Landscapes such as Villa D’Este, grand in scale and of epic proportion, are a visual delight. I affectionately call them OPG’s-or “other people’s gardens”. The other person in this case-Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, a Catholic prelate whose work on his villa and garden took place on and off between 1550 and 1572. According to Judith Chatfield in her book “A Tour of Italian Gardens”, “… the garden was famed throughout Europe before its completion.” No surprise there. This grand garden is a symphony-an opera if you will- to the beauty of water in a landscape. The first of its kind in Italy, it is a national treasure, open to the public.
I have only visited this utterly romantic garden via these photographs of Rob’s. I can only imagine, for plenty of reasons, what it must be like to be there. My native topography is flat, and more flat. Only occasionally will a project come along with an unexpected change of grade as a central feature. With the possible exception of Tahquamanon Falls, water like this is not part of my experience. But that does not mean what I see here cannot be part of my vocabulary.
Other people’s gardens can instruct, provoke, and influence the way one thinks about a garden. The idea of fern and moss covered rock can be readily incorporated into any landscape, provided the conditions are right. Proper scale is a relative thing-but I try to err on the side of overscaled. As a friend and mentor once said, who wants to get to the end of their gardenmaking and think they were never bold enough. It’s a good thing in a landscape, to be driven by being bold enough.
Lots of people own homes several stories high. I have likewise seen more than a few homes with two-story entrances. Then what? A landscape needs to address these features, and views. The beauty of the composition above lies in how it describes and emphasizes great depth, and space. In the foreground is a strong sculpture whose scale I suspect is much over life size. When my eyes go to what the figure in the sculpture must be looking at-the mid-ground fountain pool-its jet seems much smaller than the figure. Smaller in the midground is another way of saying further away. The terrace whose wet surface catches the eye next narrows to a walk. The wide entrance to the walk is clearly marked by tall walls; when the walk disappears from view, it appears much narrower. The end of the walk thus seems very far away. Where the walk leads-a mystery, from this perspective. This photograph is a rectangular flat object-but what it pictures appears to have great depth.
Every gardener knows any move gains importance when it is repeated. Though probably not accurately, I count 42 pots in this photograph. They make much of those rectangles of water, as do the yews in repetition. The shapes of those yews and lawn echo the shapes of the water. Far in the distance at ground level, a glimpse of that shade of blue that best says “I am far away”. That blue dwarf spruce you are thinking of might be at its visual best as far from your view as possible-rather than close up.
The scale and the height of this fountain jet is right, given the height and scale of the villa. My fountain jets at home will go fifteen feet in the air, should I feel like some big waterworks are in order. Given the size of my house and garden, that fifteen feet reads on the same order as this fountain, just at a different scale.
Everything in the architecture, the surfaces and the plantings are in support of this cascading water. There is no visual confusion aboout what exactly is the star of the show. Though elaborate in execution, it is very simple in design. I am quite sure the natural land forms influenced the design as much as any other element. A semi-circular wall of espaliers might make a similar statement on a property with little elevation change.
Looking back at the villa and its fountains from ground level, the pools seem immense, as they are close to your eye. The trees and sky are bigger than the villa; they keep it company, naturally. This property is in fact very large. It might be difficult to mask that, but it is a tribute to the designer here, Pirro Ligorio, that every aspect of his composition reinforces the depth and breadth of the space. Villa d’Este aside, it is possible to design such that no matter the size, any property can be visually spatial.
It is no wonder to me that gardeners seem to greatly enjoy a garden tour. Other people’s gardens-who knows how or what they might inspire.