Villa Gamberaia, near Florence, Italy

Is the presence of a garenna, a nymphaeum and a limonaia enough to make a great garden?

Words & Pictures: Amanda Patton

Villa Gamberaia is often cited as the ultimate iconic garden, the one that has influenced more designers than any other and a model of perfection for the smaller garden. Given this, I was eagerly anticipating my first visit.

So can it possibly live up to the hype? Well, no, is the honest answer, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have an awful lot of very good things going on.

The house, an early 17th century Renaissance villa, sits a little awkwardly on a steep triangular plot, perpendicular to the avenue that approaches it. Carved out of the hillside, it has an imposingly high retaining wall to one side and a narrow expanse of lawn with open views to the other, with the apex of the triangle beyond. Originally an orchard, then a parterre with a garenna, or man-made island for keeping rabbits, this narrow triangle was transformed in the early 19th century into the most famous part of the garden, the water parterre.

While most of the garden dates from the Baroque period, containing as it does a grotto, nymphaeum, lemon garden, secret garden and bowling green, it is the water gardens that draw the most acclaim. They were created on the remnants of an existing parterre in the early part of the 19th century by the villa’s eccentric owner, the reclusive Romanian Princess Ghika, who lived there with her (probably) lesbian partner Miss Blood. Around this time, many of the crumbling Florentine villas were bought by members of a well-connected and artistic ex-pat Anglo-American community who discovered Florence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bringing with them an enormous amount of money, a romanticised vision of the Renaissance and a desire for some pretty wild parties.

Not so this latter for Princess Ghika, though, whose interests lay solely in her garden. Who knows what prompted her to replace the earth with water, but the result is pure magic. At its far end, and reached by beautifully detailed pebble mosaic paths, the garenna has been replaced with a simple semi-circular pool. While the more architectural box structures within the parterre are down to the subsequent owner, American-born Baroness von Ketteler, it was Princess Ghyka who outlined the arc of the pool with a series of contemporary-looking parallel clipped box hedges before enclosing the whole with a cypress arcade whose arches frame tantalising glimpses of the countryside beyond. This is the true genius of Gamberaia; the way the space plays with the balance between enclosure and openness, intimacy and an engagement with the landscape.

Rumour has it that the villa is up for sale, so visits to the garden are likely to cease – go now while you still can.

Not to be missed

The Baroque grotto is perfectly balanced in the small space and the enclosed tunnel leading from here to the limonaia, where ‘water japes’ would once have been the norm, gives the visitor a sense of adventure and discovery (though nowadays without the dousing). There is some lovely detailing on the balusters in the grotto, each being carved with a different motif.

Quibble

For all its loveliness, there are flaws in the design. Despite the Renaissance principles of extending from the main axes of the villa, there is no connection, physical or perceived, between the garden and the villa, in fact the water parterre is separated from the villa by a strip of lawn and reached through a metal gate. It’s also disturbingly asymmetrical to the facade of the villa, and while the modern visitor doesn’t have access to all the garden, there is still a lack of flow between the spaces which makes for a garden of lovely elements that don’t entirely hang together.

Other gardens nearby

The best way to see this and many other Tuscan gardens is to book a place on Amanda’s tour leaving in April 2015. Not just Villa Gameraia but the famous Boboli and Bardini gardens in Florence, Villa Cetinale in Siena and La Pietra at Fiesole. Amanda is a supremely knowledgeable and experienced guide: you will be in safe hands. Full details from her website here.

How to get there

If you must go it alone then details are available from the website here. The garden is a short bus or cab ride from Florence.