Enchantment and magic: Villa Durazzo Pallavicini

Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, Pegli, Genoa. Photo: Gaia Cambiaggi Anna Positano / Studio Campo

Jorn de Précy (1837-1916) was a gardener and philosopher whose magnum opus was the Greystone gardens. In his book, The Lost Garden, he states that gardens are the places that best keep their souls intact, and are not easily sugar-coated by civilization’s stupidity, because they are an experience of beauty and mystery whose raw material is nature and therefore life itself. Robert Burle Marx (1909-1994) said he understood the connection between the garden and spirituality by reading de Précy’s book.

The gardens of Villa Durazzo Pallavicini in Pegli, west of Genoa, are permeated with sentiment and informed by the spirituality of a man who saw himself as a gardener of the world. An emblematic example of the 19th-century English romantic garden where nature is imitated in order to improve it, Villa Pallavicini is an enchanted place where everything seems spontaneous. But it was actually all designed with the kind of detail that suggests naturalness, including the convincing flow of water, which required the building of an 8 kilometer aqueduct at the villa. The central idea was to suture the laceration that civilization creates between man and nature, to employ poetry and beauty to rediscover the divine, a fragment of which is embodied by all of us, whether plant or animal.

The gardens were created between 1840 and 1846, the philanthropic dream of Ignazio Alessandro Pallavicini, (1800-1871) a member of a prominent Genoese family, and an ardent Risorgimentalist and Freemason. For the garden’s design, he commissioned the architect and painter Michele Canzio (1787-1868), already a set designer for the Carlo Felice Theatre, and also a member of the secret organization. The garden was conceived as a gradual and esoteric initiation journey: from apprentice to associate in art to teacher, to the just man. It is a kind of active meditation where the visitor is sometimes the protagonist and at other times the spectator, acoustician and mathematician, as the Pythagoreans would say.

The unique thing about this special garden is its theatrical organization, in which even the sea and the Lanterna, the lighthouse of Genoa with the Portofino mountain are similar to a theatrical backdrop, among other things. The melodrama unfolds in three acts with four scenes each, and a prologue, backstory and finally, the exodus. It took 350 men to build the park in six years. The laborers were from the small town of Pegli, where the era’s political instability had caused abject poverty. The story unfolds over two and a half kilometers of itinerary, about eight hectares of land that reaches 124 meters above sea level on the hilltop. A primarily uphill route to be completed in one direction, like life. A sort of botanical biography in some ways, with neoclassical, neo-Gothic architectures, caves, lakes and waterfalls.

Villa Durazzo Pallavicini
Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, Pegli, Genoa. Photo: Gaia Cambiaggi Anna Positano / Studio Campo

The visitor, as in all journeys of initiation, must pass through doors before entering the lifeblood of the creation; there are three: the gate of the snarling Molossian dogs, the Coffee House and the Triumphal Arch, with a Latin inscription suggesting that we abandon civilization and turn to nature. After the first door, the dense holm-oak forest refers to Dante’s dark woods. Past the Coffee House is the classic avenue, tidy and elegant with marble vases and the fountain with the water lilies and triumphal arch, which becomes a mountain refuge on the opposite side. We find ourselves in the first scene of the first act, the hermitage. The protagonist is nature and its therapeutic effect on the visitor, followed by the Mediterranean oasis with palms and succulents, and then the wonderful camellia forest, the oldest and most prized in Italy. Between winter and spring, the flower petals form a fabled red carpet along its path. And finally, there is the gorge of the Old Lake with ancient trees like the world. Act II is current, and here the visitor is the spectator of History: the story is about sieges and wars, where even the victors seem defeated by the death that comes sooner or later, regardless of the glories. Here we find ourselves in Mediterranean scrub that has none of the botanical specimens of Act I. On the hilltop, the captain’s neo-Gothic square-based house has a disorienting spiral staircase whose 33 steps lead to the tower with a 360° view and multicolored windows whose colors indicate the cardinal points. Further along is the captain’s mausoleum, with no name, inspired by the tomb of Cangrande della Scala in Verona. Then the descent to the underworld begins, to the caves whose stalagmites and stalactites were taken from elsewhere and installed here. The caves were designed by Canzio to be crossed by a boat ferried by a Charon, but even though the boats are now moored, going out onto the lake, Lago Grande, paradise, is still surprising. Here the various cultures are harmoniously reflected in the green water: the temple of Diana, the Chinese and Turkish kiosks, the Roman bridge and the Egyptian obelisk. The empyrean is the pavilion of Flora, its delicate garden and viridarium, the ancient Roman garden. On the edge of Lago Grande is a bust of the Ligurian Baroque poet Gabriello Chiabrera. The final exodus with the ceramic crocodile and eagle leave the visitor feeling renewed on their journey.

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