Italian Villas & Gardens – The Fatal Gift of Beauty & Water


Oh, Italia, wrote England’s romantic poet the dashing George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, 6th Baron Byron, ‘thou hast the fatal gift of beauty, the orphans of the heart must turn to thee’.

Many of the orphans of the heart went to Italy including the poets and writers Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) considered the father of English literature, John Milton (1608 – 1674), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Marie-Henri Beyle known as Stendahl (1783-1842),  William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850 and in particular Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) and John Keats(1795-1821).

John Keats was an English poet, the son of a livery stable keeper. Like so many of his fellow poets before him posed questions because they trying to understand their ancestors relationship with the ancient gods mainly from vase painting traditions.

Joseph Severn, John Keats Listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath c 1845, Keats House Hampstead

Joseph Severn, John Keats Listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath c 1845, Keats House Hampstead

Just as Shelley and Byron before him, Keats lived for a time in Italy dying in a house at the foot of the Spanish steps which is now known as the Keats Shelley house, a place of literary pilgrimage. Browning and Keats remained forever, she buried in the English cemetery in Florence and he at Rome where his epitaph says “Here lies one whose name was writ in water’.

We are inheritors of a legacy from Ancient Greece and Rome that have come down to us through literature, paintings, sculpture, architecture and gardens.

The Patricians of Ancient Rome established Villa culture in their desire to enjoy the coveted pleasures of country life. These ideas have flowed down to us today.

In his villa a man could relax, read the books of the ancients, sleep or rest as his mood dictated while enjoying the excellent wine and fresh food of the region, in great abundance.

It was a place where the body could be nurtured, the mind expanded, all the senses stimulated and where the soul could find ultimate peace and a place of repose. It was truly a heaven right here on earth.

During the Renaissance the Medici villa at Pratolino outside Florence had sparkling cascades and gleaming pools that hung like pearls on a necklace when it was first laid out in 1569 for the Grand Duke Francesco 1. Mostly demolished in 1820: its remains are now part of Villa Demidoff, nearby to Florence.

Despite evolving societies and technology the Italian villa and its garden became, and remains a place where one can dwell “under the tent of heaven”. To use water lavishly in a garden in a place where it is known to be scarce is considered luxurious.

In a garden at the Villa Gamberaia near Florence the incredible clipped topiary, originally laid out during the eighteenth century, encloses a kind of outdoor boudoir for use on hot summer afternoons in a spectacular fusion of nature and culture. Its designer used water to spectacular effect.

Today these villas and their gardens remind us of how water is essential to life in any hot and dry land.

A romantic view of a Roman Bath, more like how we would want it to be – detail of painting by late 19th century artist Emmanuel Oberhausen

The whole romantic ideal of ancient Greece as a centre for youth and energy, toleration and intellectual freedom where beauty and nature come together as a perfect entity comes down still strongly to us from five centuries before the Christ event,  the Greek classical period.

However it ignores all the other uncomfortable facts of life at that time, because it is with our own memories of those who have passed on, in time it is only their goodness we remember.

During Roman times water was at the forefront of Italian culture. The bath itself was at the heart of its social life, contributing to its citizens health and wellbeing.

Romans were intelligent collectors of other’s ideas.

A still life fresco painted on the walls of a villa excavated at Pompeii in the eighteenth century depicts a glass bowl filled to overflowing with fruit from the fertile plains of Campania, fruit that includes a fallen ripe pomegranate spilling its seeds, symbolic of Spring.

It is gently reminding us of Spring and Persephone and why the rites of the passage between the seasons and fertility were very important.

The fundamental difference between our own society today and those of ancient times is that practically everyone had a direct link to agricultural production and water was integral to having a successful harvest.

View through to Vista in the Getty Villa, USA, an architectural recreation of a villa from Ancient Rome

Most people, whether as landowners, permanent or seasonal labourers or shopkeepers, were selling the produce of the land and without water they would have been in a perilous position.

Compared to modern times, commerce and industry played a very modest role and the overwhelming importance of agriculture in ancient societies cannot be stressed enough, because it affected every aspect of life.

Juvenal, the Roman lawyer and satirist preferred life in Campania. He complained like the poet Horace that Rome was plagued by muggers, loud noise, inflation, overcrowding, crumbling tenements and traffic jams.

Accordingly he advised a friend to repair to Campania, as he was about to do, where the most blessed of plains, ringed by fruitful hills and where the finest grains, vegetables, olives and wines were produced.

Campania was one of the geographical units that made up Italy in ancient times.

It is the region of which Naples is today the Capital. Long before it was a part of Roman Italy, Pompeii had been a city of Campania.

For two or three thousand years, since central Italy first began to emerge into history it was independent of, and often in conflict with, Rome.

Greek colonists had established their trading stations there eight centuries before the Christ event but eventually Campania passed into the control of Italic tribesmen who moved down from the mountains of the interior.

View-Campania-4The latter were quick to learn the lessons of civilization and the union was to coin a phrase, a fruitful one. It resulted in a culture, which in varying proportions was both Greek and Italic.

Historically and geographically Campania is a remarkably well defined unit and it was one of the most active creative centres of the late Hellenistic world.

The Romans called this part of their land Campania felix, which meant lucky, because of its exceptional fertility, proverbial beauty and ideal climate. Under artistic patronage industry thrived in its workshops especially those of its sculptors, potters, stuccoists and painters.

From the third century before the Christ event the life and thought of Romans was influenced by contact in countless ways with the Greeks and their way of life. The educated classes of Italy became gradually and completely Hellenised.

Rome’s position as a world power came about through wealth acquired by the Roman upper classes and every well to do Roman acquired a seaside property in Campania.

Sulla the Dictator had a villa near Cumae, Julius Caesar, Roman military leader Pompey, and the Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer and political theorist Cicero himself had no less than three Campanian properties at Cumae, Puteoli and at Pompeii.

Ancient Grape Vines in Campania

Ancient Grape Vines in Campania

By the time Caesar Augustus established himself on the island of Capri during the first century the Bay of Naples was ringed with the playgrounds of the rich and famous.

Their Villae marittimae constituted a natural field for imaginative architectural experiment, while at the same time ensured the decorative tastes and fashions of Roman society were satisfied.

Neptune the God of the Sea was represented in the decoration on the walls of the House of Nepture at Pompeii.

He was also worshiped as the god who made the earth shake, an irony that would only become apparent when a natural disaster occurred as Vesuvius erupted in 79AD and the whole township of Pompei, its peoples and their villas and gardens were consumed.

The Villa is the only architectural type of building that has remained virtually intact since ancient times. It seems to have been inspired initially by a style of Greek house five centuries before the Christ event in which an inner court or atrium open to the sky was surrounded by rooms.

The villa represents in architectural form the idea of Arcadia, which is all about the perfect world we all want to live in.

Throughout the 18th and 19th century, every man and woman who aspired to become recognised in society by  displaying either their intellect, wealth, or both,  knew of this ‘magic’ place. Arcadia. The English fondly called it Arcady.

In ancient times Arcadia was a district of the Peloponnesus mountains on the Greek mainland named for the God Arcas, the Son of Zeus.

Arcas suceeded his uncle Nycitmus as ruler of the Pelasgians who were called Arcadians after him and he taught them how to grow corn, to make bread and spin wool.

Pelasgus had also been a son of Zeus and is fifty grandsons had been the founders of the cities in Arcadia. He was the first man born to the soil, and the first King in the area.

It is said that it was he who invented the use of houses and distinguished between edible and poisonous plants.

Today the continuing tradition of Italy’s villas, fountains and gardens have become an opportunity for Italians to show off to the world at large their national love of a festive display and their veneration for having such a plentiful water supply.

It’s also about, as it was in ancient times, the informality and beauty of country living, the healthfulness of the fresh air, the opportunity for exercise and in a place that offers undisturbed intellectual and creative activities.

There you can enjoy leisurely conversation with friends and the delight associated with contemplating both the natural and cultivated world.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014

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