Villa Reale di Marlia
If you’ve read my post Olives and vines you’ll recall the point before the wedding where four of us visited La Villa Reale di Marlia. It was fortuitous – the villa stands mere minutes from the vineyard and olive groves where we were staying. I had watched Monty Don studying the gardens on his Italian Gardens series, and was determined to see them first-hand.
We only had an hour and a half to make the most of the gardens, but it became clear we could have spent longer there. We experienced it during a rather muggy and miserable day. On a sunny day, you could take a picnic, sketchpad or book and wile away hours. I think children would even appreciate the place, with its hiding places and twists and turns. Just keep them away from the pools and drops.
The property passed through many hands and underwent several changes over the centuries. Its origins lay in the early medieval period, as part of the March of Tuscia. The villa developed from fortress to imposing and impressive mansion as time passed by.
The gardens in turn evolved with changing styles. This is a garden, however, which retains aspects of its different guises.
Perhaps the most notable owner of the property was Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, younger sister of Napoléon. Her titles included Princess of Lucca and Grand Duchess of Tuscany. She brought the ensuing power and majesty with her to the villa, and made her mark in different ways. She incorporated the neighbouring Villa del Vescovo (Bishop’s Palace) into her estate, and more significantly instigated the creation of a romantic English landscape layout. This meant elongated sweeping lines, naturalistic tree plantings and less formality.
Following Napoléon’s 1814 downfall and Elisa’s departure from Villa Marlia, the site continued in prominence. It was the seat of local dukes, then of the King of Italy and other royalty. The many garden parties held there must have been decadent.
In 1923, Count Pecci-Blunt and his wife purchased the place and began restoring its deforested slope and forlorn spaces. They employed Jacques Greber, a celebrated French architect, to help in this.
A young Swiss couple took ownership in 2015 and are working to reinvigorate the estate for all. The features introduced by Greber and his patrons, such as the stream, lake and woodlands, had themselves fallen into neglect. A storm ripped through the parkland shortly after its most recent purchase, but work goes on with the support of welcome visitors. I’m glad to have been one such caller.
The ongoing efforts are evident as you explore the grounds. The villa was being repainted inside as we were wandering, we were told. Workmen scaled the heights of the Villa del Vescovo. There are signs that more needs to be put into the streamside and outer reaches of the parkland.
You receive a map from the ticket office on arrival. It sets out an ideal route around the grounds, and I urge you to follow this, at least initially on your first visit. The four of us afterwards agreed it was the best way to see the delights of Villa Marlia.
You begin through the gates, turning right and passing through the Camellia Walkways and on along the stream. I find little pleasure in camellias by themselves, but do appreciate their fullsome flowers and deep green foliage in early spring when little else is about. As it was, September is definitely not the time to revel in camellias anyway. I imagine they are quite something in March and April.
From there you arrive at the lakeside, at the bottom end of the sloping estate. I’d say this: resist looking left, out over the water, until you are squarely between the statues of Demeter, Hercules and Hephaestus. Then have at it. You won’t be disappointed with the reflection of the house and its surroundings in the calm mirror surface.
You head back up the gentle slope after you’ve had your fill, and are faced firstly with the towering Bishop’s Palace. You should get to see the garden of this episcopal pad; unfortunately access was denied to us. I believe it’s preserved as a sort of medieval knot garden, looking at others’ images. Another hint of the sensibilities this patch of land has experienced.
We went on to discover the old swimming pool. It was fenced off, its diving board long out of use, and its terracotta, Mexican-style changing rooms not fit for purpose. I hope one day it is put back to its former glory, even if not actually for swimming in. The light glinting off the water and the opulence of the area would be magnificent. I can picture 1920s high flyers lounging by its edge.
The pool points you on towards the Grotto of Pan, a nymphaeum or temple to the water spirits. It was constructed over 10 years from 1570, making it a fantastic old structure. Its staid and noble exterior yields to a dank and darker interior. Small waterfalls no longer run over the faces and forms of sea beasts and deities, but you can easily picture the scene: splashing in puddles, hiding from friends or lovers in the moist air.
We climbed the steps into the Spanish Garden – a stark contrast. Left behind is the looser parkland. Gone are the neglected pool and medieval mock cavern. Here we find a formulaic, formal Moorish garden. Its channels run between small fountains and water jets. Both Matt and myself were gobsmacked by the size of the pale pink and white blooms standing to the sides of the lawns. Hibiscus plants. Gigantic Hibiscus flowers.
The map sends you round from the Spanish Garden to the Green Theatre. You reach this verdant spot by first crossing the “foyer”, circling the edge of a jet of water, harking back to the smaller ones found previously. The high hedges recede as one enters the seating area. By venturing behind and beneath the evergreen walls, you pop out onto the stage. Here Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi enjoyed entertaining guests with shows created by Niccolò Paganini.
Backtracking a little to leave the Green Theatre, we headed into the Lemon Garden. I can only imagine the citrus fragrance when the sun is out in this enclosed area. Move up from the Fountain of the Three Graces, passing the pots of 200 varieties of citrus fruit, and you come to a fabulous fish pond. Its balustrades protect pool and people alike. The two gods of the Arno and Serchio rivers gift the reservoir with their waters. Between them you’ll see Leda and the Swan. As with much post-renaissance art and architecture, this is a throwback to classical mythology. The Swan was Zeus, Leda was a Greek princess, and they had several children together, most memorably Helen of Troy, cause of the fabled Trojan War.
After admiring the pool, you walk in front of the Palazzina dell’Orologio. This is crying out to house a café-restaurant for visitors. Or perhaps that’s a terribly British thing to do…
The final piece in this garden’s constant revelations is the Water Theatre. The villa conceals this spectacle from the visitor’s eyes until the last moment. Created in the 1600s, water tumbles over its rock-cut wall, splashing over more carvings and spouts. It descends into the semi-circular pool below via carved basins. The top of the theatre is ringed by more evergreen hedging through which you can enter and exit. The edge of the top walkway is home to ruby red roses and vibrant begonias. Various gods look out, as if watching the games of mortals from their home in the heavens.
After taking a look back down towards the lake from the front of the villa, you are free to sit back and relax, or wander as you will. Or in our case, dash off to another event sadly!
For me, there were three significant appeals of Villa Reale di Marlia.
Firstly, I loved the gradual unfurling of increasingly breathtaking features. You’re treated to ever more impressive fashions from beginning to end of the mapped out route. Rather than ending on a low, as some places do, you leave fully grateful to have experienced the garden. It involves a journey from rather rough rivulet, currently lacking in character, to an exuberant waterfall stage completely packed with personality.
Which nicely leads onto my second favourite aspect of the estate: the Water Theatre finale. It’s simply stunning. What a fitting end to the route. You just couldn’t get any more extravagant – and to think, it’s tucked away in an unassuming part of the grounds.
And third, forgetting the smack-in-the-face elements seen, I loved the Spanish Garden. There was something soothing and reassuring about entering this garden after the more higgledy piggledy nature of elsewhere. Unbeknownst to us at the time, it also acts as a palate cleanser before the mounting theatrical tension of the clandestine Green Theatre, precise Lemon Garden and lavish Water Theatre.
What can be taken away from the Villa Marlia?
I’d say that the idea of building up layers of green would be one facet to bear in mind. It can be overwhelmingly tempting to add more and more splashes of colour into our gardens. This may be flower hues, or it could be foliage colour. You cannot beat green as the best foil en masse. Why stick to one shade of green? Try several, one beside or behind the next. Think of the hedges of the Green Theatre of Marlia, rolling up one beyond the other.
Similarly, try limiting the flower colours utilised. This may come more easily in one style of garden than another. If we have a cottage garden, this can be looser. A broader spectrum of colours might be employed, yet we can stick to pastel shades. If we have a more modern, crisp space, the limitation comes more easily. We don’t want to blur our neat edges with a blinding array of tones. We might stick to hot colours, like the red and orange of the Water Theatre. Alternatively, we might use soothing blues and whites.
The Water Theatre emphasises the importance of having a last surprise incorporated into own outdoor spaces. This normally can’t be a massive water feature; yet it could be a smaller one, bubbling away behind some tall screening plants at the end of the garden, a seat by its side. It needn’t be a water feature either. It could be a secretive last ka-pow of mouthwatering blooms, hiding around a corner.
Lastly, take a moment to reflect… A perfectly positioned pool of any size is an excellent addition to any garden. Obviously we get more light and reflection if we have space for a bigger pond. Nevertheless, even a smaller half-barrel can work wonders. Carefully arrange poignant planting such as an exotic specimen, a stately fastigiate tree or a piece of statuary by the water feature, and it will double in presence from the right angle.
If you could pick one inspiring feature from this article, what would it be? Answers below! (Not on a postcard)
Italy in September:
- La Dolce Vita – part 1 of a week in Italy
- Olives and vines – part 2 of a week in Italy
- Villa Reale di Marlia – Italian garden tour