THE COLOURS RED AND THE RESTORATION OF A PRIVATE GARDEN IN VENICE
An October day in Venice. The morning glides softly by in a palette of diffused reds and milky greens. The marble clad Church of Santa Maria dei Maracoli is the most exquisitely beautiful, calmly metered example of this, emerging matt and confident out of the petrol blue of the canal.
The colours shift gently as we walk – somehow the richness of colour and texture is always perfectly balanced.
I am distracted by a detail – here the simple, overlapping curves of the metalwork on a bridge go into my sourcebook.
We climb up the tower of San Giorgio Maggiore. Look down one way and you have a dreamy view of the lagoon and its islands.
Look down another way and you have the ordered topiary of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini Onlus. It is a heady mix.
We have arranged to meet Tudy Sammartini – the grande dame of Venetian gardens, both as a writer (“Secret Gardens in Venice” and “Verdant Venice: Gardens in the City of Water”) and a designer. We meet her at the San Basilio stop. The fragile white haired eighty something figure sitting by the canal melts away as she gets up revealing her imposing height and commanding voice. She lights up as we step onto the vaporetto over to Guidecca and is greeted superstar style for the rest of the afternoon – “Ciao Signora Tudy!”.
Tudy has been restoring the private garden behind the rich red industrial brickwork of the Fortuny factory with specialist architect, Ilaria Forti and will continue to work on the garden over the next few years.
She has been in the business for a long time and tells us how she worked with ‘The Countess’ in the sixties on the original development of the garden. Countess Gozzi has an amazing story. She was an American interior designer and business woman – Elsie McNeill Lee – who fell in love with Fortuny furnishing fabrics in 1927 when she saw them hanging in the Carnavalet Museum in Paris.
Mariano Fortuny had patented a way of processing cotton to have the sheen and subtlety of antique silk in 1910. He was an extraordinary man – as well as establishing his textile business he was an innovative and exciting set designer and painter, a lighting designer (he invented the dimmer switch) and in 1907 started producing the gorgeous finely pleated silk “Delphos” gowns which are synonymous with his name.
McNeill Lee travelled to Venice to meet Fortuny – and ended up introducing his furnishing fabrics to the US and becoming so closely involved that when Fortuny died in 1949 she took over the business. When she died in 1994 – having married an Italian Count and become Countess Gozzi – she left the business to her confidant, Maged Riad whose family are still in charge and who have commissioned the garden restoration.
One of Countess Gozzi’s most ambitious gestures in the garden was to adapt the ‘Cavana’ – or boat garage into a private swimming pool – still one of only four swimming pools in Venice. But for me the ambition is in the painstaking research – each plant in the restored garden features as a design in the Fortuny archives –
and the passionate tenacity that are bringing a neglected garden and piles of stone back from this:
Tudy shows me her fiercely guarded “pile of treasures”
‘These sculptures are not that great’ she declares ‘but they will have red-orange coats, (Virginia Creeper), they will look good when they have coats.’
There is a romance and particular vocabulary to this sort of European formal garden which excites the Anglo Saxon designer – it is a language of rusting pergolas, berceaux (vaulted trellises) laden with fruiting vines, crumbling marble columns whose capitals have been replaced slightly off centre “to keep a sense of movement and rhythm”, walls waiting to be clothed in arches of Laburnum and rangy pomegranate trees with their globe-like fruit splitting and spilling out their jewel red flesh against a blue sky.
Tudy has renovated the roses and the Wisteria herself ” I bring earth from the mountains …. I cut, cut, cut”. But the first thing she insisted on was serious irrigation and she has used Dichondra to replace lawn as it only needs to be cut twice a year. She will be planting bulbs – Iris, baroque tulips and narcissus – and shows me the meandering scented ‘snake’ she has created of lavander, box and myrtle.
A pragmatic scheme of white Camellia underplanted with blue and white Vinca is edged in the finely striped sepia and white stones used in the manufacturing process of Fortuny fabric.
A celebration of soft red:
and rich green and soft red.
This wall – with spare arching black iron window frames dressed in grey toile de jouy style fabric – is clothed in bright yellow roses all summer. I bet it is a brilliant combination.
As we leave the garden Tudy points to some dandelion leaves lurking at the base of a still lonely pergola – I should not, of course, have expected this gardening powerhouse to be remotely apologetic: ” I come to collect it” she says “and then I eat it”.