Fresco of a vine-clad pergola in the studiolo, Villa Medici, Rome. Like the ancient Romans, who painted frescoes that were illusionistic extensions of their gardens, patrons of such Renaissance villas as the
Villa Giulia and the Villa Medici in Rome commissioned trompe l’oeil frescoes of garden structures adorned with flowers, vines, and birds.
which segregated the part reserved for private family use from the boschetti, which on certain days could be visited by the pub- lic, and the part that served as a game park. Now the gardens are all one recreational landscape – Rome’s “Central Park” – in which you can see the traces of later landscape-design enthusi- asms, such as the English-style lake, and institutional additions, such as a zoo and a modern art museum. Recently, a Shake- speare theater, built in imitation of the original Globe Theater on London’s South Bank, was added. In such ways does the river of culture wash over old landscapes, removing some things and leaving in place the varied deposits of time.
At Villa La Gamberaia, Professor Patricia Osmond, one of the participating scholars in the Digital Archive project, has researched several epochs of that villa’s history. Like other Tuscan villas, it is more intimate in scale, domestically allied, and wedded to its agrarian surroundings than the grand Renaissance and Baroque villas in and around Rome. Osmond’s analyses of her findings, which were published in a recent issue of Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, make it possible to view La Gamberaia in layers: the originally simple and then later embellished Tuscan farmhouse of the
Gambarelli family; the possibly rebuilt house of 1610, when the property was owned by Zenobi Lapi; the villa after it achieved more or less the present garden layout in the first half of the eighteenth century, when it was owned by the Capponi family; as the imaginatively redesigned early-twentieth-century gardens in which Princess Ghyka, sister of Queen Natalia of Serbia, sub- stituted pools of water for the then existing parterre beds; as a charred ruin after German officers headquartered there set fire to their maps following the Allied invasion at the end of World War II; and now, again, as a smiling series of green rooms in which statues of putti are half hidden in mounds of clipped box foliage. As Osmond spread her photographs of Princess Ghyka’s drawings out on the stone table in the center of the gar- den along with the photographs taken in the early part of the twentieth century, I could see how similar yet how altered La Gamberaia is since the days when Florence harbored a colony of expatriates and when large private incomes and low prevailing wages made it possible to have 20 gardeners rather than two.
Yet, under the respectful hand of Luigi Zalum, its present owner, La Gamberaia is still a magical spot, perhaps even more so than in 1904 when Edith Wharton extolled it as “probably the most perfect example in Italy of great effect on a small scale.” The survival through the vicissitudes of history of anything so fragile and ephemeral as a garden is truly remarkable, and the future of such landscape loveliness is a legitimate cause for con- cern. The art of landscape salvation is not simple and cannot fol- low to the letter prescribed formulas or guidelines, although these may serve a useful function. Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens, published in 1904 when industrial America was enjoying its Gilded Age, looked at the same villa landscapes I saw on my recent journey through northern Italy. But she viewed them romantically, aesthetically, and with a yearning to import their graceful charm to the harsher light of America. Now we try to see them still as objects of beauty, but also, as scholars and preservationists, we seek to know and interpret them as multilayered documents of social and design history. Our restoration efforts are necessarily circumscribed by politics and practicality. I am happy to believe that – thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, as well as to the teachers and students in Garden History and Landscape Studies at the Bard Graduate Center and the participating scholars we have assembled as colleagues to create Catena – the work of historic landscape preservation is becoming more nuanced and cognizant of the fourth dimension: time. – EBR
Garden History and Landscape Studies Student Steven Whitesell
Steven Whitesell, now enter- ing his second year as an M.A. candidate in Garden History and Landscape Studies at the Bard Graduate Center, is a landscape archi- tect licensed in both New York and Connecticut and has been employed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation for over 14 years. Having earned a B.F.A. and a B.L.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design, Whitesell was attracted to the program at the BGC because it combined garden and landscape history with several of his other interests, which include contemporary art and the decorative arts.
As a child Whitesell absorbed his family’s love of nineteenth- century American furniture, and with his parents and four sib- lings, he often visited historic house museums. His father was a consultant to the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, and his sis- ter worked at the museum as a tour guide. While a student in the program of landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, Whitesell took courses in garden and land- scape history and gained a knowledge of significant practitioners and their work. However, he credits Garden History and Landscape Studies at the BGC with introducing him to the con- textual aspects of landscape history, including the literary sources and the material and cultural theories that ground it within the humanities.
Because Whitesell works in the Borough of Queens at the Olmsted Center, the Design and Construction Division of the New York City Department of Parks, and lives in nearby Kew Garden Hills, it is logical that he would become interested in the history of the area as the birthplace of commercial horticulture in this country. The French Huguenots, settling there in 1685, introduced new plants (the lady apple [Syzygium suborbiculare] and the bell or pound pear [Pyrus communis] among them) as