My visit to Villa Balbianello

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Villa Balbianello, Lake Como, Italy

Those who know me know my love for Italy and all things Italian. Since seeing Monty Don's television series on Italian gardens, I have wanted to see some of the places featured in the show. A recent trip to Northern Italy gave me the opportunity to visit some of the gardens on Lake Como. Like Viterbo, near Rome, which I journeyed to in 2011, this unique part of the world spawned more than its fair share of gardens, because the area attracted those with the resources to splurge, as well as having a favourable microclimate for a growing a wide range of plants.

One such garden is Villa Balbianello. Accessible much of the time only by boat, it has a remote position on a steep promontory near Lenno, with water on three sides and rugged woodland on the fourth. The original buildings on the site were apparently originally used by Franciscan monks as a monastery and hospital in the 13th century, and remained in their hands until purchased in 1787 by Cardinal Angelo Durini. He built a villa and a most elegant loggia with stunning views at the top of the hill, with a room on either side used as a music room and a library respectively. It was the cardinal who apparently laid out the bones of the garden with its trees and shrubs, and placed various statues into position. The garden passed through successive hands over the centuries, but the overall structure of the garden was retained.

The property came into the hands of Italian explorer Guido Monzino in 1974, who renovated the villa (which itself is fascinating to visit) and, with the help of landscape architect Emilio Trabella, moulded the garden to its present form. It has been used as a location for several movies, including Casino Royale and one of the Star Wars sequels.

Clipped holm oak at Villa Balbianello, Lake Como, Italy

The most distinctive feature of the site, initiated by Monzino and retained to this day under the administration of the FAI (the Italian equivalent of the National Trust) is the pruning of most of the plants to create a garden that is like an incredible organic sculpture. The first glimpse the visitor has of this is the stunning holm oak (Quercus ilex) seen from the boat as one arrives, which is shaped into a perfect umbrella shape. This is apparently clipped by hand by two people on ladders over a two-week period each year.

Pruned plane trees at Villa Balbianello, Lake Como, Italy

Arriving at the jetty, the visitor passes under an avenue of severely pruned plane trees (Planatus x acerifolia), with their branches trained to grow at right angles to provide a shaded canopy. This avenue continues all the way up the steep hilly middle of the garden like a sinuous, woody spine. As one winds one's way up, all around are fluid green shapes made of clipped plants: spheres, mounds and low curved edges, formed from azaleas, bay trees (Laurus nobilis), Buxus sempervirens and Viburnum tinus and other evergreen plants. Several other perfectly umbrella-shaped trees can be found in the garden, including a camphor laurel (Cinnamomum camphora) tree. Even the lawns appear as moulded shapes, as they are grown over raised, sloped beds like lush rugs. It is a symphony of greens of various shades, with dark green mondo grass (Ophiopogon species) providing an effective textured groundcover under some of the trees, and brilliant green ivy (Hedera species) used elsewhere. Plants are boldly massed, to create the scope for forms unimagined when they are used as a single specimen. There is an amazing sense of dynamism in the garden, which is counterbalanced by the deep calm of the lake, which can be seen from every part of the garden. As Monty Don so aptly observed, the clipped and controlled plants are also offset by the wildness of the surrounding woodland. It is a masterpiece of contrast and like no other garden I have ever seen.

Creeping fig on the loggia at Villa Balbianello, Lake Como, Italy

Climbing plants clothe the walls of the villa, merging the buildings into the landscape. Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasmoinoides), creeping fig (Ficus repens) and ivy were the main plants used for this purpose. On the pillars and walls of the loggia, creeping fig is trained into serpentine shapes, echoing the snake on the coat of arms of the Visconti family (a fabulously wealthy Milanese family who owned the property in the 19th century) carved in the stone balustrade of the portico - a design later incorporated in the insignia for Alfa Romeo cars! Elsewhere, ivy is shaped into rhythmic swags on the low stone walls that flank the paths.

The thought of the clipping (much of it done with scissors) and maintenance that such a garden involves is terrifying, but one just simply has to sit back and admire the vision of its creator and the human endeavour that has gone into making it. Like many astounding gardens, it is the balance between the hand of man and the wildness of nature that is fundamental to its success. Some plants with their own sculptural shapes are left alone: giant variegated agaves (Agave americana) and Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) for example, retain their natural forms. There are a few flowers in the garden, but to my mind they were totally superfluous. The lesson of this garden is that the colour green can triumph, fascinate and satisfy when used in such extraordinary ways.