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The Villa Reale of Marlia
and its Camellia

Photographs and text
Tina Archinto

Camellia japonica "Bellina Major""

Villa Marlia, an enchanting Renaissance residence located near Lucca, represents one of the treasures of the region. Its beauty is sublimated by the famous Viale della Camelie, where the visitor is captivated by the vision of over forty varieties of Camellia japonica, which with their elegant and showy flowers, declined in various shades of red, pink, white and pink, stand out among large bushes with glossy green leaves. The slight succession of the stream, which carries the fallen petals towards the valley, creates a pleasant sensation of freshness and a certain oriental atmosphere, capable of bewitching the visitor's senses.

Camellia is a flower native to East Asia, mainly China and later Japan. The first mentions of camellias date back to China in the third century BC, where the poet Hsu Fu wrote about a wonderful flower that grew in the province of Hunan. Subsequently its cultivation was introduced in Japan where it became particularly popular among the nobility for its beauty and symbolic importance. During the Edo period (1603-1868), camellias were grown in private and public gardens throughout Japan also for their variety of colors.


Camellia japonica "Francesca da Rimini"

In the West, camellias were discovered in the 18th century by the French Jesuit missionary Georg Joseph Kamel, who lived in the Philippines. Kamel discovered the plant and described it in his work "Herbarium Amboinense" of 1704. However, the actual diffusion of camellias in Europe and their popularity as an ornamental plant can be attributed to the Dutch since 1739. In the past the great innovator of poetry father of the haiku genre, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), inspired by the nature and landscapes he encountered wandering around Japan one day wrote, "The camellia, sweet, solitary and unpretentious, more than any other plant, reminds me human beauty."  Today I'm not sure she would feel the same way about humanity, but the beauty of the camellia has certainly not withered over time.

The Royal Villa of Marlia also offers a long history full of characters. Born as a fortress for the Duke of Tuscia, over time it became a noble palace passing from one family to another until 1651 when it was bought by Olivieri and Lelio Orsetti. The new owners, who fell in love with the place, started considerable expansions and embellishments also focusing on the garden with the help of the famous French landscape architect Jean-Baptiste Dye with new arrangements of scenic avenues and gardens with a decidedly Baroque taste.

In 1806 it was the turn of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, sister of Napoleon and then princess of Lucca, who bought the property. The Princess' bond with the Royal Villa of Marlia was particularly passionate and in fact we owe her the major interventions that once again transformed the structure of the palace and its gardens. The model he adopted was that of the Malmaison, the private residence of Napoleon and Josephine near Paris, a residence characterized by the harmonious fusion between the sobriety of classicism and the refined elegance of the imperial period, he also partially redesigned the Park according to the fashion period with English garden: a rare case at that time in Italy. 

After the fall of Napoleon, Elisa had to leave his kingdom in 1814, and the Villa Reale passed to the Bourbons who made it their summer residence, becoming the protagonist of splendid dance parties, with illustrious guests including princes and sovereigns.

When the decline of the Bourbons arrived in 1861, the villa was abandoned to its sad fate, the assets were confiscated and auctioned off and many ancient trees in the Park were cut down to produce timber, until the arrival in 1923 of the Count and Countess Pecci-Blunt who bought the villa in Lucca and the following year commissioned Jacques Greber (1882-1962) a French architect, urban planner and landscape architect, to restore the park and gardens, with the aim of combining tradition and innovation. Woods, streams, bucolic elements were created which completed and enriched the romantic framework of the gardens but above all built the lake, still a very important element within the ecosystem of the park.

Since 2015 it has been owned by Henric and Marina Grönberg, a Swedish entrepreneur and designer, who bought a very neglected and disused property with the aim of restoring and preserving its historical and artistic heritage and opening it to the public. Their hard work of restoration has allowed to recover the original aspect of the villa and the rehabilitation of the park, all put to the test by a terrible windstorm that occurred a few months after the start of the works which knocked down many ancient trees . Today the result of their efforts can be seen and the villa with its park is definitely worth a visit.


The facade of the Villa Reale

Present in the park in the lake area are two specimens of weeping willows, positioned as if they were two wings to the distant villa, which in this season are tinged with that delicate light green due to the new leaves.

The weeping willow (Salix babylonica) is a tree native to China and present in different parts of the world. Always present in parks and gardens, it is often planted near watercourses because its roots are able to retain the soil and prevent erosion. The name "weeping" derives from the characteristic of its thin and flexible branches that can hang down to touch the ground giving the impression that the tree is actually crying or as Lewis Carroll suggested in Alice in Wonderland "It was a meadow of grass tall and flowery, with a stream running by, and over which hung a great weeping willow which seemed to stoop to listen."

Two specimens of Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)




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