Book Review

Gardens of the Italian Lakes

by Stephen Desmond
Photographs Marianne Majerus
Pub. Francis Lincoln 2016, 224 pages £35.00
Reviewed by Sheila Carey-Thomas

As Steven Desmond tells us in his marvellous new book, ‘the lakes of choice for the garden lover are Como and Maggiore’ in northern Italy. But who would have thought that the area has more rain than our own Lake District and that the wettest months are May and August.

This pattern of rain, the cold dry winters, and any extremes of temperature moderated by the volume of water provide the perfect conditions for growing plants and any gardens created here gain enormously from their relationship with the dramatic setting. For a grandstand view of the islands and gardens, the boat trip is hard to beat and enables the viewer to make more sense of the context of the place and the relationship of one to another. Concentrating on just two lakes allows Desmond to give detailed histories of the villas and to describe the gardens as they would unfold to the visitor. His text is illuminated with superb photographs taken by Marianne Majerus as well as archive prints and paintings.

In 1905 the Simplon railway tunnel meant that the arduous journey over the Alps was no longer necessary and the effect was immediate. The Orient Express had a regular stopping place at Pallanza and the tourists arrived in droves. Desmond divides the book into two sections, one for each of the lakes, beginning each with an overview of the area and looking in more detail at nine gardens on Lake Como and nine on Lake Maggiore.

Lake Maggiore, known to the Romans as Lacus Verbanus, is formed from the valleys of two rivers and is over 40 miles long. Bishop Burnet who came here in 1686 eulogised about the lake and described some of the islands as ‘the loveliest spots in the world.’ Desmond begins his tour of Lake Maggiore with Isola Bella which was disliked intensely by the architects J C Shepherd and Geoffrey Jellicoe, condemning it in print after a visit in 1925. However when they reprinted their book in 1953 they had changed their minds and now regarded it ‘as one of the great landscapes of the world’. Very different is the Villa Taranto whose ‘character is institutional’. Created by an English man, his double herbaceous borders are described by Desmond as ‘the horticultural equivalent of Brown Windsor soup on a Riviera hotel menu’ and a ‘testament to the absurdity of British gardening abroad’.

But on Lake Como who could not be beguiled by his description of the Villa del Balbianello. ‘The place looks unspeakably romantic in the approach; reveals layer upon layer of beauty and interest within its little world; and directs the eye outwards to framed views of such power and glory that the most ardent romantic’s descriptive powers will fail.’

Almost all the gardens described in the book are open to the public, some by prior arrangement, and Desmond has listed all contact details and recommended the best possible approaches from a garden enthusiast’s point of view as well as giving clear maps of the lakes. If you are thinking of a trip to the Italian lakes, then this is the book for you. If you read it just for interest and pleasure, I can guarantee you will be thinking about booking a flight before you have finished the introduction. If I have just one criticism, it is that the book is too big and heavy to pack in the suitcase.