Competitiveness between gardeners can be about who has the best tomato crop, who can get a Clematis to flower in Sydney better than anyone else, or who has the most varieties of Salvia plants. During my recent trip to Northern Italy, I came across garden rivalry on a grand scale when I visited two villas situated directly opposite to one another on Lake Como: Villa Carlotta and Villa Melzi.
Villa Carlotta (near Tremezzo) and its garden were originally built in a Baroque style from 1745 for the Clerici family, but renovated into a neo-Classical style by the next owner, Giovanni Battista Sommariva, who acquired it in 1801. He set about collecting fine paintings and sculptures to adorn the villa, and creating a naturalistic-looking, English-style garden filled with a wide range of newly discovered trees and shrubs, many from warm parts of the world, which had come flooding in to Northern Italy as a result of trade with far-flung places around this time. The Lake Como area has a microclimate of its own - with high rainfall, hot summers and relatively mild winters. The warmth of the summer sun is trapped in the deep waters of the lake, then this heat is released through the cooler months, enabling plants from warm parts of the world to survive. These included plants such as Camellia japonica, Magnolia grandiflora, Japanese maples, azaleas, Rhododendron, tree ferns, palms, unusual conifers and vines such as Trachelospermum jasminoides and Wisteria. Possessing such plants was regarded as an important status symbol in those days. Shrubs were grouped in loose masses and trees set apart to show their distinctive individual forms, with sweeping lawns (rare in Italian gardens) in between. This style contrasted with the traditionally more formal Italian gardens from earlier times, with their strict geometry and garden symbolism.
Across the lake, Sommariva's political rival, Count Francesco Melzi D'Eril, built a neo-classical villa of his own at Bellagio, completed in 1810: it too was decorated with superb artwork. He hired architect Luigi Canonica and botanist Luigi Villoresi to create an English-style garden to surround the villa. This garden has many of the features of the garden at Villa Carlotta, and apparently the two men tried to outdo each other in their importation and planting of the newest and rarest of plant species. Their original rivalry stemmed from a competing desire to be appointed to the post of vice-president of the Napoleonic Italian Republic (1796-1814), which Napoleon had given to Melzi. When it came to their villas and gardens, whatever one man would do, the other would try to better him. When Count Melzi planted his first Rhododendron, Sommariva brought in hundreds of them, and bought more land for his garden. Count Melzi seemed to have taken delight in planting his rarest and most exotic trees along the shoreline of his garden, so that they could be seen from across the lake.
Our guide told us that when parties were held at Villa Carlotta, flares would be set up and down the balustraded stone entrance, which was grander than that of Villa Melzi, giving an impressive effect. So, when Count Melzi had parties, he would row his guests around in a gondola-like boat to impress his foe across the lake - this vessel is now displayed in the garden of Villa Melzi. At one stage, Sommariva apparently installed a metal roof on one of his garden structures so that it would reflect the sun and blind Melzi's view across the lake.
The end result of the competitiveness between the two men was that there are two fascinating gardens to visit if you are staying in or near Bellagio. The majestic old trees, which include towering pines of many species (Pinus devoniana, pictured at left, particularly caught my eye), Italian cypresses, purple-leaved beeches, Sequoia, Gingko, tulip trees, oaks, cedar of Lebanon, Davidia and Cornus brachypoda 'Variegata' seemed to my mind to be the greatest legacy of the feud. The more open, park-like grounds of Villa Melzi seemed to be a better setting for these huge specimens, and they were well positioned to allow each to reach its full potential over the centuries! The lawn areas seemed more spacious there, whereas I felt the trees were perhaps more crowded together at Villa Carlotta, as more and more were added to enlarge the collection - but who amongst us isn't guilty of doing that with plants?? Villa Melzi incorporates the serene backdrop of the lake and the surrounding snow-capped mountains into the garden much more than Villa Carlotta does, with the stunning views framed by the trees at every turn. Villa Carlotta has tall hedging in much of the garden that only opens out to reveal the wider landscape at certain points. However, some of these changes have come later in Villa Carlotta's history as it changed hands in 1843 when acquired by Marianne of Prussia and given to her daughter Charlotte as a wedding present. It later passed in to the hands of the Italian government. Villa Melzi, on the other hand, is still owned by descendants of the original Melzi family.
Though the style of both gardens was intended to be of the English landscape style, there are still unmistakeable Italian influences in both. The clipping of shrubs into forms, the parterre in front of Villa Carlotta, and the pollarding of the plane trees all along the lake at Villa Melzi to form a spectacular shaded canopy remind us that we are in Italy.
Lake Como is a delightful area to visit. To view the many gorgeous villas from the water is a pleasure; to know a little more about some of the history behind a couple of them enhanced my stay in beautiful Bellagio.
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