On the other side of the world, beloved Australian landscape designer Paul Bangay has revived a renaissance garden. From 2012 to 2016, he and a dedicated team transformed an earthly canvas at the Monash University Prato Centre in Prato, Italy.
The full story of this incredible project is chronicled in The Italian Garden, an engrossing hardcover that takes you through the restoration project in detail, as well as the incredible history of the 18th-century Palazzo Vaj building.
You may have caught ‘Monash’, and are probably wondering how this all connects and what everyone was doing over there? Good question. Back in 2001, Professor Bill Kent of Monash University established a centre for students and scholars in Prato, bringing an Australian academic presence to this picturesque region.
The villa’s garden, however, garnered widespread interest decades earlier. In 1967, spectacular 15th-Century frescoes, having once extended around the garden walls for some 15 metres, were unearthed. Though they all now reside behind museum glass, it was these astonishing artworks that originally captured the imagination of The Italian Garden‘s co-editor and project instigator, Dr Cecilia Hewlett.
Cecilia first heard of the history of the garden (then a neglected carpark!) when Monash was signing its lease of the property 17 years ago. Today she is the Centre’s director, in addition to being a historian of the Italian Renaissance. While studying in Italy throughout her youth, Cecilia realised how important green spaces were to wellbeing and to establishing a sense of belonging. She was inspired to reinstate the Palazzo Vaj’s original garden by her fond memories, in particular those of the manicured gardens of Villa I Tatti at the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.
And so, with so many strong Melbourne connections, it seemed only fitting to enlist superstar green-thumb Paul Bangay to realise this ambitious project. Championing water features, grottos and symmetrical planting, Paul has ‘combined Australian creativity with Italian style’ in his design – as Carla Zampatti commends in her foreword. Adding another layer to this enthralling tale, Carla immigrated from Italy to Australia as a child, and her Carla Zampatti Foundation was a supporter of the restoration.
There are so many more tangents we would love to explore, but you really should read them in full, in the book! Throughout its essays on history and context, and, of course, Paul’s inspiring chapter on creating the courtyard garden, the hardcover features transportive photography by Simon Griffiths (you’re only getting a tiny taste of it here). And, as is most accurately relayed in the introduction, ‘both the garden and the book are things of beauty…’
The Italian Garden: Restoring a Renaissance Garden in Tuscany, published by Thames and Hudson, is available ($49.99) and at good bookstores nationally.