Intoduction to ‘Italian Gardens and Landscapes’ exhibition

Francis Hamel, Rousham, October 2010

View of Florence

Sometimes, when talking to Italians about their gardens, they are defensive. They can't seem to conceal their envy for our gentle temperate climate, the abundance of water and the willingness of so many things to grow here. Their envy is of course mirrored by ours for the structure and design of the great Italian gardens and for their climate which allows them actually to be lived in. They are often extensions of the home, roofless interiors that act as a stepping stone between the villa and the surrounding landscape. Italian gardens are built, English gardens grown.

The relationship between the garden and the landscape beyond is one of the main themes in this collection of paintings. I had thought originally that the landscape beyond would be wilder and more chaotic but in many of the places I visited the transition was almost seamless. The landscape in Tuscany in particular feels like a giant park with its cypresses, vines and olives and with the villas and farms that seem somehow to predate the landscape itself. The drama and formality of the Italian villa interior flows out into the landscape furnishing and taming it and blurring the boundaries. The idea of the garden as a bit of wilderness ‘house trained’ or domesticated has huge appeal to the landscape painter. The painter and the gardener are often playing the same game and trying to satisfy the same audiences.

I started my ‘tour’ in early spring 2010 with a visit to Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore. An incredible clear sunny day with snow still on the surrounding mountains, this is one of the most decadent and romantic places ever conceived; it still offers a very distilled form of escape from the ‘real world’. As the spring progressed I went on to the Villa Lame and Caprarola, Buonaccorsi near our home in Le Marche and then to Florence in May to visit Villa Gamberaia, the Corsini villa at Mezzomonte, Villa La Pietra, Castello and La Petraia. In June I went to Cetinale and Vincobello near Siena and in July returned to Mezzomonte and la Pietra and went to see the garden at Trebbio. In September I went to see three of the great gardens near Lucca, the Villa Torrigiani at Camigliano, the Villa Garzoni at Collodi and the Villa Reale at Marlia. I finished in Florence again at I Tatti, the Villa Capponi and the gardens at Torre di Bellosguardo.

All the paintings were started in situ and then completed in my studio. That's why most of the pictures are quite small.
Many of the gardens are overtly theatrical, three of them actually have outdoor theatres, cypress proscenium arches and box wings, actors and actresses carved in stone and grassy stalls. The theatre theme (John Martin. Art London 2009) has continued but the cast sit still and the lights stay on for longer in the gardens.

These pictures shamelessly offer escape, Italian formal gardens and their landscapes are some of the most beautiful places in the world and I have done my best to try and capture a bit of their magic. I would like to thank Angela Lloyd for getting me started and Rosalynd Pio for guiding so expertly and entertaining me so generously. Thanks too for allowing me in to their beautiful gardens to (in chronological order) The Earl of Durham, Selina Bonelli Zondadari, Cristina Fantacci Cellini and New York University, Principe Giovanni Corsini, Donna Vittoria Colonna, Professore Lino Pertile and The University of Harvard, Baron and Baroness Amerigo Franchetti and Maria Teresa Benedetti. Thanks too to Charles and Angela Conrell-Dormer for letting me live and work in a bit of Italy imported by William Kent in the eighteenth century, blended with England and lovingly tended at Rousham in Oxfordshire since then by them and their forebears. The best of both worlds.

See Italian Gardens & Landscapes page.


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