Grandi Giardini Italiani was founded by Judith Wade in 1977 to raise awareness of the immense artistic, botanic, and historic heritage of Italy’s best gardens. Additionally, Wade understood that the owners of these gardens needed advice about how to manage and promote them.
A sumptuously illustrated new book marking the 25th anniversary of Grandi Giardini Italiani, issued in both Italian and English versions, surveys the success of this garden program. Delfina Rattazzi, veteran horticulture journalist and herself part of the storied Agnelli family, is author of the central essay. She has distilled the highlights of the 147 gardens in the network into an itinerary that also features their origin stories. A second essay, by Caterina Napoleone, summons international literary antecedents.
Gardens for princes and popes are intermingled with artworks, agricultural enterprises, and vineyards. The Centro Botanico Moutan, in the Lazio countryside, is resplendent with peonies. Ermenegildo Zegna’s resources created an oasis in the Alpine foothills with rhododendrons as a focal point. The elegant, Vignola-designed Mannerist Villa Lante, in Viterbo, was built by cardinals but passed into aristocratic hands. The Isola Bella garden, on Lake Maggiore, displays enormous variety in both plants and statues.
Not far away is the Villa Melzi d’Eril, in Bellagio, owned by the Gallarati Scotti family, one of the most refined gardens on Lake Como. The Villa Cicogna Mozzoni, outside of Milan, dates back to the Renaissance and is still in family hands. So is the garden of the Palazzo Colonna in Rome, entered via a gallery filled with artistic treasures, whose owners were favored for centuries by the Vatican.
North of Rome, the Castello Ruspoli, with its famous “knot” garden, and the Giardino del Biviere, the Borghese garden in Sicily with its many species of cacti and succulents, have maintained their historic pathways. Rose enthusiasts can find joy in the Giardino della Rosa in Ronzone, in the Trentino region, or the Castello di Cordovado, in the Veneto region. The Crespi family created the world’s first permanent bonsai museum outside Milan. And botanical gardens in Palermo, Catania, and Padua are dedicated to preserving local biodiversity.
Visitors such as the Queen Mother, Mick Jagger, and Mark Zuckerberg have benefited from this expertise, but you don’t need to be a star to access the helpful index organized by region. The book, though not a substitute for the real thing, will stimulate both your senses and your wanderlust.
Patricia Zohn is a culture columnist who has contributed to numerous publications, including the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and Town & Country