Would you like to take a private tour of a Baroque Italian Garden? I was lucky enough to secure a tour of Villa La Pietra in Florence, Italy this last summer. It was a breathtaking break from the hoards of tourists that throng Florence (and most of Italy) in July and August. Any garden lover should try to arrange a date for their own visit if they are nearby.
Villa La Pietra is owned by New York University and if you want to visit you will have to coordinate with NYU staff. The property – which includes five villas and extensive gardens, was a gift from the Harold Acton in 1994. The Acton family used it as a private home prior to that, but now the University uses it as a base for study abroad programs and student and art programs. The home is beautiful and worth a tour alone, but of course, it was the garden that drew me. If you can’t tour both, the garden alone is still worth the visit.
A visit starts by leaving central Florence. We took the bus and it was very easy taking less than 15 minutes. The bus stop not more than 50 feet from the gate. If you arrive early though, they won’t let you in until your appointment. There is a snack shop and deli across the street though (with free Wifi) where you can have an espresso or more substantial treats while you kill time.
The house and garden is absolutely appropriate for well behaved children (mine where 11 and 14 y.o when we visited), but if you have tiny kids that like to touch everything you might want to skip the house portion. The place is very much as it was left, with lots of personal effects and antiques.
The arrival allée of pines was one of my most favorite things. It is iconic and because it is so long, it is a very distinctive and special part of the property. Bring your camera – the symmetry and perspectives beg to be photographed.
As you travel the entry road to the main house you get a taste of the many garden rooms to come as well as glimpses of views over the city of Florence. The property sits high and there are many hills in the region.
The tour does not include any of the additional guest houses (which are tantalizingly beautiful and surrounded by gardens as well). You will however see most of the rooms on the main floor of the main house.
Outside in the garden there are many special features. This wisteria caught my eye. I consider it it a horticultural feat of strength to have trained a single wisteria stem, straight up (over two stories tall and absolutely straight!) so that a roof balcony can be surrounded by wisteria foliage.
This Renaissance revival garden is light on flowers and by character – focuses on many shades of green. It has typical renaissance features, like this grotto. It is accessible from the house, but also is shielded by a curtain of wisteria. Inside to cool space, there are beautiful sculpture and shell mosaics.
Sculpture and a variety of pruned hedges create a many garden rooms that run on two axis from the main house.
As a modern touch – patches of beautiful zinnias were found throughout the garden. It was very hot and dry during our visit and these provided a colorful and luscious respite.
Harold Acton was knows as an aesthete and a lover of the arts. The garden even has a built in theater. Small clipped box balls line the stage as ‘lights’ and taller hedges create layers of backstage areas. A lawn in front allowed for many audiences and guests of the house to enjoy al fresco theater productions.
The tour concludes in the potager and limonia (where the citrus trees are stored during the winter). This is huge space, full of fruit and vegetables but also decorated with shell mosaics, fountains, and the international students at NYU are very much a part of this garden. They both help to culitvate it as well as benefit from the fresh produce.
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