“I am the Ambassador’s wife.” This is probably the biggest faux pas, I have ever made. A month in advance of my trip to Italy, I wrote a letter requesting a visit to the garden at the Villa Wolkonsky in Rome, currently the British Embassy. In Rome, I received an apologetic email. ” I am sorry not to have responded sooner. Can you come to the Villa on Thursday at 3:30?”
Every house in Italy, large or small has a gate. The British Embassy has them in spades. I asked at the first gate for Nina Prentice, my email correspondent. The door swung open. I asked at the second gate, the guard motioned me to continue up the drive. At the top of the road, sits a large villa. I thought this can’t be right. This is definitely the Ambassador’s residence. There was a man in a white jacket outside the villa. I asked for Nina. “She will be right out. She went to wash her hands. Please come in and wait.” A woman came out in gardening clothes. I made the assumption that she was the Head Gardener. I was wrong, big time.
As we walked, Nina described what the grounds looked like when she arrived two years ago. Villa Wolkonsky is 5-hectares. One entire side of the garden is walled in by 36 arches of Nero’s Aqueduct built in 54 AD to supply water to his imperial palace, 50 miles to the east. When Nina arrived the aqueduct was barely visible. “My first job was to make the aqueduct visible, which immediately created an architecture for the garden.”
Nina continued. “Any garden in Rome can easily become a jungle. Things self-seed everywhere. There were little beds with paths winding here and there. It made no sense to me. I looked at the big picture. I started removing plants and paths.”
We walked toward a small pavilion. Nina opened the door to a swimming pool. This was Goebbels’ pool. The Germans occupied the Villa Wolkonsky during the War. The British government bought the Villa in 1951 as the official residence of Her Majesty’s Ambassador.”
I asked Nina, if she had done much research about the Villa. “No, not really. These are just the stories people tell us. Princess Zenaide Wolkonsky lived in a small house opposite the Villa. She hosted a fairly famous literary salon. It is said that Gogol wrote most of Dead Souls at the villa, The original garden reflected her romantic vision. The house that is the residence was built by her descendents”
This visit was turning out to be much more than a visit to a garden. I was
dumbfounded by Nina’s knowledge of plants and trees. She is a gardener. A hands-on gardener. She is teaching her Italian gardening staff, how to weed, what compost is and how to run a greenhouse.
When I said to her that British people are born with plant DNA. She corrected me. Her grandparents were Italian and American. Nina told me her favorite pastime as a child, besides riding her pony, was going to visit gardens with her grandmother, who was a great friend of Gertrude Jekyll.”
It started to get dark and Nina invited us in for a cup of tea and a biscuit. We sat in one of the many reception rooms at the Villa. A room 50 ft. x 60 ft. with 20 ft. ceilings, is hard to feel cozy in. I wanted to ask Nina a question. I have asked this question to many of my gardening friends, who have made gardens and have had to leave those gardens, usually because they have split with their partners. The partners keep the house and the garden and the women move on.
Phyllis: Nina, how does it feel to be making gardens and leaving those gardens when the posting is up?
Nina: “I will never go back to any garden I have made. I know who my successor is and I am pretty sure none of the gardens I made are still there. When I went to Jordan, my predecessor had delphiniums everywhere. Can you imagine anything sillier than planting delphiniums in Jordan?”
Phyllis: I couldn’t
Nina: ” I changed the entire garden. Started reading about xeriscaping. I find it so interesting. I don’t think what I do is necessarily RIGHT, but I don’t want to see how someone else has changed it.”
I said goodbye. It was a tremendous visit. Waiting for the bus in Rome is like waiting for Godot. It can take a while. I remembered one of the last things Nina said to me.
“When I am cross, a good dig is all I need to put things right.”