There are a few days that make it into my top ten garden moments -- touring David Austin's breeding greenhouses in Northern England, seeing the white garden at Sissinghurst for the first time, sitting in Graham Thomas' parlour in Surrey while listening to him reminisce about heirloom roses. And then there was this day... I was reminded of this truly fantastic place when I recently read that photographer Jose Villa is planning a workshop there for the fall.
It was the summer of 2000 and we were vacationing in Tuscany. A few years previously I clipped an article from Garden Design magazine called The Backroad Gardens of Tuscany which talked about several beautiful Villas with private gardens open to the public by appointment. From the article we learned that one of the Villas, Centinale, was owned by an English gentleman, Lord Lambton and was just minues from our own rented Villa. My brother Bob and I decided to have a look, so we called in the morning to make an appointment and spoke to an English speaking woman who told us to come straight away...and so we did. We were greeted at the front gate of Centinale by the same English woman (we later learned was Lord Lambton's secretary) who handed us a hand drawn map to the garden, keys to all the gates and a paper with the history of Centinale.
This is what we learned:
Centinale was originally a large farmhouse built by the Chigi family in the 15th centruty on the site of an Etruscan settlement of the 8th and 9th centuries BC. The Chigis were money lenders and bankers from the 14th century on, and banked for Popes and English kings.
Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) spent much of his youth at Centinale. He made his nephew, Flavio, a cardinal and his heir. Flavio with the help of the Roman architecht and pupil of Bernini, Carlo Fontana, added the double marble staircase on the west facade. Fontana's grand plan for the garden was, facing north, to have a straight line of grass exactly the same width as his staircase, which climbs the gradual hill for 8 meters and ends in two large red brick gate piers with inlets for two statues.
The grass path ends with a small gate that leads to a stairway of approximately 200 stone steps, concluded by a stone plantform on which stands the Romitorio, a five story hermitage, faced with the cross of Lorraine, designed by Fontana and completed in 1713. Until the later part of the 1800's, twelve monks lived in the hermitage permanently.
Lord Lambton bought Centinale in 1977 from the Chigi family. It had not been lived in sice 1959 and the lower garden had been totally overgrown and many parts of it filled with brambles.
Bob and I began our tour of the garden near the front side of the house and were soon separated from each other. When I spotted him again on the back side of the house he was talking to an elderly gentleman. I approached and introduced myself to Lord Lambton. He had a twinkle in his eye as he said to me, "I think you have a very nice face." I felt I had met up with an old friend. He gave Bob and I a tour of his garden relating his vision for expanding it, removing cypress trees, moving olive tress and creating clipped hedges based on a design he had seen in a 17th century garden book of the Villa Borghese in Rome. (He later showed us the book, too! It was about 2ft. x 3ft. with incredible inked drawings of this amazing garden design). We strolled through his twin topiary apple orchards, where on one side of the path the trees were being clipped into spheres and on the other side the trees were shaped into cubes.
These two photos were taken near the house...
Lord Lambton also spoke fondly of the sculptures that had come into his care. He invited us into the house and as we walked from room to room, he flung open the shutters (it was a very hot day, so they were closed to keep the cool inside) and said "Oh you must see the view from this window...and this window..." and on and on.
He offered us wine, and as we sat in the kitchen drinking a glass of cool, crisp local wine we talked about our children, 16th and 17th century Italian gardens, and trading on the Nasdaq.
He encouraged us to visit the Hermitage and the Ilex wood as we said goodbye, and off we went.
Here is our first look back at the Villa as we walk toward the stairs that lead to the hermitage.
And here we are almost to the stairs.
We opened it with one of the very old keys we had been loaned...looked like a long way on a hot day.
about half way up, looking back at the Villa. If you follow the line beyond the house you can see the enormous statue of Hermes by Mazzuoli in a forrested grotto.
The path led us to the side of the Romitorio, surrounded by olive orchards.
The cornerstone of the Romitorio:
QUOD AD ANIM QUIETEM
SIBI SUISQUE COMPOSUIT
That which is for the peace and delight of the soul,
both for Him and for His,
has composed this work
of Bonaventure Chigi Marchion Quiricus
thinking of eternal matters
translation by Mike Deem
On the back side of the hermitage we found more olive trees, an outdoor oven and a newly planted fig tree.
Inside, thanks to our remarkable magic keys, we were able to enjoy the cool dark kitchen.
To the North lies the Tebaide, (holy place). Paths, avenues, statues of saints and hermits, and one of the seven votive Chapels surrounding Cetinale are to be found in the Tebaide — the Holy Wood.
Entrance of the Tebaide.
A few of the saints we met along the way.
One last look, though this one taken from inside the house, at the view looking into the south garden and remarkable Hercules in the distance...
On our return home I received an amusing email from Bob. He had done some research on Lord Lambton and learned that in 1973 he was the Tory Defense Minister under Edward Heath (the last Tory Prime Minister before Thatcher) and "resigned" after a news story of a World magazine photographer who had hid in a wardrobe and took secret photos of him with two call-girls, allegedly taking cannabis and amphetamines.
And when we met him he lived in a garden surrounded by angels and saints carved from marble. Lord Lambton passed away in 2006. A memorable man with a memorable garden.