The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 3: European Gardens (500AD-1850)

Sicily Garden Design

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115. In Sicily are some gardens of great extent. A few are mentioned by Swinburne; and an account of one belonging to a Sicilian prince, remarkable for its collection of monsters, is given in Brydone's Tour. �On Sicily,� Sir Richard Colt Hoare observes, �Nature has lavished all the necessaries and luxuries of life; the most fertile soil, and the most advantageous and excellent sea-ports in Europe: yet the inhabitants are sluggish, indolent, and ignorant, and their dwellings (those of the peasants) sordid, and even loathsome.� The abundance of streams and springs in the neighbourhood of Palermo would furnish the means of forming the most delightful gardens: but for this species of decoration the inhabitants have no taste; the only ornaments of their extensive pleasure-grounds are orange, lemon, and a few other kinds of fruit trees. Many parts are happily situated for vegetation, as is sufficiently proved by the flora; but the soil of the Bagaria is too shallow and rocky. �Among the numerous villas which distinguish the neighbourhood of Palermo,� says Sir Richard Colt Hoare, �two have particularly attracted the notice of travellers, Valguernara and Palagonia; the former from its charming situation, the latter (that referred to by Brydone) from the absurdities with which it is marked. Few of the villas round Palermo evince any taste in architecture, being overloaded with ornament in the Sicilian style.� The Villa Valguernara, the same author continues, �is built on the largest part of the Bagaria, an eminence commanding on one side the extensive view of the sea-coast towards Termini, Cefalu, the Lipari Islands, &c.; and on the other a prospect equally beautiful, of the bay and city of Palermo, Monte Pelegrino, &c. No dwelling was ever more happily placed; and I believe no other in Europe commands a view equivalent in beauty and effect. The gardens are extensive; the villa is in a tolerably good style of architecture; and the whole is maintained in the most perfect repair and order by the dowager princess of Valguernara.� The villa of the Prince of Palagonia �is equally remarkable for absurdity, novelty, and singularity. A long avenue, with a balustrade on each side, is adorned, if I may use the term, with groups of the strangest shapes, human and brutal, as well as a mixture of the two, which the brain of a poet, or perhaps a madman, ever conceived. The metamorphoses of Ovid are here multiplied and surpassed. The court-yard before the palace, the entrance gates, fountains, and the palace itself, �even the chapel, and apartments within, �are all decorated in the same taste. The predecessor of the present owner, on being questioned concerning the original ideas of such monsters, replied, 'Non sapete che il fiumo Nilo, in Egitto, quando calano le aque, lascia delle ove in abondanza, quail, con la forza del sole regene-rano e nascono, e producono quelli stessi animali che vedete qui rappresentati ?'�'Do you not know that when the waters of the Nile, in Egypt, subside, they leave abundance of eggs, which, regenerated and animated by the powers of the sun, produce those very animals that you see represented here?� At another time this prince sent for an abate from Palermo, who was not highly favoured by nature in regard to features: he entertained him with some trivial discourse, while a painter secretly drew his portrait, which was soon afterwards exalted to an honourable post amidst the groups of men and monsters. The wayward fancies of this singular character gave birth to an ingenious sonnet by the modern Ana-creon and Sicilian poet, Meli:� �Jove look'd down from his lofty palace On the beautiful villa of the Bagaria, Where art had petrified, eternised, and condensed The abortions of a whimsical imagination: 'Behold, ' said he, 'my insufficiency: I invented as many monsters as I was able, � But where my power ended There began that of Palagonia.' ��When I first visited the Bagaria, soon after my arrival in Sicily,� continues Sir Richard Colt Hoare, �the war with these Centaurs and Lapithas was not begun. In the course, however, of three months, the balustrade was stripped of a great part of its grotesque decorations; and their total destruction will shortly be completed. The present owner, who has a considerable number of marble vases, has ranged them on the balustrade, in place of the hideous busts which had graced them before; but these being in a taste equally grotesque, and diminutive in their proportions for the posts they occupy, the general view is not much improved by the alteration. Orange trees are to be planted on the high pedestals which supported the groups of figures; the chapel is already destroyed, and a great part of the house itself modernised. The hall is still ornamented with a ceiling of looking-glass, and columns or pilasters of china! Numerous other extravagances still exist, which are destined to undergo a total change. The former owner spent an extensive fortune, and burthened his family with a load of debt, in the creation of a world of monsters and follies: his heir employs his money in destroying them.� (Sir R. Colt Hoare's Classical Tour, &c.) The garden of the Villa Scabrosa, belonging to the Prince of Biscaris, has been formed out of a dreadful sea of lava; and a vegetation, not very luxuriant, produced by means of transporting earth. Here are two reservoirs of water, supplied by fresh springs, and abundantly stocked with fish. On the verge of one grows the Papyrus, transplanted from the banks of the Anessus; though, from the effect of the sea breezes, it does not grow very vigorously. (Sir Rich. C. Hoare's Class. Tour, p. 431.)