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Italian gardens

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There is something special about a garden, be it small, large or any size in between. There are few things that can display nature’s power and beauty in perfect harmony with human design, creativity and hard work. Designing a garden is the only art form–for a form of art it is–that can stimulate all five senses. The colours of flowers and foliage work wonders on the eyes; the sounds of leaves, birds, and wildlife as well as the sound of your own feet crunching the gravel are a little symphony for the ears. The vast array of textures, from the smooth petals of a rose to the harsh notes of rough soil, never fail to stimulate the hands. Then the scents (oh the scents!) of well chosen plants can fill the air around you and instantly transport you to far off places. What about taste? Well, look no further than a fruit or vegetable garden and the produce of nature to satisfy that need.

Here I shall end my little ode to gardens, for indeed I have loved gardens since a young age and can think of few better ways of relaxing or thinking through something than a little wander through a well-trodden garden path.

From an Italian perspective, the classical Italian Renaissance garden is based on the principles of straight lines, symmetrical design, and an imposition of human order and design over the wildness of nature. In some senses, it can trace its roots back to Ancient Greece and Rome. A typical garden would have marble statues, fountains, small grotto buildings, and other features designed both to provide pleasure for the viewer but also to impress. Wealthy nobles, like the Medici and d’Este families, would have vast gardens created in order to demonstrate their wealth, power, and prestige.

Last week, I was at the Chelsea Flower Show and found it interesting to see a few Italian-inspired show gardens. The coveted Best in Show award was actually won by an Italian designer. However, I personally don’t find the straight lines, geometrical patterns, statues and fountains of the classical Italian garden all that attractive. I much prefer the more naturalistic design of a traditional English cottage garden.

Of course, not all Italian gardens are large and extravagant. For most people, a garden, no matter how small, has traditionally had a very practical purpose–that of growing fresh fruit and vegetables to serve a family’s needs. Indeed, many popular Italian recipes can trace their roots to small households that had to make do with the limited produce that they could grow by themselves. The often tumultuous events in Italian history, including the lean times of the Second World War, forced people to fend for themselves as much as possible, and gardens played an important role in making this possible. Of course, the enduring image of this more relaxed type of Italian garden is dining ‘al fresco’–the whole family sat together at a rustic table with the Mediterranean sun beating down on the scene.

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