find interpretative information about the designs and designers of particular villas as well as the social, political, economic, and cultural contexts of villa life.
Gaining first-hand impressions from on-site observation immeasurably deepens the virtual experience of touring villas via the Internet. This past June I had the opportunity to visit and photograph several Italian villas and their gardens, including Villa Rotonda in Vicenza, Villa Medici in Fiesole, Villa Garzoni near Lucca, Villa d’Este in Tivoli, and Villa Giulia, Villa Medici, Villa Borghese, and Villa Pamphili in Rome. There I met some of the consultants and directors of restoration programs who are serving as participating scholars in the development of Catena.
Important to the objectives of historic villa preservation are two major American institutions: I Tatti, the Harvard Center of Renaissance Studies near Florence, and the American Academy in Rome. In these two places art history and landscape studies appear to be merging effortlessly in historic settings of special beauty and scholarly opportunity. At I Tatti I spent a pleasant afternoon with director Joseph Connors walking in the gardens created by Cecil Pinsent for Bernard Berenson in 1913. A few days later, Lester Little, the director of the American Academy in Rome, discussed with me the work of the current fellows, including that of Charles Birnbaum, the founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Birnbaum is completing a project com- paring, in a collage format, villa photographs taken by fellows of the Academy in the early years of the twentieth century with his own digital photos shot from the same vantage points today.
What Birnbaum’s collages make graphically explicit – the combined mutability and persistence of certain landscapes over time – is something that many of us fail to fully comprehend. We operate from the evidence before our eyes, forgetting that like the rest of the physical world, old villa gardens are simply versions of previous older versions of their original states of nature and design. The slow erosion of soil and stone by wind and rain, the picturesque discoloration of sculpture by moss and lichen, the growth, death, and replanting of trees – often several times over – have successively transformed these gardens throughout their centuries of existence.
But forces other than those of nature have been at work as well. The villas that we see today as tourists are, in fact, only the latest iterations in the history of their existence. Powerful social, economic, political, and cultural trends continue to transform the landscape palimpsest and our relationship to it. Nor are these manifold changes merely local and incidental. In Italy today we visit villas as tourists of the past as well as tourists of place, spectators of lost worlds, hardly realizing the seismic shifts that have occurred in Western civilization since these vil- las were first built. We come to Florence to catch an echo of
Lorenzo de’ Medici and the flowering of humanistic art, poetry, and classical learning at his villa in Fiesole and to admire the simple, harmo- niously proportioned architec- ture’s total integration with the site, which was chosen for the spectacular views of the countryside and the distant Duomo – all these things hav- ing been achieved according to the building principles articu- lated in the fifteenth century by Leon Battista Alberti – only to find that this spot is a chorus of other echoes. Today, it requires a feat of historical imagination to catch the barely lingering presence of Lorenzo and his circle of humanist scholars, poets, and artists.
As a precocious only child, the future writer and march- esa of Val d’Orcia Iris Origo grew up in this same villa and played in the bosco above the terrace garden where her mother conversed with Berenson and other mem- bers of the Florentine Anglo-American expatriate community. In 1911, Origo’s mother had rented the villa, which had been owned in the eighteenth century by Lady Orford, Horace Walpole’s sister-in-law, for by then Florence had begun to exert a pull on wealthy English families, who came and stayed because of its salubrious Mediterranean warmth and artistic riches. Later, in the nineteenth century, American artists, writers, and expatriates joined them. Florence remained a home away from home for the amply leisured, aesthetically devout, and intellectu- ally curious until World War I shook the foundations of the world of aristocratic privilege. Soon, the currents of modernism completed the work of sweeping that world away. Villa Medici, Fiesole, with Banksia roses, lemon plants, and paulownia tree.
The atmosphere and way of life created by the Florentine social circle of Italian villa owners and their friends are embod- ied now only in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James. In Fiesole itself you find only ghosts the way you might if you walked the streets of Bloomsbury trying to catch the presence of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Such is the way historic landscapes come down to us, and for historic preservationists, who must serve as custodians of the past as well as stewards of living land- scapes, this raises interesting problems because the cultural context in which these exist has so vastly and so many times been altered.
Propelled in revolutionary ways during the last three cen- turies, the West has lurched rapidly away from governance sys- tems based on the uncircumscribed power of the princes of Church and State and the vast privileges, possessions, preroga- tives, and untaxed wealth of landed aristocrats to systems based on greater individual freedoms, populist values, and democratic capitalism. New technologies have found their way into old