The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Charles Platt grants permission

Villa Gamberaia

View from the garden toward the house

Water Parterre

The Grotto

Granite stairs on axis in my garden

Symmetrical beds with a granite bench as a focal point

The view out the French doors in the lower garden

When I began to make a garden on my small property in the village of Peterborough, NH, I was at a loss on how to arrange the garden on a steep hill which had glimpses of a view of Mt. Monadnock from the side yard. In the beginning, I concentrated on planting flowers that I liked and then I visited Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, NH. Aspet was the home and artist's studio for the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1884-1926). Saint-Gaudens may be best remembered for the Shaw Memorial in Boston. Aspet has a formal design and has garden rooms with white pine and hemlock hedges.

As I studied the Cornish Colony, I learned of the influence of formal Italian gardens in New Hampshire. Charles A. Platt (1861-1933) was a respected architect and later landscape architect who admired Beaux-Arts architecture and studied Italian renaissance architecture. In the early 1890's, Platt traveled to Italy with his brother to study Italian architecture. In 1894, his landmark book, Italian Gardens, was published. Platt moved to Cornish after he returned from Italy and built a house, studio and garden. Judith Tankard, in her book A Place of Beauty: The Artists and Gardens of the Cornish Colony, wrote that "Platt's intention as an architect was not to reproduce what he had seen in Italy, but to adapt its spirit to an American context." Platt's own house and garden has formal design with paths laid out axially in relationship to the house and terraces. The house is nestled into a hill and has a commanding view of Mt. Ascutney in Vermont.

In 2000, my wife's family planned a trip to Tuscany and I had the opportunity to see Italian gardens for myself. While the rest of the family took a day off from sightseeing, I traveled to the hillside of Settignano outside of Florence and visited Villa Gamberaia. Villa Gamberaia is probably the quintessential Italian villa and garden. Its intimate scale makes translating the formality of the garden into a small American plot possible.

When I returned to New Hampshire, it became clear that I was going to make a formal, terraced Italianate garden which related to the house. It was also clear that my version of an Italian garden would be a very humble permutation of Platt's adaptation of an Italian garden in an American context. I believe that Charles Platt created a New Hampshire tradition that made my garden have a sense of its own place. In essence, he gave me permission to build my garden.


  1. Dear Michael, I am thrilled at having discovered your weblog for you write, and garden, in a way which most interests me.

    For me, formal Italian gardens will always have the most appeal and, probably, during my gardening life have had the most influence on what I have done or have learnt to appreciate. To my shame I have never visited the Villa Gamberaia in person, knowing it only through books. It is most likely a garden to die for.

    I am fascinated by what you are doing in your own garden. You clearly have an excellent eye, an appreciation of the importance of mass over void, of scale, of harmony, of creating a narrative which, for me, no garden should be without. I shall very much look forward to reading of future developments for, I think, one can never look on the whole and say, It is done. One is always striving to perfect what is, after all, an art form.

    A book you may enjoy, but may have, is 'Italian Gardens' by Charles A. Platt published by Thames and Hudson in 1993. Mine is a second hand copy.

  2. Dear Edith,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and generous comments. My biggest challenge is making the garden in harmony with a basically modest New England clapboard house.

    I am drawn to strong design and I don't like it to be fussy. Simple and clear is what I say. As you go away from the house, I like the garden to feel more natural less domesticated.

    I also have Platt's book. Although Platt doesn't mention Villa Gamberaia, Keith Morgan does in his essay in the 1993 edition. Figure 22 is described as Villa Turicum but I am nearly certain that it is an early photograph of Platt's garden in Cornish.

    Several years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Platt garden. It is still in the family's hands. Platt's grandson's (also a Charles) wife, Joan, is a potter and avid gardener. With the help of landscape designer and historian, Bill Noble, Joan restored the perennial garden in the early 1990's. My wife and I spent a lovely afternoon visiting with Joan and the garden. She was the consummate host and is a wonderful gardener.

  3. You've done an exquisite job of translating the spirit of the Italian gardens into New Hampshire! It is wonderful to see someone who understands that it isn't necessary to replicate an Italian garden in the US, but rather to take its essence and make it work with our plants and climate.

  4. Tim,
    Thanks for your vote of confidence. That is exactly what I am trying to do.

  5. Michael, I read your comment on Edith Hope's blog and thought that I would like to see your blog. I also love a very strong structure in a garden, "green architecture" I call it. It is not very popular these days, I have just started my garden, and I find it difficult to find any inspiration in North America, I have to look to European design.
    I planted a row of Tillia cordata last summer, I am hoping to pleach them and that will be the start of my formal garden.

  6. Deborah,
    Glad to meet you in the blogosphere! Green architecture sure is nice during the winter months. Frank Cabot's garden, Les Quatre Vents, in La Malbaie, Quebec comes to mind as a garden in Canada that has "it". I would love to see your pleach-work.

  7. Platt was a creative person of individual taste. His abilities were unusual in that he was a sensitive "artist" and a solid practical designer. Not a bad businessman to boot. Seems the gods granted CAP a cornicopia of gifts which were nicly tucked away in what later became a reserved and rathed droll personality always governed by a diciplined incisive mind.



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