“They lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles”, said Dorothy Parker, concerning the Bloomsbury Group, the literary group settled in London in 1900s.
Between the end of 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Florence was the mainstream magnetic pole of Anglo-American people.
This was the moment of Arts and Crafts fever: William Morris, John Ruskin, William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens were reshaping the English society and its gardens. The outdoor life was the leading guide: the garden rooms became the ideal backdrop. The Italianate taste grew: gardens featured terraces, flight of steps, balaustrades, pergolas, statuary, and topiary.
Somebody preferred to establish roots in the unspoilt English countryside (the Costwolds were the most well-liked); somebody dreamt about escaping…
Buying a dwelling on the gentle, rolling hills of Tuscany was sometimes cheaper than buying a Renaissance painting.
The British community had long established in Florence, but at the beginning of the 20th century the urgent desire of escapism aroused many art historians and cognoscenti from Britain and America to rush to Tuscany.
And tangled love-affairs thrived in the gardens of Florence.
Love-affairs and “the Artichokes” at Villa I Tatti
Once upon a time Bernhard Valvrojenski (1865-1959), a famous art historian, specialized in the late Medieval Art and Renaissance Art. He was born in Lithuania and had Jewish origins; around 1875 he emigrated to Boston, where he changed his name in Bernard Berenson. He studied at Boston and Harvard University; he befriended with George Santayana and Charles Loeser and joined the O.K. Club.
Bernard Berenson, George Santayana and Charles Loeser shared common European origins and the desire to return to the cradle of European culture. So, they established a triumvirate of friendship.
In 1888, Berenson met Mary Whitall Smith. She was married with Benjamin Costelloe… but Bernard started a relationship with her.
Bernard Berenson was a protégé of the art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston (do you have in mind the museum?), who sent him to Florence in the late 19th century in order to purchase paintings.
So Bernard and Mary came to Florence and bought a rural villa, formerly called “Zatti”, in Fiesole. They were able to marry just in 1900, when the first husband of Mary died. The foreigners in Florence preferred working with English architects whom they could trust for their honesty: Bernard Berenson didn’t trust Italian architetcs.
So, the Berensons entrusted the alterations of Villa I Tatti and the lay out of the garden from the young English architect Cecil Pinsent (1884-1963) and the English intellectual Geoffrey Scott (1884-1929).
Cecil Pinsent was shy and brilliant, he trained in Architecture in London and had the practical skills and the inventiveness; Geoffrey Scott was a sophisticated raconteur, graduated in Greek Literature at Oxford University, he was of a more cerebral nature, with an innate good taste.
The flirtatious Mary started winking with Geoffrey. Meanwhile, Cecil was creating the wonderful Italianate garden, in a one-colour palette: green. The topiary triumph of solid green, the exaltation of the sculptural value of plantings, the cypress allée, and the absolute symmetry payed the way for his career.
Geoffrey suggested where to place the paintings and the furniture in the house, Bernard was seething, but with his customary aplomb.
Mary coquettishly dubbed the partnership between Cecil Pinsent and Geoffrey Scott under the name of “the Artichokes”.
Bernard and Mary Berenson
Cecil Pinsent’s adventures and gardens: Villa Le Balze
Cecil Pinsent arrived to Florence in 1906: he stayed at a “pensione” in Via dei Serragli, in Florence. He met Edmund Houghton and his wife Mary (again this fated name!). They lived in Via dei Bardi 32 (a fashionable place, of course); Edmund was a skilled photographer and an amateur astronomer. The Houghtons had a motor car: it was a luxury at the beginning of 1900s. The trio travelled to Siena, San Gimignano, Volterra, Venezia and Verona, in an exciting hair-raising car journey (Cecil was the driver). Edmund, an ingenuous amateur, encouraged Cecil in his sketches and drawings; Mary arranged the engagement of Cecil with her daughter Alice. And later she broke the engagement, because she took a fancy to Cecil.
Cecil Pinsent was so disappointed that he never married. But he laid out gorgeous gardens in Tuscany!
In 1908-1910, he worked at Villa Gattaia, in Florence, for Charles Loeser (do you remember the friend of Bernard Berenson in USA? He moved to Florence, too).
In 1912, Cecil worked at Villa Le Balze, in Fiesole, for Charles Augustus Strong (1862-1940). He was American, he learnt German, studied philosophy at Harvard University, and married Elizabeth Rockfeller. Widower, he moved to Florence. In 1911, Strong bought a small-holding with a few olive terraces and a rocky outcrop, on a steep hill. Cecil worked on this difficult site, with a steepness of 50 degrees, and extremely narrow. He laid out seven formal gardens (e.g. the secret garden, the lemon garden, the library garden); a Baroque grotto embellished with a colourful pebble mosaics and the busts of Aristotle, Socrates, Demosthenes, Zeno; the statues of Venus, a triton and a dolphin; the gazebo; the pergola; the plantings (lemons in pots, tall hedges of holm oak, box, iris, lavender and swags of roses). The outcome is a “rise and fall” garden with stunning opening views over Florence and enclosed, secluded, intimate gardens. Cecil Pinsent managed to enlive the space on different variations of level, but always in relation with the villa.
Edmund and Mary Houghton with Cecil Pinsent
Geoffrey Scott and Cecil Pinsent
Villa Medici and the catastrophic marriage
In 1911, “the Artichokes” worked at Villa Medici, in Fiesole.
The villa was considered the first Renaissance villa in the history: laid out in 1459 by Michelozzo for Giovanni de’ Medici, the uncle of Lorenzo the Magnificent, it was praised by Leon Battista Alberti for the harmony between the verdant landscape and the architecture with the rising terraces.
It was Lady Sybil Cutting, an Irish, charming widow, who entrusted the garden from Cecil Pinsent and Geoffrey Scott. As usually, Cecil was hardly working, whereas the other “Artichoke” was flirting with the owner.
Cecil laid out a Neo-Renaissance garden with raised terraces, oranges plantings in espallier, and a riot of Rosa Alba Incarnata. In 1918, Geoffrey Scott married Lady Sybil Cutting, with the displeasure of Mary Berenson and his fan Edith Wharton, the famous author of “Italian Villas and Gardens”.
But the marriage proved to be a disaster: Geoffrey Scott, who in 1913 published his masterpiece, “The Architecture of Humanism”, dedicated to Cecil Pinsent, wasn’t able to write, he had no inspiration. Six years later, they broke.
Lady Sybil Cutting and Villa Medici entrance at Fiesole
Cecil Pinsent at Villa La Foce: the iconic Cypress Lane
Lady Sybil Cutting had an adorable daughter, Iris: during the works at Villa Medici, Cecil used to draw for her and gave her his sketches. She wanted his ruler as a memento of their friendship.
In 1927, Iris, now Iris Origo (she married with the aristocratic Antonio Origo), entrusted from Cecil Pinsent the famous garden at Villa La Foce, on the Crete Senesi, in the province of Siena.
Cecil now worked alone. After the catastrophic marriage, his partnership with Geoffrey Scott finished, but they were still friends.
Cecil Pinsent laid out a marvellous formal garden at Villa La Foce: it featured a lemon garden, a grotto, a monumental staircase, a wisteria bower, a water reservoir, a rose garden. The topiary was laid out in box hedges and spheres, herbaceous borders in a more Jekyllesque style. He employed more flowers than usually: lavender, aubretia, alyssum and magnolias. The best corner of the garden was the memorial for Gianni, the only six-years-old son of Iris and Antonio Origo.
Cecil laid out the iconic panorama, too: the Cypress Lane in front of Villa La Foce is one of the best known postcards from Tuscany. This is a masterpiece of garden design.
Iris Origo received the villa as a gift from her grand-mother. But the landscape of Crete Senesi was very different from the one of her childhood at Villa Medici: dry, hot and Mediterranean, almost oppressive.
Cecil Pinsent was able to refresh the topography of the site and create a lush oasis at Villa La Foce.
Cypress Lane in front at Villa La Foce
Vernon Lee at Villa Il Palmerino in Fiesole
Violet Page (1856 – 1935) was an English writer, better known as Vernon Lee.
You have probably never heard about her, but she was a polyglot intelllectual and a pacifist who needed to change her name in a male name in order to be heard. She wrote a plethora of books and essays under her male pseudonym. In 1889, she purchased the Villa Il Palmerino in Fiesole.
Villa Il Palmerino turned in the intellectual rendezvous of Bernard Berenson, John Singer Sargent, Rainer Maria Rilke, Betrand Russell, Henry James, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Adolph Hildebrand, and Anatole France. At Villa Il Palmerino, she also organized theatrical recitations and plays.
She was a lover of Pre-Raphaelite style and had various relationships with the writers Mary Robinson and Edith Wharton, the author of “Italian Villas and Gardens”. Most of all, she loved Florence and Italian gardens.
She wrote long letters to the “Times” in order to save Florence from the demolition of historic buildings in the late 19th century.
The garden at Villa Il Palmerino was eulogised by Janet Ross in the novel “Old Florence”:
…”The double line of dark cypress, and the intricate underbrush of rosemary, lavender and Chinese roses, the shimmering meadow of spring daffodils and wild orchids, and here and there the busy buzz of the bees, compose an unforgettable picture”…
Violet Page (Vernon Lee)
The tormented love-life of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis in Florence
Everybody knows Vita for her splendid garden at Sissinghurst, in Kent. But this is probably the most over-rated of the garden… An icon of Arts and Crafts, the garden was laid out by Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962) and his husband, Harold Nicolson. Poor husband: nobody cares about him.
All the fame is for Vita. Ah, dear Vita!
Around 1923, she visited Villa Medici, in Fiesole. The owner was Lady Sybil Cutting, now married with a certain Geoffrey Scott. It was love at first sight. Vita began a tormented love-affair with Geoffrey. Breve ma intenso, we say in Italy (short but intense). And Geoffrey was so busy that he couldn’t find (again) his inspiration.
But Vita was a graceful butterfly. And Florence was a delightful flowery meadow. Vita flew away.
She had had before a troubled relationship with Violet Trefusis. Born Keppel, Violet was a socialite and a writer. Her mother Alice Keppel was the mistress of King Edward VII of United Kingdom.
Vita and Violet met at school, when they were just schoolgirls, and had a relationship. Vita married Harold Nicolson in 1913, Violet married Denys Trefusis in 1919.
But between 1918 and 1920 they often travelled to France, where the audacious Vita dressed as a man and provoked scandals. This was their provocative gateaway, the liberation of sexuality.
In 1924, Alice Keppel bought Villa dell’Ombrellino in Florence, where Galileo Galilei and the poet Ugo Foscolo had lived before.
The Villa owes its name to a curious iron Chinese sun-shade, “ombrellino”, towering on the terrace garden since 1815. Countess Teresa Spinelli Albizi decided to place it there.
The garden is a wide English park provided with exotic trees like palms, bamboo, cedar trees, and ginkgo biloba. Part of the park was transformed in 1926 by the architect Cecil Pinsent, who laid out an Italianate garden, featuring Neo-Renaissance statues in stone of Vicenza and box hedges.
In 1947, Violet Trefusis inherited the villa from her mother.
She masterminded glamourous parties in Florence in the 1950s and she felt a true Florentine. Her most famous novel, “Pirates at play”, took place in Florence. She helped Florence during the flood of 1966 and she financed the restoration of the damaged works of art. At her death, the socialite bequeathed 6 millions of old “Lire” to the city.
But she is mostly rembered as the lover of Vita Sackville-West and for their scandalous gateway to France.
Vita Sackville-West, the butterfly, was capricious: her love-affair with Virginia Woolf, (1882 – 1941) a member of the Bloomsbury Club and the most important modernist writer of the 20th century, took her away from Violet Trefusis.
Virginia Woolf dedicated “Orlando” to the sensual and irriverent Vita, before killing herself in 1941.
Vita wrote about Violet and herself in a novel, later published by her son Nigel, with the famous title “Portait of a marriage”. And Violet also dedicated a novel to her lover Vita: “Broderie Anglaise”, less known.
This was the dramatic triangle of three indipendent and bold women: Vita, Violet and Virginia.
Their path had crossed Florence.
The ashes of Violet Trefusis were buried between Italy and France: her tomb in Florence is at the Cimitero degli Allori.
Iris Origo, the owner of Villa La Foce, coined the term “anglofiorentinismo”. In her own words:
“The anglofiorentinismo – that particular blend of taste, style and way of life that permeated generations of residents of the large and prosperous community of Anglo-American expatriates, who since the last century have been ensconced in the most beautiful villas on the hills surrounding Florence and in the city’s noble palaces.”
She was critic, too:
“If they lived in a Florentine palazzo, it was at once transformed into a drawing-room in South Kensington: chints courtains, framed water-colours, silver rose-bowls and library books, a fragrance of home-made scones and freshly made tea (But no Italian will warm the tea-pot properly, my dear). If they had a villa, though they scrupulously preserved the clipped box and cypress hedges of the formal Italian garden, they yet also introduced a not of home: a Dorothy Perkins rambling among the vines and the wisteria on the pergola, a herbaceous border on the lower terrace, and comfortable wicker chairs upon the lawns. – Bisogna begogna! – (the who words pronounced to rhyme with each other) I heard Mrs Keppel cry, as, without bending her straight Edwardian back, she firmly prodded her alarmed Tuscan gardener with her long parasol, and then marked with it the precise spots in the beds where she wished the flowers to be planted. The next time we called, the begonias were there as luxuriant and trim as in the beds of Sandringham. It was these owners of other villas who were to be seen at my mother’s Sunday tea-parties”.
Extract from “Images and Shadows: Part of a Life”, London, 1970.
Garden Guided Tours in Anglo-American Gardens of Florence
In Florence there is always something new to learn and to discover.
Why not joining a Garden Guided Tour to the Anglo-American Gardens of Florence and Tuscany?
Most of them are now owned by foreign Universities: Villa I Tatti is owned by Harvard University; Villa Le Balze is owned by Georgetown University. They have special opening days for the visitors. Villa Medici is private; the garden only is open to the visitors. Villa La Foce is usually opened on pre-established days from Spring to Autumn.
Don’t hesitate to contact me to arrange your garden guided tour!
Please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fantoni M., Flores H., Pfordresher J. “Cecil Pinsent and his gardens in Tuscany” (EDIFIR: Edizioni Firenze, 1996)
Maresca P. “Giardini di Firenze” (Angelo Pontecorboli Editore, Firenze, 2008)
Pozzana M. “I giardini di Firenze e della Toscana” (Giunti Editore S.p.A., Firenze, 2011)