Ornamental planting plays only a small part in classical Italian gardens. The English who settled in Italy from the middle of the 19th century onwards—there were large expat communities in Florence, Rome and Naples— were rather puzzled by the parterres and box-edged formal gardens. Why were they not filled with paeonies, irises, lilies and roses?
In response, the Victorians in Italy created their own hybrid style, which combined the traditional formality of a Renaissance structure with their own romantic attachment to floral abundance. Now it was the Italians’ turn to be puzzled: i milordi inglesi may have been making something that was bellissima, but they were not giardini veri. And so the stand off continued, well into the latter half of the 20th century.
Italians are now passionate about English-style gardens and gardening. This change of taste was triggered in the 1980s and 1990s by books and pictures of Jekyll-style borders, followed by tours of our famous gardens, such as Sissinghurst and Great Dixter, and visits to the great RHS flower shows at Chelsea and Hampton Court. English designers and nurserymen set up in Italy and flourished. English gardens, from Isola Madre to Villa Taranto, swarmed with visitors. Italian plant shows were launched. Plant sales multiplied. People had more money to spend: plants were beautiful and the Italians, who are naturally a creative people, wanted to use them beautifully.
Most gardeners like the plants that grow well for them and Italians are no exception. There are fine collections of palms, succulents, oleanders and bougainvilleas throughout the hotter, drier parts of the peninsula. Camellias are popular in the north and many gardeners collect historic varieties of fruit; some of their old apple cultivars date back to Ancient Rome and show up our vaunted Coxes and Russets as johnny-come-latelys.
The plant that has really caught the Italian love of beauty, however, is the rose. This may come as a surprise to those of us who think of roses as our own national flower. After all, roses are the chief joy of our summer gardens and our tradition of rose-breeding has given the world many of its most-loved varieties. Yet almost all the ancestors of our modern roses come from hotter, drier climates than ours, so they grow much better in the Mediterranean than in Britain. The wood ripens properly, so the bushes produce many more flowers, and the dry, warm weather of spring in Italy means the flowers come earlier and are less bashed around by wind and rain.
Italy now has some of the globe’s finest rose gardens. The largest private collection in the world (some 7,000 different cultivars) was made from 1960 onwards by Prof Gianfranco Fineschi, high in the Chianti hills among the vines and olive-trees of his family estate.
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