A natural inclination

A childhood spent among unspolit hilly landscapes

An ancient orchard transformed into a city garden inside the walls of Padua
An ancient orchard transformed into a city garden inside the walls of Padua
23 JUL 2013

When asked why I chose this profession, I go back immediately to my childhood and teenage education. Ippolito Pizzetti (1), a great and distinguished landscape scholar, said that if you approach Nature from an early age, your feelings towards it - innate in all men - will surely be amplified and refined until it becomes a significant part of your daily living. In order to create a solid knowledge-base, “cultural transhumance” is always the best tool. At the same time, to feed your so-called "natural inclination", a childhood spent among unspoilt hilly landscapes (in my case: between Tuscany and the Marche) enhances your sensory perceptions and predisposes you to an attitude of continuous research and exploration of the surrounding world.

This premise is necessary to explain how my naïve reading and learning experiences, begun at an early age, were to instill in me an unquenchable thirst for observation and direct contact with nature, whether wild or domesticated by man over centuries.

Two books, complementary in terms of genre, writing and approach, opened the doors to the universe of plants and trees for me. The first one I came across was Hugh Johnson's Trees, published in Italy in 1973 – a classic among manuals on world trees and shrubs. The English dendrologist catapulted me directly into Lebanon's Cedar forests. Through his magnificent photos, he enabled to wander in those domains of wild nature – whereas I could only see a few isolated specimens of them in a banal city park! On the other hand, Vita Sackville West (2) instilled in me a sense of mystery and fascination with her style – part scholarly essay, part literature—most unusual compared to the Italian approach to writing. It was the diary of a refined and cultured English writer, unknown to me then. At the age of 12 I decided: should I ever give birth to a girl, her name would definitely be Vita. In Your Garden (Michael Joseph LDT, 1951, London) was translated into Italian as Del Giardino. At home I discovered not one but two copies of it: One was a coffee-table book (by Olivetti 1983) – a large-format Christmas present in bright green with elegant watercolors by Bruno Caruso interspersing the twelve chapters – one for each month of the year according to the author's choice. The other, a more manageable copy published in 1975, with Rizzoli’s unforgettable Ornitorrinco collection dust-cover, was apparently less attractive since it contained fewer illustrations. Well, those twenty pictures in black and white opened up a universe, revealing with almost ostentatious indifference the absolute supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon world in everything concerning the passion for, and care of gardens.

These two ‘masters’ taught me a principle that has accompanied me throughout my long and bumpy sentimental education concerning Nature. Namely that it is Nature herself who is the source of original teaching and of the greatest inspiration, and if you intend to act upon Her, you should be guided by the spirit of the humble gardener who accompanies Her rhythms, seasons, and needs in order to ensure that his creation stems from a true personal interpretation.

Since then, there have been many landscapes and gardens that I have been fortunate enough to appreciate, study and interpret, with a view to acquiring the right attitude and predisposition for approaching a new project—a new garden to be created, restored, or arranged – And here I am referring to the largest Italian gardens and parks, from the Medici gardens (Boboli, Castle, Pietraia) to those of the medieval monastic gardens to the romantic parks (Ninfa, Villa Rufolo) and many others. If, on the one hand, much of my ecological awareness was nurtured by my university education, on the other, it was essential for me to wander, sometimes with a scientific program in mind, sometimes for pure aesthetic pleasure, around numerous historical sites where architecture and nature, logic and beauty, blended with erudition to produce the finest landscape architecture and gardens.

So, to my explorations of green areas in the tree-covered slopes of the Dolomites, into dry places like Mediterranean islands, into the semi-deserts of Kenya or South America, I added a thoroughgoing study of landscape and garden history. Without this I could not have grasped their significance and the underlying literary, poetic, artistic and philosophical contents. In order to condense into a few pictures and a few words the experience of making a garden, I would like to be very clear about one thing: those who are called upon to design and arrange a new garden or to modify a history-laden environment, are put to the test – for in both cases they must interpret and read the contents of the place where they seek inspiration .

This, in my view, is the most difficult knot to untangle. It is essential to free oneself from the constraints that may interfere in the creative phase of the project and to be as receptive as possible: to listen to the place and its genius. Thus observation and experimentation, using sight, smell and touch, at different times of day (and if possible of season) are crucial to enable us to focus on the essentials.

No less crucial is the inevitable and necessary relationship with the owner who has commissioned the landscaping oeuvre. This is quite a complex aspect of the problem – for the owner is the end user, the one the garden is intended for. The designer must consult her/him in order to assess their needs and translate them tangibly into a living context. The number of variables is endless, and the best approach I can think of is fuzzy logic (3). Yet this is only one possible logic, since, paradoxically, clients often fear getting just that: a fuzzy-looking garden or park! Nature itself is so rich and full of bio-diversity that is, spontaneously rich and varied, in Her complex phytocoenosis (4) that it presents unpredictable and spectacular effects, in both ecological and aesthetic terms. Nevertheless, this fear is recurrent among clients because Nature is hard to comprehend, which is why man has always feared it. Even in our days, when we no longer live in medieval forests populated by wild animals, beasts, and robbers, we generally tend to seek to dominate and tame it.

Let’s return now to the logic behind a project and its implementation. It must be said that the skill and wisdom of those who intervene on the landscape consists precisely in knowing how to harmonize in a single coherent result many variables of a system: the spirit of the place, pre-existing features, the client's desiderata, constraints and characteristics of the climate, geomorphology, vegetation, as well as the designer's own style and ideas. The designer, too, is affected by a multiplicity of elements that constitute his/her modus operandi. Thinking back over some of my projects (in most cases they were for private clients) I realize how different it is to imagine a garden for a family, a kindergarten, a single woman living in the company of four cats, or an elderly retired couple in the countryside. Likewise, it is quite a different kettle of fish arranging a city garden, a park in the suburbs, a residential garden, or one at a hillside villa, in a penthouse on the tenth floor, or in the courtyard of a sixteenth-century Venetian.

I would thus like to leave you with some pictures that are at the heart of the landscaping project – of its implementation, that is. For it is worth remembering that unlike the rest of man's artefacts, the garden is a living work that mutates and acquires a new form, that is modelled by context, water, electricity and soil. It changes under the hands of more (or less!) devoted care-takers, it can be erased by time (or by man!) and it is subject to all kinds of hazards: storms, disease, or neglect. Its fate is totally uncertain – and it is perhaps its ephemeral character that makes it a place that arouses such diverse reactions and emotions.

Elena Macellari, has lived in Veneto since 1998. She, as well as practice garden design, has recently published several essays including Giardinieri ed esposizioni botaniche in Italia (1800-1915), Ali&no, Perugia, 2005, Eva Mameli Calvino Ali&no, Perugia, 2010, e Nabù e il giardino cosmico, Edizioni Corsare Perugia, 2012.

1. Ippolito Pizzetti (1926-2007), architect, landscaper, writer and translator; his most important work: Enciclopedia dei Fiori e del Giardino (Encyclopedia of Flowers and Garden), Le Garzantine - Garzanti, Milano. 1998.
2. Victoria Mary Sackville-West (1892-1962) a.k.a. Vita, English writer and poet who wrote several works on gardens and their design, in addition to several literary works. World-renowned, the garden she created in her mansion, Sissinghurst Castle, is today the most visited garden in the UK. Virginia Woolf was inspired by Vita for her central character in Orlando, published in 1928.
3.The Fuzzy Logic was introduced by Lotfi A. Zadeh, professor at Berkley University in California. He introduced within Systems Theory the logic of belonging to a class “with a value comprised between 0 and 1” in a first paper in 1965. Cf. Macellari E., Mennella V.G.G ,“Logica fuzzy nella Valutazione Ambientale Integrata” Acer n° 2, Marzo-Aprile 1997 Il Verde Editoriale N° di pubblicazione RAISA 3064.
4. A collection of plant species within a designated geographical unit, which forms a relatively uniform patch, distinguishable from neighboring patches of different vegetation types.

The pictures draw the reader's attention to some significant experiences – significant as regards the passion with which both the clients and myself engaged in the design and in the implementation of the project.