Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Gardens of Villa Marlia near Lucca

The Ups and Downs 
of an 
Historic Garden

It is true that we arrived at Villa Marlia, Capannori, not far from Lucca, on an extremely hot summer's day during an extremely hot and dry summer. Yet our overriding first impression of the gardens was of neglect and decay.This impression was soon softened by splendid perspectives and some truly special gardens and features (the massive topiary hedges and bushes are most striking), but despite these, it is clear that the property has seen better days. It needs some saving.
 a portion of the lawn at Villa Marlia, with its spectacular topiary columns and spheres; one has to imagine the grass as green as per Capability Brown landscaping which it clearly imitates
magnificent, tall hedges leading to Clock House

The villa has a chequered history. First recorded in 1517,when it was bought by the merchant/banking family of Lucca, the Buonvisi, who transformed the medieval fortress into a grand farmhouse, the property was subsequently acquired by the Orsetti brothers, Oliviero and Lelio, in 1651. The villa was named Marly, after a contemporary French villa.

The Orsetti renovated the gardens according to the baroque tastes of the day, creating the Lemon Garden, the Water Theatre and the Green Theatre and in the 18th century added farm buildings (behind the Clock House) thereby enhancing the practical, commercial aspect of the property which still comprised a full working farm.
delightful 17th century fishpond with its fat carp and balustrade, centre-piece (together with innumerable handsome pots of lemon trees) of the Lemon Garden

the Water Theatre featuring the usual grotto and gargoyles, backed by tall yew hedges

the Green Theatre, created in 1652, is 'constructed' in yew and some box; at the back of the stage are terracotta statues of Colombina, Pulcinella and Pantaloon from the Commedia dell'Arte
As Monty Don points out in the episode of Italian Gardens which presents Villa Marlia, these country residences were not just a show of power and wealth but were down-to-earth working farms: the lemons in the Lemon Garden were sold and consumed, as were the fish in the ponds. However this was the first time farms succeeded in marrying aesthetic sensibilities with commercial practicalities.

The villa became 'royal' in 1806 when it was bought by Napoleon Bonaparte's sister Elisa Baciocchi for 700,000 francs in silver coins. Apparently Count Orsetti did not want to sell and when he was finally obliged to do so, according to Monty Don, (I cannot find references to this anywhere else) melted down the coins and had a silver service made, which he paraded in front of the villa, as if to say: 'all you gave me for my magnificent home was this measly dinner service!'

Elisa Baciocchi wrought lasting changes onto the property, transforming the villa from baroque to neo-classical (arguably an excellent decision, for it is utterly elegant), acquiring the adjacent Bishop's Villa and its Nymphaeum or Grotto of Pan and transforming the gardens along the lines of classical English gardens of the day (think sweeping lawns, monumental trees and Capability Brown).
the avenue leading to the Grotto is lined with large pots of bougainvillea

 She also added dozens of pure white Carrara marble statues and urns which, white against dark green bushes and shrubberies, dot the property to this day. Apparently Paganini, a protegé for a while, performed for Elisa in the Green Theatre.

After Elisa Baciocchi's departure in 1814, following her brother's fall from power, the property was subsumed into the Duchy of Lucca under the Bourbons and the villa became the summer residence of the new court until the political situation shifted once more and Lucca was annexed to the Duchy of Tuscany in 1847, whereby the villa was no longer an official royal seat.

The property's fortunes then declined in the latter half of the 19th century as it passed into the hands of members of the Bourbon family (amongst whom Francesco Carlo, known as the Mad Prince) who eventually auctioned it off, having felled many of the trees for timber, amongst other depredations. 

When the lake was created by the Pecci-Blunts, they enhanced the pastoral effect with the addition of roe-deer, goats and merino sheep. These were largely for display: gone were the days when the villa was also a genuine working farm

In 1923 the Anglo-Italian counts Pecci-Blunt bought Marlia and thus initiated another transformation. They renovated the villa and its follies, resuscitated the plantings, added woodlands (beech, pine, oak, holm oak, lime, plane, gingko,maple and horse chestnut), streams and the lake, as well as creating the Moorish or Spanish Garden.

ostensibly an Islamic or Spanish Garden, this was commissioned in 1920 by the Pecci-Blunts in an Art Deco style
These days the property, despite valiant efforts throughout parts of the garden and park (there is a pretty parterre below the Bishop's Villa, the Lemon Garden is superb and the Green Theatre unique) shows signs of decline. The buildings are all in disrepair and parts of the garden and park are quite neglected.

However, sometime in 2015 the villa was sold to a couple of Swiss residents (purportedly a Russian and a Swede) and will be developed into a luxury hotel. Although it will be a shame if the garden is no longer open to the public, the restoration needed to create a luxury hotel would be timely. It is ironic that the once working-farm - turned villa - turned playground for aristocrats and their retinue will now become a playground for the super-wealthy of the 21st century.

the villa is apparently uninhabited, but soon to be restored as part of a huge luxury hotel development

The Villa Reale Marlia's Gardens are currently open to the public every day of the year:
1 March - 31 October from 10 to 18, 
1 November - 28 February from 10 to 16
Sundays and holidays from 10 to 16

Tickets cost 8 euros, no concessions

Via Fraga Alta 2 55014 Marlia, Capannori, Lucca

1 comment:

  1. Just a side note to a beautiful review: I had not realized that Marlia was named after Marly! What an interesting tribute. Marly was in fact a royal château, created by Louis XIV, and its name is very evocative of the Sun King's court. It is no longer really a château or a garden, unlike Villa Reale. Many of its sculptures, however, are now in the Louvre (in the "Cour Marly"). There's a great article about the château and its garden on Wikipedia:



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