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Cecil Pinsent and the villa gardens of Tuscany

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Villa I Tatti

The Edwardian garden designer Cecil Pinsent had the good fortune to find a wealthy and influential patron when he was still in his early twenties. He was taken up by the American art historian Bernard Berenson who asked him to create a garden at I Tatti, his villa just outside Florence. Berenson himself was a protégé of the art collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston, one of the group of rich, leisured Americans who adopted Italy as their cultural home and who gave Henry James such a rich seam to mine in his novels.

The Green Garden at I Tatti was Pinsent's first attempt to recreate a garden in the early Renaissance style. His biggest problem was the steepness of the site and his solution was the classic Italian one: terraces that dropped down the slope with short flights of steps connecting each level. 

I Tatti now belongs to Harvard University and houses its Renaissance research institute.

Geoffrey Scott, Berenson's secretary and librarian, shared a flat with Pinsent at the top of an old palazzo in the Via delle Terme in Florence. Geoffrey Scott later married the widowed Lady Sybil Cutting, mother of Iris Origo and owner of Villa Medici at Fiesole. After the termination of this unlikely marriage, Lady Cutting married the essayist Percy Lubbock and lived with him at Gli Scafari on the Gulf of Spezia. Through this connection, Pinsent later worked for many years on Iris Origo's villa and garden at La Foce - see below.

Villa I Tatti

An excellent but hard-to-find coverage of many aspects of the work of Cecil Pinsent is to be found in the proceedings of a symposium held at Le Balze in 1995. Cecil Pinsent and his gardens in Tuscany. Edited by M. Fantoni, H. Flores and J. Pfordresher (Edifir, Florence 1999.) ISBN 8879700790. 

Another more recent book devoted to the life and work of Cecil Pinsent is An Infinity of Graces. Cecil Ross Pinsent. An English architect in the Italian landscape. by Ethne Clarke (W.W. Norton, 2013) ISBN 978-0-393-73221-4.


Villa Le Balze

Pinsent started work at Villa Le Balze in 1911 and his client was another artistic American, the philosopher Charles Augustus Strong. Here, he had to work on a site that was even steeper and narrower than the garden at I Tatti. The entrance is wonderfully unassuming: a door in a curtain wall that brings you into the first of a series of small green rooms: lemons in pots, tall hedges of holm oak, box edged beds, iris, lavender, swags of rose. Pinsent made a classic grotto, decorated with pebble mosaics and four medallion busts. From its location near Fiesole, Italy, there are stunning views back down onto the city with the soft brown roof of the Duomo dominating the scene.

Villa Le Balze now belongs to Georgetown University.



Villa Le Balze


Villa Capponi

The garden of Villa Capponi, included in the surveys of Edith Wharton and Geoffrey Jellicoe, dates from the seventeenth century. It was extended by Lady Elizabeth Scott after 1882 and by Cecil Pinsent after 1939. The villa, built in the 14th century, was purchased in 1572 by the Capponi family which extended it and enhanced it, turning it into a noble residence. In 1882 it became the property of Lady Scott, daughter of the Duke of Portland, and later passed into the hands of the Clifford family. The building, which is quite simple in layout, was further embellished at the end of the 19th century with the additions of two panoramic loggias, the columns for which were, it seems, taken from demolition work done during the redevelopment of the old city centre to create Piazza della Repubblica. The garden, which comprises terraces on different levels, extends along the Pian dei Giullari hillside, from where the view over Florence is quite breathtaking, and blends in with the surrounding farmland. The first terrace, immediately behind the villa, is a broad grassy area stretching the length of the northern side of the building, on which an ancient wisteria hangs. To the east, on the same level, is the entrance to a delightful secret garden, rectangular in layout and edged in box hedges. Access to this formal garden, separated from the lawn by another box hedge, is marked by two columns surmounted by two terracotta griffins. To the west, on different levels, are another two secret gardens with box-edged parterres and surrounded by high walls with elegantly curving crenellations and earthenware urns. The first of these gardens, which lies five metres lower than the level of the villa, is reached by a narrow flight of steps beside the boundary wall. A wrought-iron gate leads to the second garden, at the centre of which stands a fine stone lily-pool. The recently-built rectangular swimming pool lower down is surrounded by tall rows of cypresses.

Villa La Foce

Pinsent worked from 1927 onwards at La Foce, near Montepulciano, developing a romantic garden around a villa that had originally been a pilgrim hospice on the via Francigena. Here, his client was Iris Origo, who had grown up at the Villa Medici in Fiesole, the only child of Lady Sybil Cuffe of Desart Court in Ireland and an American diplomat, Bayard Cutting. When Iris became engaged to an Italian marquis, Antonio Origo, her American grandmother bought them the La Foce estate, set not in the lush heartland of Tuscany, but on arid, windswept Crete Senesi, where nothing much seemed to grow.

In her classic memoir, Images and Shadows, Iris Origo describes how she looked out over this dry, cold, windy landscape and longed for "the gentle, trim Florentine landscape of my childhood or for green English fields and big trees - and most of all, for a pretty house and garden to come home to in the evening". Building up the La Foce estate became their life's work: model farms, a model school and hospital for their tenant farmers. "That vast, solitary, unspoiled landscape charmed and enthralled us: to live in the shadow of that mysterious mountain [Monte Amiata], to halt the erosion of those steep hills, to transform that bare clay into fields of grain, to turn those mutilated woods green again... that, we were sure, was the life we wanted." More became possible when her grandmother paid for a water pipe to come to La Foce from an abundant spring six miles away.

In 1927, Pinsent, who trained as an architect before he became a garden designer, turned from rebuilding the villa to laying out the garden and the work continued in phases for the next eleven years. The drive leads through classic tall thin cypress trees to a courtyard in front of the house, dominated by two monumental holm oaks. A limonaia designed by Pinsent looks back towards the villa over an English-looking lawn and rectangular pool.

The main part of the garden lies in a series of enclosures on the south side of the house accessed by a stone ramp, made from the Siennese travertine. This leads up to the fountain garden, walled round in the same stone. Tall pillars topped with vases designed by Pinsent mark the entrance to the lemon garden with stone plinths for the pots of lemons to stand on. At a higher level, a curving pergola, swathed in wisteria, gives glimpses out over the landscape and introduces a dramatic avenue of cypresses which marches straight up the hill to a lookout.

Iris Origo

For insight into the history and character of Italy and the Italian people during both Renaissance times and the 20th century, we strongly recommend the erudite and extremely readable books of Iris Origo who was brought up at Villa Medici at Fiesole and with her husband developed the famous villa and garden of La Foce in the Val d'Orcia.


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