After the studies and the expeditions to discover surviving examples of historic gardens, the actual transformation of the romantic park of Villa La Pietra into a formal Italian garden began in 1907, when the entire property was purchased by Hortense. The construction went on for decades, reaching its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. The name of the designer is not known, but we believe that the overall design of the garden can be attributed to the Tuscan architect Giuseppe Castellucci (1863-1939) in close collaboration with the owners, and that the full development of the vegetation, starting in the 1920s, is due to the intervention of the gardener Mariano Ambroziewicz.
The garden of Villa La Pietra does not reproduce the shapes of any specific historic Italian garden, but it interprets the “methods” and “principles” developed by authors such as Edith Wharton and George Sitwell. The garden of Villa La Pietra is an architectural one, the layout of which is characterized by stone elements and evergreen hedges that allow the garden to remain almost unaltered with the changing of the seasons. This does not mean that the garden of Villa La Pietra is completely devoid of flowers, but, as Wharton wrote, “the Italian garden does not exist for its flowers; its flowers exist for it”. (Wharton 1904, 5)
The slope to the east of the villa is divided into three terraces, as in many Renaissance models (Hamlin 1902, 30), and its division into ‘rooms’ gives a domestic feeling to the dimension of the areas. As pointed out in the garden books of the early twentieth century, an Italian garden is an integral part of the home, and that of Villa La Pietra is no exception, since the external spaces reflect the internal subdivisions of the house, their dimensions and proportions. “A house containing a single huge room would be less interesting and less serviceable than one divided according to the varied requirements of its inmates”, wrote Wharton. With these words, the American writer criticized the “annihilation of boundaries ” in English-style gardens, such as the one that occupied the eastern slope of Villa La Pietra before the intervention of the Acton Mitchells, and she celebrated “the value of subdivision of spaces” in historic Italian gardens (Wharton 1904, 46-47).
The main rooms of Villa La Pietra’s garden are aligned with the axis of the house and develop around fountains and ponds, which play a central role in the garden’s design, despite the lack of water on the site. Around the fountains, the squared hedges of box or yew define the shapes of the flower-beds. In the secondary rooms more space is left for the bowling greens that are usually delimited by walls of evergreens (cypresses) which reach a height of over three meters. These, together with bare architectural elements, expertly assembled in strategic points of the garden, frame spectacular views of the surrounding landscape, such as the one called Vista del Duomo. The strictly formal garden contrasts with some areas characterized by denser and “wild” vegetation, which provides “a shady and secluded retreat” in the summers (Hamlin 1902, 30-31). The continuous movement from open and bright areas to other fresher and sheltered ones, such as the Pergola delle Rose, creates an effect of “striking contrast of sudden and thrilling surprise, of close confinement as a prelude to boundless freedom”, in the words of George Sitwell (Sitwell 1909, 28).
The statues in the garden of Villa La Pietra, usually positioned on high stone pedestals, help give character to the different areas. This can be seen, for example, in the Teatrino that began to be built in the 1920s, where there are “the Venetian figures by Francesco Bonazza which have stepped on to the open-air theatre as for one of Goldoni’s comedies”, as Harold Acton recalls (Acton 1973, 148).
The intention was certainly to recreate an Italian garden on the hill of Montughi, but some intrinsic characteristics of English culture filtered into the design of the garden. For example, the peacocks modeled in the box hedges in the Piazzale to the west of the Villa were a distinctive element of the historic English garden, reworked at the beginning of the 20th century by Arts and Crafts gardeners and designers. In this regard, it is interesting to remember that the library of Villa La Pietra contains many books on formal English gardens: some of these contain notes, drawings and annotations by Hortense and Arthur, and, why not, by little William and Harold who ever since childhood developed a particular sensitivity to nature and a strong attachment to the garden, which was growing together with them.