Villa Wolkonsky Gardens: Et in Arcadia ego

The gardens of Villa Wolkonsky, the residence of the British ambassador, have had a magnetic influence on many people who have lived and worked there. Nina Prentice, the wife of the present British ambassador, has also come under the influence of their Romantic heritage

How many gardens can boast 36 arches of a Neronian aqueduct, not to mention hundreds of Roman antiquities scattered over four hectares just a step from San Giovanni? The Villa Wolkonsky’s grounds even have a section of pre-Christian necropolis complete with fragmentary bones, traces of fresco and a section of well-rutted Roman road. Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the composer, captured the garden’s Romantic spirit vividly in a letter home in 1840.

Through the garden lengthways run the ruins of the aqueduct, which they have turned to account in various ways, building steps inside the arches, putting seats at the top, and filling the vacant spaces in the ivy-mantled walls with statues and busts. Roses climb up as high as they can find support, and aloes, Indian fig trees, and palms run wild among capitals of columns, ancient vases, and fragments of all kinds. As for the roses, there are millions of them, in bushes and trees, arbours and hedges, all flourishing luxuriantly; but to my mind they never look more lovely or more poetic than when clinging to the dark cypress trees. The beauty here is all of a serious and touching type, with nothing small and ' pretty ' about it. … Nature designed it all on a grand scale, and so did the ancients, and the sight of their joint handiwork affects me almost to tears.*

Fanny was just one of many musical, literary and artistic personalities Princess Zenaïda Wolkonsky regularly entertained al fresco at the villa during the 1830s and 1840s. Guests were invited to wander in the gardens and encouraged to compose, sketch and write in the Arcadian surroundings. In the evening, they would share the day’s experiences with their hostess, enjoying each other’s art works, setting poems to music and more or less “singing for their supper”. In fact, Russian author Nikolai Gogol wrote several chapters of Dead Souls while sitting in one of the tufa grottos Zenaïda built under the arches of the aqueduct.

Even today, the garden’s literary connections live on. Soon after our arrival, the Russian embassy asked us to find the first ever monument to commemorate Pushkin. The princess, an ardent admirer of the poet, had erected it in his honour. Frantic searches in the undergrowth found the plaque propped against a pillar dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, both memorials lost among acanthus and thickets of bay. Soon, Pushkin will be re-established on his own plinth in the area known as St Petersburg, so named for the splendid monument honouring Alexander I, the princess’s first great love. Rumour has it that her hastily arranged marriage to Prince Wolkonsky was precipitated by the necessity of avoiding scandal, such was the young Tsar’s keen interest in the brilliant and beautiful debutante.

The garden’s adventures continued into the 20th century. The princess’s descendants sold the site to the Weimar government in the 1920s and its buildings became the German embassy offices and their ambassador’s residence until the end of world war two. Hermann Goering ordered the pool area built and the story is that, while digging, the workmen uncovered the splendid Roman columns now supporting the tempietto near the beehives. Other traces of the Nazi tenure here still remain. When the British Embassy Children’s Garden Club had the inaugural dig of their new vegetable patch near the Old Chancery Building, we unearthed a great stash of live ammunition dating back to world war two. Needless to say its discovery transformed our budding gardeners into extremely keen diggers but made the military attaché somewhat anxious about what else we might find.

The villa is undoubtedly rich in history and charm, but neither gets the weeding done. Perennial invasions of acanthus and battalions of volunteer bays, viburnums and alianthus keep us busy, but there are other challenges too. The punteruolo rosso (red palm weevil) finished off the Phoenix palms before they could be saved. The 2012 winter’s winds, snow and frost not only brought down a carob, an ancient yew and two beautiful feijoas; it also damaged the camellias around the house, broke large branches off the umbrella pines and froze tender shrubs and climbers. Less dramatic but no less urgent has been the ongoing maintenance of lawns and flowerbeds. As for the princess’s beloved roses, so admired by Fanny Mendelssohn and later generations of visitors, these too need replanting and renewal.

The villa’s collection of over 400 antiquities also requires urgent attention if they are to be preserved. A huge head of Hera placed under one of the arches of the aqueduct by the princess is being destroyed by the iron bolts used to fix it in place. Funerary monuments and statues have suffered damage from exposure to wind and rain. Nevertheless, we have been able to make a small but cheering start on the restorations. A generous donation rescued, in the nick of time, a splendid Roman orcio given to the princess by Cardinal Consalvo to mark her conversion to Catholicism. Without this help, last year’s arctic weather would have reduced the pot to a heap of fragments, but there is still much to do if the collection is to be returned to its former glory.

We have been hugely fortunate in the generous support of numerous archaeologists and horticultural experts, all of whom have a passionate interest in the future of these gardens. Together we have finalised a restoration programme. We hope it will not only revitalise the princess’s grounds and her collection of antiquities but also provide an example of sustainable and cost-effective gardening practice. Over the last year we have waged a ceaseless war on weeds, dug out overgrown thickets and opened up vistas and perspectives to let the garden tell its own story. We have recovered and transplanted tired roses, experimented with rhubarb, asparagus, salad potatoes and generated Himalayan heaps of compost. The work never stops but we hope to recapture the “serious and touching” natural beauty so beguiling to Princess Wolkonsky’s guests.

Visitors today should wander in Arcadia too.

Nina Prentice

The gardens are not open to the general public 

*Kingeman, C. (trans.)(1963) The Mendelssohn Family 1729-1847 from the Letters of Journals of Sebastian Hensel, Vol. II. University of Toronto.