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The geometrical taste of green

Photographs Cristina Archinto
Text Carla De Agostini

It was in 1808 that Francesco Melzi d'Eril, Duke of Lodi, Grand Councillor, Keeper of the Seals of the Kingdom of Italy and a personal friend of Napoleon's, decided to build his summer residence at Bellagio on land with a stupendous view of Lake Como. Thus Villa Melzi and its gardens were created, taking advantage of the natural terraces and the variety of views in which it is immersed, playing on the curved paths that cross the property throughout its extension and connect the points of interest, the architectural furnishings and the numerous sculptures with historical and mythological subjects placed among the rich vegetation.


At the entrance to the property, in the direction of Bellagio, one reaches a small area laid out as an oriental garden, with a characteristic pond, surrounded by Japanese maples and camellias that create a brightly coloured ensemble. The garden alternates majestic century-old trees with exotic and rare species, grouped in wooded patches, planted in rows along the shore or isolated in the grassy carpet. The refined taste for the exotic that characterises the Villa Melzi Gardens finds its most graceful expression in the numerous species of historic camellias, now about 250, that can be admired in the park, especially near the two entrances, at Loppia and Bellagio. Many of them were born from seed and are mostly related to the main species of Camelia japonica, but a large number are cultivars of great historical-botanical interest, created in the nineteenth century.


Villa Melzi also picks up the tradition of topiary art, which in Italy reached excellence in the late Renaissance. At that time, the taste and sensibility of Humanism, whose philosophy is based on the idea of Promethean man and his triumph over nature, inspired the creation of gardens carefully subordinated to the geometry of forms, then the rediscovery of the ars topiary with its pruning techniques to shape plants into decorative forms. This style has its roots in Roman times, with an influence from Greek art, when, in other words, thanks to the Empire, cultural trends were reunited and intertwined in the service of a new aesthetic. The first experiments were carried out in the new gardens of suburban villas, desired by aristocratic families. The Roman garden acquired an interweaving of poetry, sculpture and Hellenic painting, which gave rise to a truly new landscape composition, which would later become the basis of the Italian garden.


In the gardens of Villa Melzi, symmetries can be appreciated, not only for their geometric taste but also to celebrate the beauty of the essential characteristics of nature itself: not only gardening but art, through the precise choice of colours and shapes, such as the umbrella pruning of the plane trees or the particular positioning of centuries-old trees and exotic species, where Ginkgo biloba, red beeches or camphor trees enhance the view around them, together with shrubs, rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias.


Love and precision stand out at Villa Melzi, in the care of the greenery, in the architectural variety of parapets, balustrades, marble busts, in the galleries of citrus trees, which create an unusual and fascinating play of geometries, in which to lose oneself without paying attention to the passing of time.



In Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, the protagonist Fermina Daza refuses the camellia offered to her by Florentino saying that "it is a flower that pledges". And it was precisely as a pledge of love that camellias arrived in Italy in 1760, a gift from Admiral Nelson to Lady Emma Hamilton, who had them planted in the garden of the Royal Palace of Caserta. Very similar to the rose and large in size, the flowers of the camellia originate in China and Japan and belong to the Theaceae family. Ornamental camellias were immediately considered a rarity destined for the few, a display not only of power but also of refined tastes. Over time, the history of this flower has taken on many facets and meanings, but the most widespread is undoubtedly the symbol of love, devotion and esteem. The camellia achieved great fame with Alexandre Dumas' novel The Lady with the Camellias, first published in 1848, in which Marguerite Gautier was inspired by the courtesan Marie Duplessis, who used to pin a white or red camellia on her dress, depending on the season. This fashion shared by both men and women soon became a classy detail on the lapels of gentlemen and in the hair of ladies, and would remain pinned to their necklines for a long time. In 1923 Coco Chanel took to the catwalk for the first time dresses with
broches (brooches) of white chiffon camellias, modelled on the Camelia japonica Alba plena, whose structure of overlapping petals is thought to have suggested to her the double C cross; in those same years Proust called them camélia à la boutonnière (Camellia in the buttonhole). Over time, the camellia went from being a flower of nobility and luxury to being more democratic, but in gardens it still retains its air of a refined flower.



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