28 December 2018

1228MDecember disappeared. (Just like much of 2018 really.)

Quite early on I attended one of those ceremonies: the quick dash and tricolor sash. In the public records bit of the CdP town council building, with dear friends T&A giggling in the background and L snapping away to immortalise the moment, I swiftly swore to respect the Italian Constitution and signed various very large bits of paper and hey presto, I was Italian. Good.

A jaunt mid-month to the UK – a ruse to avoid spending Christmas there – honed my desire to have nothing to do with that country or the self-harm it’s inflicting on itself. There’s no other topic being dealt with – on TV, on the radio, on the streets and in every home. It’s hashed and rehashed and debated endlessly, yet in alienating fashion. There’s really nothing to say that hasn’t already been said, ad infinitum and definitely ad nauseam. Each solution (other than that of saying ‘ooops, took a wrong turning, how silly, we’d better stay’) is one more unfeasible than another. Positions are consistently fuzzy. On the evening news intrepid reporters step out to hear the voice of a people which seems even less well informed and – in glassy-eyed fashion – less engaged than ever (something which perhaps bodes badly for those urging a second referendum). It all has a surreal feel to it, utterly disengaged from planet Earth. 

How refreshing, then, to jet back to a world where the main reaction to Brexit is “what? haven’t they gone yet?”

Prior to that disturbing UK turn, we had another of our luxe experiences in Rome, this time at the hotel recently opened at the Fondazione Alda Fendi HQ overlooking the arch of Janus behind the Capitoline. I say hotel but actually The Rooms of Rome comes on more as a ‘residence’, its suites equipped with kitchens and dining tables and more square metres than the average Roman apartment. Jean Nouvel did the décor which I found I warmed to despite myself: Nouvel is not an architectural name which generally fills me with admiration.

At first glance there’s something a tiny bit old hat about the design of the 25 suites: with its distressed walls and ‘60s-type tiles it sails close to tired. The huge stainless steel boxes (they contain wardrobes and what have you) breaking up the spaces verge on the cold. And the white white bathrooms (some are blocks of other colours or tones, but all are monochrome) fashioned out of Corian has a kitschy space-age-‘80s air. But somehow the various elements hang together, working well with the shadowy corners and hugely high ceilings, and oodles of space for stalking about. 

Far be it from me to compare my own little suites with these entirely-on-another-level ones, but there’s a similar lack of clutter here: clean lines and empty space predominate. He has stuck (unaware, of course) close to my mantra of comfortable-minimal. I enjoyed it. (And I felt I’d climbed into my very own comfortably feathered nest in the red Gaetano Pesce chair.)

The Fendi Foundation (aka, for reasons best known to the fondazione, Rhinoceros) is also a rather good restaurant, a roof terrace with a view over Rome to make you weep for joy and a gallery with a handy deal with the Hermitage. It had been inaugurated some days before with a show of sketches by Michelangelo. As we poked about in dark corridors and on empty landings late at night, there they were: Michelangelo drawings just for us. You could put your nose right up to the glass cases and inhale the wonder. It was all rather special.

December also saw me embarking on the long-planned concimaia makeover though after a brief spurt of extraordinary progress, this has ground to a halt. I have little to blame but myself: the weather has been gorgeous and the season is right for the shrub-shifting, earth-moving tasks needed to complete the whole thing. I haven’t even been particularly busy. I simply haven’t pushed myself to get around to it.

I have one thin line of defence, in that the contractors who will – I hope – do the rest of the work have been otherwise engaged and not at all loath to put the whole thing off until the new year. 

So since that mid-month flurry of activity, I find myself looking over in that direction occasionally, and am startled by incongruous new walls I had almost forgotten about, not to mention great piles of earth waiting to find some place useful to be stuck back.

This corner is another example of (the many) things I see so clearly in their finished state in my mind’s eye that getting around to actually carrying my ideas through becomes almost academic. But there are moments – especially when my roses are ragged and my grass is a brown and leaf-covered mess like right now – that I look beyond these neglected bits to even worse, long-term dereliction and wonder how on earth I can call myself a garden designer if I don’t pull my finger out and create beautiful elements – liveable rooms, focal points, things of elegance and calm – for myself. It’s all a bit of a hopeless wilderness.

Now days are getting longer again, or at least they are in theory. In fact this year I thought I was detecting signs of hope even before the solstice, though that was probably a mixture of wishful thinking and some utterly glorious cloud-free days that brought extra light into our winter-bound home. I’ve done those year-end indulgences such as tidying my seed box and slavering over the Organic Catalogue and drawing up my wishlist for next year’s perfect orto. I’ve even planned that perfect expanse of intensive veggie production, bed by rotating bed.

But that’s about the full extent of my gardening activity: all on paper (or rather, on screen). At times I love to revel in the fact that there’s really nothing much that has to be done outside when it’s cold. And I slink about the place without achieving very much. But in the end I realise I’m wasting precious time.

The garlic needs to go in the ground now, otherwise the cloves will not divide properly. This sounds like an old wives’ tale, but some pretty trustworthy sources maintain that without a month or two of single-digit or even sub-zero temps you risk finding yourself with heads of just a couple of huge cloves. My aglione (a giant garlic, seeing a revival here in the Val di Chiana) this year was a case in point: many of the onion-sized heads emerged from the ground as a single clove. I planted quite late in the spring. Of course now I don’t know what to do about replanting: deciding what goes into the ground and what goes into the pot is tough when there’s not much to go around.1228L

12 November 2018


We’ve had so many people staying recently that I had to resort to the industrial-scale washing and drying machines in the very purple-hued local launderette to deal with my mountain of sheets and towels. Unfortunately, because days and days of rain had stopped people getting to their washing lines, so had many others.

I say unfortunately (and time-wise that was so) but in fact it’s a neat glance into bits of local life.

I get the feeling that some little girls who live in Le Barricate – the oddly named out-lying bit of town where the launderette is located – look upon the place as a play-house. One sat there for ages when I was there the other day, talking importantly into a cellphone which I’m pretty sure wasn’t connected to anything, announcing from time to time to anyone who’d listen that her father was about to appear with washing to put in the machine. He didn’t.

Women who flash metaphorical razorblades to ensure no one gets to the driers out of turn will then help each other fold piles of sheets, chatting cordially as if there had never been any tension at all.

A friendly burly woman who looks after the linen for my friend Silvia said she muscled in on the job when she saw the cack-handed way that the previous male sheet-washer was bungling the job: in the realm of the CdP launderette, men are truly the epitome of incompetence.

As the last of my sheets tumbled about in the drier, the non-stop rain that had marked the end of October and early November gave way to bright sunshine and coat-free temperatures. Our drought-ish September, with less than 10mm of rainfall, was amply compensated by 122mm in October – hopeless for getting any work done on my various projects but not quite enough to dampen spirits for our 30th wedding get-together of far-flung friends.

A big round number has that effect, and it’s wonderful. It mobilizes people – in this case from around Europe but also from as far away as Seattle – to make journeys they might not otherwise have undertaken. What a joy.

Now that it’s gloriously sunny after our heavy rains, I’m back in the same holding pattern as last spring: clients clamoring, contractors overwhelmed. I recently shed – in a very amicable way – one client, who said she couldn’t possibly pay me so much for a “project” which consisted of “a computerized drawing and some ideas”. Which got me thinking about what I do as a garden designer and the various ways it’s perceived.

First, of course, I pointed out to this very lovely lady that that was, reductio ad absurdum, my job description: using my training, experience and expertise to come up with ideas for improving and beautifying gardens and landscapes which I then represent clearly in graphic form.

1112FBut mostly it made me reflect once again the degree to which garden-making – so terribly important IMHO in magicking a property into a unified whole – is looked on as something of an afterthought, even by people with connections to very important gardens indeed. Of course (rightly), the garden is always the last thing to done in any (re)building or makeover. And so I often find myself working with the left-over small change of clients who just want the whole lengthy process – most of which I haven’t been involved in – to end, fast.

But then I come up against the ‘one step up from a couple of pots of geraniums’ school of thought. Anyone can stick some plants in is a common attitude among people who have called me in nevertheless – people who would never, for example, say “anyone can stick some curtains up and paint a wall” – things which are equally true. Why do they think that a garden designer is any lower in the pecking order than an architect or interior designer?

Then there’s the problem I have with some clients – more often than not women – who overlook the ‘designer’ part of my job title and focus on the ‘garden’ – as in gardening: a nice thing to potter about doing of a Sunday, wearing your pretty straw hat and your flowery gloves. By extension, they see what I do as a hobby job, rather than the fruit of long architectural training. “I really don’t understand what I’m paying you for,” one client many years ago announced – then proceeded to employ a (male) colleague at great expense to work on another area of the garden with no qualms or questioning.

Am I moaning? Only a little, because the vast majority of the garden owners I work with and for are wonderful. Most, I have to say, really do get it.

Last weekend, on a take-your-breath-away visit to the Villa Albani Torlonia in Rome, I found myself musing on how that owner/garden designer relationship might have been when the immense garden of a suburban villa, designed to wow visitors into abject amazement, was being plotted. Of course, the client there was an aristo with little interest in the professional pride of his designer. But there must have been some kind of implicit mutual understanding of the huge importance of the outside reflecting the grandeur of the interior.

I was quivering with emotion, visiting those magnificent parterres. This villa – six hectares now engulfed in Rome’s northern suburbs – was something I studied in depth for my Landscape Architecture degree. But at that time it was a dark secret: not even world-class scholars got past the Torlonia family – hugely private and perhap embittered by battles with the state over what they could and couldn’t do with their vast art collection… if it still existed and if they hadn’t spirited it away, into collections in the Gulf and the US (it seems that most of the culture ministry’s worst fears have been disproved).

Photographs of the villa were rare, as they still are now that the family has relaxed its rules just a tiny bit: visitors are forced to sign a document swearing not to snap as they go around the place on pain of being sued. This has the fascinating side-effect of making people look. The group we were with were itchy and jumpy to start off with when deprived of their devices. Some people couldn’t resist getting cellphones out – ostensibly checking messages or taking notes but very possibly defying the rules. But by the end, most were peering and staring, and asking questions in a way that they would not have had they been filtering the experience through a lens. It was a very good thing.

We were there as part of the extravagant package of entertainments for yet another relaunch of the Grand Hotel, now the St Regis Grand. The evening before, we guests were taken in our black tie finery to sip champagne inside the Baths of Diocletian, shut of course at that hour, and splendidly illuminated just for us. It was, naturally, breathtaking.

And so on for two days. We managed just 16 hours of the event but were there for the ballroom dinner jamboree, with a scenografia that was quite magnificent, and floral arrangements in Victorian decoupage/Belle Epoque decadence tones which were truly marvellous… though they did make conversation with guests on the other side of the table rather complicated.

And now, after parties and celebrations of various magnitude, we hunker down for the cold months. Each day you tick off the signs, for better and for worse. The hot water bottles. The stoves lit in the evening, then perhaps mid-afternoon. Those small dazzling spots of lower-in-the-sky morning sunlight breaking in around the edges of the closed shutters to hit unlikely points on living room and kitchen walls. The night time trip to the bathroom that leaves your teeth chattering as you hurry back to bed.

Outside, I’ve taken down the tomato supports. Gales battered the persimmon leaves badly so they’re not as startlingly scarlet and salmon this year but the luminous fruit glow as ever. I’m trying to find a moment to give the grass (such as it is) one final cut before I take my brave neglected lawn mower to be serviced, but it’s still too damp underfoot. The trees across the valley looked so green for so long this year that I had begun wondering whether we’d have autumn colours at all but I shouldn’t have worried.