All my early time at Florence was spent in driving about, seeing villas, wandering through the poderes, resting and drawing. For the amateur sketcher, what a mental struggle it is! - whether to give the time to drawing, or to see all one can. One day we started at eight, and drove up to Monte Sennaria, fifteen miles or so on the Bologna Road. This took us past the villa we lived in as children. I found that all had been much changed and grown up. Even the road - which in my day passed between walls out of which grew the large, handsome house - was now turned to the left, and the space between it and the villa thickly planted with evergreens, thus entirely depriving it of its original Italian character.
I can remember now the mysterious tremble with which I used sometimes to lie awake at night and hear the tinkle of the bell of the dead-cart as it passed under the windows up to the cemetery on the hill. I had been told no coffins were used, and I always thought some one might wake during the long drive. The morning we went to Monte Sennaria the weather was lovely, and, though rather hot on starting, it soon got delicious; and as we reached the higher ground many spring flowers remained. I particularly noticed quantities of the blue Italian Borage, growing small and low on dried banks and a sheet of gentian-blue bloom. Grown in good soil in English flower borders it is coarse and leafy, and flowers but little; at least, that is my experience. I shall find it a most valuable plant in Surrey if it will grow in poor, dry places. Last autumn, after I got home, I immediately moved some of my plants of Italian Borage to the driest, sunniest spot in the garden. I shall see if it will flower as abundantly as it did in Italy. The Rush or Italian Broom ought to be sown every year in light soils, as it is such a useful July-flowering plant, and rarely seen - not being quite hardy - in Surrey.
The villas of the rich that I saw round Florence - and, of course, there are a great many which I did not see - are to be recognised by the fact that the Vine and Olive, Lemon and Pomegranate, Fig and Mulberry, are turned out for the planting of Laurels, Deodars and other conifers, Rhododendrons, and coarse-growing, unpruned shrubs. The beautiful old walls are often levelled to the ground, to make a slope of coarse-growing grass; or the wall formerly used for the trained and well-pruned Vine is smothered with a mass of untended creepers. The newly planted Crimson Rambler is doing very well and making excessive growth, though it will never be a general favourite, as it flowers too late and is not a marketable Rose; so the gardeners despise it, which is lucky, as its colour is not good. The greatest crime of all as regards the spoiling of Italian gardens is destroying the effect of space and coolness, and at the same time entirely shutting out the view by planting trees - say, even a row of Poplars. The old gardens as perhaps Dante and Boccaccio saw them are now smothered in Virginia Creeper, and made to look as much like a villa at Hampstead or Putney as possible. Magnolias are crowded out, and Camellias seem no longer cultivated (I suppose, because they are out of fashion in English conservatories); and instead of the cool gray gravel, so easily kept raked and weeded in the old days, unsatisfactory grass paths are attempted. In the garden that I especially remember, having spent months there twice in my life, the view towards the city and the Val d'Arno right away to the Carraras - which on favoured evenings are rubies or sapphires or beaten gold against the sky - all this, so ineffaceably impressed on my memory, is now hidden from sight by a dark, gloomy, tangled mass of evergreens. As regards the modern treatment of newly made gardens in Florence, it is only fair to say that I saw them much too late, all attention being given to make them beautiful up to the end of May, as at about that time most of the English visitors fly northward.
The gardens which gave me most pleasure were those which had remained in the hands of Italians and retained their old character. All over the world the English have an insane, inartistic, though perhaps natural desire, not to develop the capabilities of the soil and climate in which they are forced to live, which would give a real interest to every plot of cultivated ground inhabited by the white man, but to have a garden as like 'home' as possible - to make a lawn which fails and is ugly, and to plant a shrubbery which grows apace and chokes everything really worth growing.
I got last year from Seville a letter describing what a Southern garden should be: 'The Alkasar Garden is the most beautiful I ever saw: very neglected as regards individual plants, but so lovely as a whole. The beds are all sunk. You walk between dwarf Myrtle hedges on tiled, paved, or brick paths, and every now and then you come to a round point with coloured tile seats. Some of the outside Myrtle hedges are waist-high and very fine. The beds are eighteen inches below the path, and again divided by little Myrtle hedges six inches high (no doubt the origin of our Box edgings). They are mostly filled with Violets and sweet-scented shrubs, and above tower great Magnolias, Lemons, Oranges, Verbenas, Heliotrope, Jasmines in clumps, and a host of other things I do not know the names of. Here and there the path leads to a great raised marble tank or Moorish bath. There are innumerable small fountains sunk and tiled; round one of these is a great tiled walk with Orange-trees sunk in round holes about two feet deep, making a fine double avenue. I ancy the garden is pretty much as it was originally laid out by the Moors. I wish you could see it. The Spaniards have added their favourite carnations grown in pots, but little else. It seemed to me that the style might well be copied in England, making the beds much less; certainly the little shallow fountains would look lovely anywhere. We have seen one or two other gardens, always the sunk beds and tiled or paved paths, and always Violets used as grass round the roots of anything. Where we are has been an eye-opener to me about the English abroad and their narrowness in household management. Our garden was made by an Englishman, so all our beds are raised, and are washed away in every storm, and the would-be gravel path is most of it in the high road below. Your book has been of the greatest use in our tiny garden. Even though the conditions are so different, the spirit is the same.'