion among horticulturists of the period.

We ate dinner at the Villa d’Este hotel, where we had rombo (turbot), splendidly prepared and so fresh that the delicate flavor of the fish came through as it often doesn’t. What a pleasure to be in this restaurant, overlooking the impeccably manicured formal gardens of the hotel.

The next day we left como and drove to lake Maggiore to see the Borromean Islands, and in particular the Isola Bella, perhaps the finest example of 17th-century Italian Baroque garden art. When seen from the town of Stresa, the island looks like a giant ship: the Borromean Palace at the stern balancing the 10-terraced garden at the bow of the island.

Milanese architect Giovanni Angelo Crivelli is credited with the original design of the palace and the grounds that were shaped into a step pyramid, decorated with turf, pebbles, shells, and ornate mosaics. One reaches the gardens by passing through the palace and six lavishly decorated grottoes.

Punctuated by immense cone-shaped evergreens at each corner, the parterres in the Garden of Love prepare the guests for the extravaganza of the water theater that towers over the island garden. The theater is richly decorated with niches, fountains, and hanging plants.

A spectacular collection of sculpture adds to the delight of the place, symbolizing the rivers and lakes of Italy, the four seasons, and the Borrome family’s power. Statues are dramatically silhouetted against the sky and the elaborate Italianate balustrades and fountains.

We ended the trip at the palazzo Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, just outside Genoa in the suburb of Pegli. The park has beautiful trees and shrubs, in particular the camellias, which date back to the garden’s inception in 1840. Soon after, set designer Michele Canzio whimsically created for his patron Alessandro Ignazio Pallavicini a “drama in three acts,” in which the garden visitor, the “hero,” treks through the Triumphal Arch, passes through “hell,” represented by the dark grotto, and ends at “Paradise Regained,” in the brilliant sunshine. And indeed it was.

Mary Tonetti Dorra writes for the New York Times, Gourmet, and Elle Decor.


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