Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and their Gardens (1904)

“The traveller returning from Italy, with his eyes and imagination full of the ineffable Italian garden-magic, knows vaguely that the enchantment exists; that he has been under its spell, and that it is more potent, more enduring, more intoxicating to every sense than the most elaborate and glowing effects of modern horticulture; but he may not have found the key to the mystery. Is it because the sky is bluer, because the vegetation is more luxuriant?”

So begins Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and their Gardens (1904), which followed her debut novel, The Valley of Decision (1902). The novel’s success and Italian setting — as well as her work on an earlier volume, 1897’s The Decoration of Houses — caught the eye of an editor at Century magazine, who commissioned Wharton for a series of six articles on Italian architecture and an accompanying book-length collection. She shipped out of Boston in January 1903, disembarked near Genoa, and proceeded to tour widely, as she had done since childhood on an almost annual basis — Viterbo up to Orvieto; Siena, Florence, Rome, and Venice — following recommendations from Vernon Lee, the book’s dedicatee, who “better than anyone else, has understood and interpreted the garden-magic of Italy”.

When not villa-hopping, Wharton rubbed shoulders with the countesses Papafava of Padua and Maria Pasolini of Rome, and rode in her first motor car. “In a thin spring dress, a sailor hat balanced on my chignon, and a two-inch tulle veil over my nose, I climbed proudly to my perch, and off we tore across the Campagna”. By March 18, she could report to her editor that she had already taken “innumerable photographs” and made notes on no less than twenty-six villas, “many unknown or almost inaccessible, & I hope to do nearly as many more in the next month.” She ends her letter tactfully, economically, asking for a 33 percent raise. “All this has increased our expenses considerably—especially, of course, I mean, the trips to out of the way towns & the long drives—& though you may think such investigations are unnecessary for the magazine articles, you will appreciate, I am sure, how much they will add to the value & importance of the book.”

A boy bathing in a gardenScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

She wasn’t wrong: Italian Villas and their Gardens analyzes more than eighty wonders, intercut with fifty-two illustrations: wide-angle photographs and evocative color compositions by the American painter Maxfield Parrish (featured in our gallery below), which Wharton’s text was designed, in part, to accompany. The volume itself is enchanting — its cover inlaid with gold tablature, the images veiled by protective layers of engraved velum. Across these pages, we encounter familiar landscapes — Villa d’Este and the Boboli Gardens, the Mannerist Medici villa and the abutting Borghese park — but Wharton layers architectural history with fine-grain description, and fresh impressions germinate from this well-turned loam. The grounds at Villa Albani in Rome are “laid out in formal quincunxes of clipped ilex”, its gardens “seem to have been decorated by an archaeologist rather than an artist”. She is particularly sensitive to weightiness: the famous water theater at the Villa Aldobrandini is “a heavy and uninspired production”; a portico built under the direction of Winckelmann exhibits “the heavy touch of that neo-Grecianism which was to crush the life out of eighteen-century art”. While Parrish’s images were widely praised, some critics were dispirited by Wharton’s tone, claiming she was “almost too impartial in her appreciation”. A few Century editors agreed, calling the sister articles “too dry and technical”. They asked Wharton to liven things up; her reply was curt. If they wanted “sentimental and anecdotal commentaries”, she would gladly annul her contract. All of her articles subsequently appeared.

The book remained one of Wharton’s favorite projects. In A Backward Glance, her 1934 autobiography, she writes: “I never enjoyed any work more than the preparing of that book, but neither do I remember any task so associated with physical fatigue.”