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The Englishman’s Paradise on the Ligurian Riviera. Stories, landscapes and people

On 25th and 26th March 2022 Villa Marigola will host in Lerici (SP) the study days “Il Paradiso degli Inglesi nella Riviera Ligure. Histories, landscapes and people”: an unprecedented in-depth study of the incredible heritage of parks and residences created by illustrious English personalities who, between the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, chose Liguria as their winter holiday destination, creating incredible exotic gardens. Thus, on the first weekend of spring, Villa Marigola – an architectural gem owned by Crédit Agricole – becomes the ideal centre of gravity of that “admirable extension of undulating coastline of hills above a background of high mountains stretching in a semicircle from east to west”, as described by Giovanni Ruffini in Il Dottor Antonio, the novel published in Edinburgh in 1855, which gave a strong impetus to the Ligurian Riviera thanks to its mild climate and the beauty of its coastline.

The conference, strongly supported by Marco Barotti, curator of Villa Marigola and founding member of the Association of Friends of Villa Marigola Golfo dei Poeti, is organised by this institution with Grandi Giardini Italiani as part of the 2022 cultural events designed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the network created by the English entrepreneur Judith Wade. The scientific direction of the conference has been entrusted to Maria Chiara Pozzana, a well-known landscape architect, founding member of the AIAPP association and member of ICOMOS Italia. The two-day event has already obtained the prestigious patronage of the Italian Ministry of Culture, the Liguria Region, the Municipality of Lerici, the University of Genoa, the British Embassy, FAI-Fondo Ambiente Italiano, the Mediterranean Garden Society, the La Spezia Garden Club and Gardenia magazine.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, the journey to Liguria became a source of inspiration for new horticultural and gardening techniques, for new forms and ways of acclimatising plants from different climates, for a new composition of gardens based on the enhancement of vegetation”, explains Annalisa Maniglio Calcagno, professor emeritus of Landscape Architecture at the Faculty of Architecture of Genoa, She will open the conference, which will include historical and literary overviews and focus on the most extraordinary English gardens of the Riviera, a rare opportunity to cultivate palms, citrus fruits, cacti and many other rare subtropical botanical species that in London could only be admired in the green houses of Kew. These places, fruit of human creation and testimony to the scenic beauty of the Ligurian landscape, were soon defined as ‘the paradise of plants’ and the ideal place for the construction of ‘winter residences'”.

Garden infatuations but not only, of course. Artists, writers and English greats such as Lord Byron, William Percy Shelley, Thomas Hanbury, Edward Lear, Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence, Lady Blessington, Clarence Bicknell left their mark on Liguria. “During the stormy years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the English were rarely allowed to travel on the continent, limited to the fortified Mediterranean colonies of Gibraltar and Malta, or Sardinia and Sicily”, explains another of the prestigious speakers, lawyer and essayist Alessandro Bartoli, a scholar of the subject: “After the retreat from Russia and Napoleon’s final defeat on the fields of Waterloo, the traveller from across the Channel was once again offered the opportunity of the most coveted of journeys, that to Italy, which during the 18th century attracted crowds of aristocrats, intellectuals and artists with a curious eye, eager to drink from the source of classical culture. This is how the ‘magic procession’ of padded carriages, majestic coachmen, coachmen, heavy Spanish leather trunks, sketchbooks and unopened notebooks began again, to be filled with sketches, drawings, watercolours and dried flowers, thus transforming them into the cahier de voyages that are now kept in English libraries and archives.

Professor Barbara Baldan from the University of Padua will tell the story of the “botano-mania” launched by the British in the second half of the 18th century thanks to the adventurous journeys to unknown lands made by explorers, merchants, captains, naturalists, nurserymen and clergymen in search of rare, bizarre, beautiful or useful specimens. “Driven by curiosity, fame or money, these personalities have bequeathed to us priceless scientific knowledge and breathtaking beauty”. This ‘mania’, also fuelled by the enthusiasm of the non-specialist public, seemed to have afflicted the English public cultural sphere, particularly that of middle and upper class women. In his report, Baldan did not overlook the importance of the female universe in botanical collecting, telling of Diana Beaumont (1765-1831), Lady Amherst (1762-1838) and Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) “who, disguised as a man, was the first woman to make a complete circumnavigation of the globe in search of flowers, which she painted in their natural environment, defying Victorian tradition[“.

In this context of discoveries and new worlds to be explored, Liguria gained prominence at the centre of international cultural exchanges with horticulturists, nurserymen, landscapers, owners of large gardens, with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and with the most prestigious Academies and Scientific Societies. We need only mention here the example of the Hanbury Gardens in Ventimiglia (IM), which have continued to be the gateway to exotic plants for over 150 years. As Professor Mauro Mariotti, Director of the Gardens and Professor of Environmental and Applied Botany at the University of Genoa, recalls: “This internationality was undoubtedly due to the personality of Thomas Hanbury, who was very open-minded and favourable to broadening contacts and interweaving Western and Eastern thought in a multicultural vision. The young age of the curators was also important. In 1867 Thomas Hanbury was 35 years old and involved Ludovico Winter, who was 25, in the design and care of the garden; Kurt Dinter was called in as curator at the age of 24 and Alwin Berger was taken on in the same role at the age of 26.

Among the thirteen papers presented at the conference was one by Emanuela Orsi Borio on Villa Rézzola, a new FAI property in Pugliola di Lerici, which dominates the La Spezia Gulf from Lerici Castle to the village of Portovenere. Created by Mr and Mrs Cochrane in the early twentieth century in the wake of the acclimatisation parks, it is still rich in exotic and Mediterranean species and retains its original design and structures.

Silvia Arnaud Ricci, owner of the Villa della Pergola complex, on the hill behind Alassio (SV), together with landscape agronomist Giorgia Trupiano, will bring the participants back to the atmosphere of the late 19th century by telling them about the botanical collections grown in the gardens and linked to the English tradition, including the 34 varieties of wisteria and the most important European collection of agapanthus, of which there are 500 different cultivars.

The historian Gisella Merello recalls the incredible botanical and artistic adventure of the Anglican pastor Clarence Bicknell: “in 1878 he came to Italy as chaplain of Bordighera, immediately fell in love with the light, the landscapes and the flora of the Riviera and decided to stay in the Ligurian town. As soon as he was installed, he began to paint flowers. Within seven years he had painted more than a thousand watercolours and in 1885 he published Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Riviera, a volume on the flowering plants and ferns of the Ligurian coast with 82 colour plates and notes on 280 species”.

Ursula Salghetti Drioli Piacenza, curator of Villa Piacenza Boccanegra in Ventimiglia (Im), and the gardener Pietro von Schweinichen will describe the perfect example of a natural garden in the Mediterranean area, explaining how their current work scheme “reflects the original organisation that emerges from the correspondence between the former English owner Miss Ellen Willmott and a certain Clovis. For example, the mowing of the grass under the olive trees, where various bulbous plants flower from autumn to spring, takes place once a year, in summer, when they are at rest. All pruning waste is chopped up and left in place. No fertilisation is necessary; watering is limited to the first few years of new plantings,” says Salghetti.

Reservation compulsory, places are limited due to Covid

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