My dear young friend a little misses the spirit of what I mean when she thinks the system of the garden she describes can be brought to England. Where there is frost and damp, such things get soon spoilt and injured, and look mournful and decayed. Broken-up paving-stones are pretty in a formal garden, and - planted with Lavender, Pinks, Carnations, Rosemary, Saxifrages, and Roses - can be made to look lovely at all seasons. But sunk beds as she describes them, which are perfect for irrigation in the South, would never do here. The plants would damp off. Raised beds, however, are undesirable even in England in light soils. We can no more imitate what is best in the South than they can imitate our velvet lawns and our sweeping Beech-trees. Planting the Viola odorata (the Old English garden Violet) under every shrub or tiny Gooseberry and Currant bush in both flower and kitchen garden has been a great success with me in Surrey. If tried with even Czar Violets, which require more care and cultivation, it would be a failure. The cultivation of Carnations in pots might be more carried out in England - with advantage, I think. And it would be better if the pots were painted or glazed halfway down, as done on the Continent, to prevent evaporation. The single-branching Larkspurs of all colours were grown in pots at Florence, and looked so well. I am trying some. They are far prettier than the double annual Larkspur generally grown in England.
The two most beautiful villas I saw truly carried out, with their lovely grounds, the half-monkish ideal expressed by Newman: 'By a garden is meant mystically a place of spiritual repose, stillness, peace, refreshment, and delight.' Our gay, modern, brilliant, flowery English parterres and Scotch and Irish gardens express, to my mind, none of this. Apart from everything else, their limited size renders this impossible. They tell us a garden is the reward of toil; the earth's cry of delight that winter is over and gone; the full enjoyment of plenty and rich colour, requiring constant care; not a place of 'spiritual repose, stillness, and delight.'
The more splendid of these two villas was, tradition says, designed by Michael Angelo, and it is worthy of his brain and hand. In its large simplicity it reminds one of his will: 'Lascio l' anima a Dio e la mia roba ai pił prossimi parenti.' This villa stands many miles high on the hillside south-west of Florence, and is approached by the usual stately Cypress avenue. Its massive plain front and its open arcade are most impressive. On the right was the solemn shade of the Ilex grove, and beneath was the boundless view of sunlit Florence.
The other villa, most wonderful of all as regards its surroundings and views, was Villa Gamberaia (which means, 'Pool of the Crayfish'), four or five miles from Florence beyond Settingiano. I suppose everyone who goes to Florence sees it, or used to do so; now it is more difficult. Napoleon III. lived in it at one time. I wonder if in after-life his thoughts sometimes turned with sorrowful regrets to the peaceful days passed there? Here were Cypresses taller and straighter than any I had ever seen; long green alleys ending in small temples; high walls over which Oleanders tossed themselves, their branches heavy with the bloom of their exquisite pink flowers; and all the long afternoon of the late June day the nightingales sang. Why in colder climes do they stop singing so much earlier in the year, and here they sing well into midsummer? With the exception of these nightingales in favoured woods, the birds are very silent in Italy in June. But the sounds are many - frogs, insects, the constant singing of the grasshoppers. Keats says: 'The poetry of Earth is never dead. When all the birds are faint with the hot sun and hide in cooling trees, a voice will run from hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead. That is the grasshopper's.'
For associations with the South, there is nothing in the way of sounds to equal the sad call of the little night-owl - or aziola, as the Italians call it. The following colloquial poem of Shelley's, if not a gem amongst his lyrics, expresses the tender affection we must all feel for this little bird:
'Do you not hear the aziola cry? Methinks she must be nigh,'
Said Mary, as we sate In dusk, ere stars were lit or candles brought; And I, who thought This Aziola was some tedious woman Ask'd,'Who is Aziola?' How elate I felt to know that it was nothing human,
No mockery of myself to fear or hate! And Mary saw my soul, And laugh'd and said, 'Disquiet yourself not; 'Tis nothing but a little downy owl.'
Sad aziola! many an eventide Thy music I had heard By wood and stream, meadow and mountainside, And fields and marshes wide, - Such as nor voice, nor lute, nor wind, nor bird,
The soul ever stirr'd; Unlike, and far sweeter than them all. Sad Aziola! from that moment I Loved thee and thy sad cry.
One of my first inquiries on my arrival in Florence was about an old villa that in my time belonged to a rich Russian. They said it was all swept away and the treasures gone to St. Petersburg. The reason this villa made so deep an impression on me was that there I saw for the first time a picture of 'Paolo and Francesca'; it was by Ary Scheffer. I was so young that it set me wondering how Dante could call it Hell and yet leave them together. The same thought has been rendered finely, I think, by a young friend who signs himself 'M. B.' His sonnet was written on seeing the much stronger and more beautiful representation of the same subject by Mr. Watts:
Though borne like withered leaves upon a stream, Perished and dead, they would not live again, Nor in the hard world face the wiles of men; Their past is but the haunting of a dream. And yet they would not sleep in Asphodel, Nor - for without remorse is their regret - Drink deep of bliss and utterly forget; Not for all Heaven would they exchange their Hell. And they give thanks because their punishment Is sealed and sure, because their doom shall be To go in anguish through eternity Together on the never-resting air. Beyond all happiness is their content Who know there is no end to their despair.
At the end of June the whole colour of the country had changed and become much richer from the corn ripening. This restored to the Olive-trees once more their gray colour in the sunlight, and in evening light they again looked cool and almost blue against the warm madder and ochre of the corn. How endless in Nature is the making of colour by contrast!
Custom often has in it more reason than at first appears. I never could understand why so few people go to Italy in summer. But the fact is they hunger for bright strong colour - blue skies and yellow sunsets, purple mountains and brilliant flowers. These they find in spring and autumn, to their hearts' content; but summer in Florence is mellow and veiled, and very tender in colour, truly represented in Mason's pictures, and so totally unlike the typical water-colour drawings of Italy from the brush of Richardson or Aaron Penley, much the fashion fifty years ago.
At one villa I saw a pond of lovely Burmese goldfish, quite different from any I had ever before seen alive, and exactly resembling the fish in Japanese drawings and Chinese bowls - little fat bodies, and large swimming bladders, and long waving tails which made their movements very swift and graceful. They were fed with little bits of wafer, the same as that used in Catholic churches and also used all over the Continent for wrapping up powders so that you should not taste the medicine. The fish pounced on these delicate morsels with extraordinary rapacity and greed. I have never dared feed the goldfish in my fountain, as they remain so much healthier with only the natural food they are able to procure. Where the fountains are kept very clean, the best food for them, if these wafers cannot be procured, is crumbled vermicelli.