Apr 7, 2011

From Cheerio to Chiao!

The Flowering of Tuscany:
British Gardens in Italy
Bernard Berenson and Geoffrey Scott in the recently completed garden (1913)
Seed for Thought Lecture
Royal Oak Foundation
New York

ANNA PAVORD tells a good story.  You can see why she is in demand.   She delivers a riveting presentation punctuated by humor and knowledge.  She has done her research; found the interesting tidbit and overarching meaning of her subject.  Pavord began her lecture Tuesday night with this fact:
  At the beginning of the twentieth century,
one in six people living in Florence spoke English as their native tongue.

And then asked the question why?
1.  It was cheaper to live in a grand style
2.  Expats could reinvent themselves 
3.  Liaisons were tolerated, even indulged
4.  Sons could be sent to Italy,  if they proved unsatisfactory
5.  Industrialization had transformed the British countryside and some felt it was blighted
6.  The retreat to Florence represented a sense of "backwaterdom"
7.  Journals, diaries, sketches could be written
8.  Women found considerably more freedom in Florence than at home
The staircase at Villa le Balze
What exactly did the English bring to Italian gardens?  Pavord put it in the most lovely way, 
"... they laid on a muslin veil of flowers."

This story of the making of these gardens is greatly enhanced by the amount of hanky panky that went on between neighbors.  Homosexual, heterosexual, intramarital; it made no difference.  Sex was as much part of their lives as garden making. The actors:  Bernard Berenson, Lady Paget, Lady Sybil Cutting, Alice Keppel, Sir George Sitwell, Sir Arthur Acton,Vita Sackville-West, Charles Strong. 

But the guy who plays a pivotal role is the guy you haven't heard of:  Cecil Pinsent (1884-1963).  He arrived in Florence at age 24, joining his friend Geoffrey Scott on a study-tour of Tuscan architecture.  He designed 8 major gardens between 1921-1928.  Pinsent met the right people: each owned a large property and wanted a garden.  He understood the architecture of the Renaissance and the settecento.  This was his genius.  He made Italian gardens for British expats.  He used the Italian garden idioms and elements; creating designs more Italian than their ancestors'. 

Pavord took us through Pinsent's gardens, describing his landscapes, peppering her stories with the personal histories of the occupants of the houses and doing it all with a dose of British humor.
La Foce
Benedetta Origo
"...And then three years later, after my American great-grandmother had given my parents
enough money for a water pipe from a spirng six miles away,
he(Pinsent) was able to start this first little garden."

In passing, Pavord mentioned Torre di Bellosguardo.  Her husband had taken her there on holiday after a bout with cancer.  "Today, Torre di Bellosguardo is still surrounded by the silence of the garden and the hills, a haven of ancient and noble history that it shares with its guests everyday as a hotel of rare comfort and atmosphere".  She recommended a stay.  I googled it and decided this little piece of heaven would take a few more pennies in the piggy bank to become a reality.
Torre di Bellosguardo
Anna Pavord:  Author of nine books including:  The Tulip, Bulbs, The Naming of Names, The Curious GardenerShe contributes to a number of magazines and regularly fronts programs for BBC Radio.  In addition to her role on the Natinal Trust's Gardens Panel, she also sits on the Parks and Gardens Panel of English Heritage.