Italian Gardens of the mind

Many years ago I had a dream after watching the original 1934 version of a film called “Death takes a holiday” featuring Frederic March and Evelyn Venable in which Death, taking a breather from collecting human souls, has a mini break in the land of the living and falls in love with a mortal woman. (It’s been remade a couple of times since, in a mostly uninspired fashion).


My dream, as far as I can recall it, took place in an afterlife which took the form of an unending ornamental garden. We’ve seen plenty of unearthly gardens in films and books so I couldn’t have claimed any originality in the idea. The one I always think of is the garden in the Draughtsman’s Contract where the young Anthony Higgins as Mr Neville, comes to grief.


(I’ve also imagined the afterlife as a beach in some autumn northern climate, and a small town set on a steep slope near an ocean, not to mention an endless city full of tall buildings and giant statues but I’ve read a lot of fantasy and horror so what do you expect?) We’ve seen Death in a variety of forms from Terry Pratchett’s morose character to Neal Gaiman’s teenage goth girl. Don’t forget the Blue Oyster Cult song Don’t fear the Reaper. But don’t get me started on the BOC.


This is a long way round to recalling the post featuring Hugh Thomson’s illustrations to As you like it, which has a few pictures set in an ornamental garden, possibly in Italy. I mentioned then that the American novelist Edith Wharton had written a book called “Italian villas and their gardens” (1904) illustrated with photographs, and paintings by the artist Maxfield Parrish. These have exactly the right atmosphere about them, slightly ominous and unearthly. The sky looks as if dusk was not far away.


The Villa Vicobello was near Sienna. Miss Wharton’s text is descriptive and precise but has nothing weird about it, which is a shame, as her ghost stories are excellent, and very atmospheric.


The Villa Scassi, Genoa. The statue in the garden has something to do with a childhood nightmare, the details of which I am thankfully unable to recall, although the image used to be persistent in the moments before sleep.

At the Boboli Gardens, a body of still water, a favourite feature of Parrish’s, and mine.


Below the Villa Deste, featuring the only figure in this set of pictures, a naked youth like a minor Roman  deity. Do you remember the living statue in the Draughtsman’s Contract?


I’ve also been looking at a book by the artist George Elgood who depicts an even larger number of villas and gardens in his book “Italian Gardens” (1907). They too have a certain mysterious edge about them.


[The Dragon Gateway, at Villa Garzoni]


[The cascade, at the Villa Cicogna]


Villa Collana – slightly too many statues for comfort, if you and your companion were otherwise alone in a quite garden with dusk approaching. Picture a young Edwardian couple suddenly taking fright and hurrying away to shelter. Some of these images are verging on the sinister.


I’m not an expert on garden history but I imagine that English travellers on the Grand Tour (and before that time) saw many of these gardens and brought ideas about garden design back with them. This process has embedded these gardens in our collective memory so the pictures in these books seemed familiar as well as sometimes unearthly. Well that’s my excuse anyway. As a fan of illustrated books from the early 20th century I don’t really need a better reason to write a post about the pictures in these two books.

Some of you of course will be far more experienced at visiting ornamental gardens, in Europe and the UK. I can’t help wandering if my own conception of the unearthly garden is based on childhood recollections of a municipal park in Chester, far less grand but having some stone seats and an excellent view over the river and the meadows on the other side.

Some pictures don’t need much of a push to seem disturbing, whether as a painting…


..or a photograph


This view calls to mind the scene in the Innocents (a version of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw featuring Deborah Kerr) in which the governess sees the ghost of Miss Jessel across a stretch of water. Instead of a ghost it has a temple, and some statues.


There’s some still water here too. Is it another one of my things, finding still water a little spooky?


Death has to go home in the end. I can’t remember if he takes the young lady with him.


The Blue Oyster Cult seem to think he would have done.

Love of two is one / Here but now they’re gone
Came the last night of sadness / And it was clear she couldn’t go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew then disappeared
The curtains flew then he appeared, saying don’t be afraid
Come on baby, and she had no fear
And she ran to him, then they started to fly
They looked backward and said goodbye, she had become like they are
She had taken his hand, she had become like they are
Come on baby, don’t fear the reaper

Donald Roeser, 1976


I’ve managed to get through this post without overusing words like sinister and mysterious. Just about anyway.  And yes, I realise that this one doesn’t have much of a connection with Kensington and Chelsea. But both books come from our Reference Library, and also from the golden age of book illustration, examples of which we’ve looked at many times.

We’re heading towards the holiday season after all. What better time to take a mental break in a sunny garden, even if some of the trees and statues look a little disturbing. And if you’d like to see an atmospheric garden closer to home try this one.


That could be an island of the dead, like this one:


[Arnold Bocklin – Isle of the Dead]

Next week, that Christmas tradition, the daily post. From Monday to Friday, short posts on short subjects.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: