Villa Carlotta is a place of rare beauty. Within its seven hectares of gardens and museum, natural and human masterpieces harmoniously coexist. The villa was built at the end of the 1600’s by the Marquis Giorgio Clerici. A great yet simple building it is surrounded by an Italian style garden with statues, stairs and fountains. It is situated within a natural dip between a lake and mountains, in front of a breath-taking setting on the dolomitic Grigne and Bellagio. Thanks to its next owner, Giovanni Battista Sommariva, the Villa reached its maximum majesty. Sommariva, both businessman and art collector on one hand, and expert in agronomic sciences on the other hand, bought the Villa at the beginning of the 1800’s: he extended the garden by acquiring the surrounding grounds to be used mainly for agricultural purposes. In the mid-XIX century the property was given as a wedding present from Princess Marianna von Nassau to her daughter Carlotta and her husband George II von Sachsen-Meiningen; he was a passionate botanist and changed the “useful” plants with flowering bushes, thus striving towards the development and improvement of a romantic garden, today of great historical and environmental importance. Favoured by soil fertility due to the deposits of particularly acidic sediment from ancient glaciers, the Villa Carlotta park is famous for the beautiful spring flowering of more than 150 cultivars of rhododendrons and azaleas. Nevertheless, each period of the year is adequate for a visit. Between ancient specimens of camellias, cedars and sequoias, huge plain trees and exotic species, surprising settings follow one another: the vegetable theatre, the rock garden, the valley of ferns, the rhododendron wood, the bamboo garden, the ancient olive tree grove and extraordinary glimpses which account by far for the fame of this place that since the 1800’s has been considered “a piece of paradise”.
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Villa Carlotta is managed by its namesake private foundation (Ente Villa Carlotta) constituted at the end of World War I, thanks to Senator Giuseppe Bianchini. Since 1927, the foundation has guaranteed the villa conservation and development. According to the statutory rules, all entrance fees are used for the improvement of the Villa and therefore it is open to the public. The maintenance and enrichment of the botanical heritage run parallel with the conservation of the historical-cultural heritage that is more than three centuries old. Along with the President and Management Committee, the staff is composed of a director, an administrator, a technician, two ticket office assistants, four museum assistants, and three coordinators for the information office, events and educational services. Thirteen gardeners take daily care of the large garden, and approximately ten educators guide visitors to discover its wonders. Moreover, in collaboration with Auser, numerous group of volunteers help take care of the garden and organize activities. In addition, the Associazione Nazionale Alpini cooperates to take care of the wooded zone and to restore the agricultural zones, and an agreement with Fondazione Minoprio for the management of the phyto-pathological aspects guarantees an adequate care of the whole botanical heritage.
The Villa Carlotta park can be divided in three main areas. In front of the villa there is the Italian style garden, composed of five terraces animated by geometrical flowerbeds, niches and fountains, and by many botanical surprises including high hedges of camellias, large citrus tunnels and many roses. On the right of the villa, there is the English style garden, rich of precious trees of extraordinary size, of rare species, of appealing glimpses and impressive masses of rhododendrons and azaleas. Finally, the “old garden” is located to the left of the villa; its name refers to an area that was probably neglected for some time and was so infested by spontaneous plants that it was therefore considered an old garden. It is composed of three long paths cutting it longitudinally at three different levels and is rich of romantic wonders with enormous, and probably very old, trees. Along with these three gardens, an agricultural area that in the past was assigned to Lario-typical cultivations, including the olive tree, was recently restored.[/toggle] [toggle title=”Main collections”]
Considering the size achieved by numerous specimens, it is possible to conclude that the use of the camellias here goes back to a remote past. Between the 267 known species, the most important presence within the park is that of Camellia japonica, which, thanks to its versatility, allows for the creation more than 2000 cultivars. Walking through the park, different varieties, some quite rare and of many colours, can be admired such as ‘Hagoromo‘, ‘Black Lace‘, ‘C.M. Hovey‘, ‘Jupiter‘, ‘Lavinia Maggi‘, ‘Nuccio’s gem‘, and ‘Ville de Nantes‘. Moreover, the camellias of the Risorgimento such as ‘Annessione‘, ‘Arciduca Carlo‘, ‘Carbonara‘, ‘Conte Cavour‘, ‘Garibaldi‘, ‘Il 22 marzo 1848‘, ‘Roma risorta‘, ‘Pio IX‘ cannot be overlooked. Along with these numerous varieties, there are the winter camellias, flowering from October to January, and belonging to the species C. sasanqua and C. hiemalis. In a zone closed to the public there are some specimens of C. sinensis, the tea plant, a bush with white pendant flowers and elliptical, shiny, dark green leaves, which can be up to 12 cm long in length. All the tea types come from the processing of leaves, buds and other parts of this plant: only the processing methods discriminate the various types.
Along with the camellias, azaleas represent the botanical glory for which the Villa Carlotta park is so famous. In April and May Villa Carlotta offers an authentic sea of multi-coloured azaleas in high rounded cushions along the garden paths. The effect is unique because of the chromatic variety and plant size. It is a flowered path of great charm and entity that, in Italy, has very few comparisons. Here it is possible to verify the ability of the landscape architects of the Sachsen-Meiningen times and of today’s gardeners, who are able to create and maintain such a beautiful bloom, interpreting in a modern way the aims and the techniques of the ancient topiary art.
The skilful care of a series of specimens mainly belonging to a single rhododendron species (Rhododendron arboreum) allowed for creating a scene that in nature can only be equalled on the Himalayan Mountains: a great number of trees – some of them over one hundred years old – evoke an unforgettable atmosphere with their trunks and branches. Characterized by a thick trunk and no branches in its lowest part, 30-60 cm in diameter and between 1m to 15 m in height, the R. arboreum is a tree with oblong leaves and inflorescences with 15 – 20 red flowers each in the typical species, or pink or white in some of the sub-species. Within the park there are the sub-species: ‘Duc de Brabant‘, ‘Garibaldi‘, ‘John Waterer‘, ‘Vesuvio‘. Moreover, there are specimens of R. macabeanum, coming from India, which are trees with very large oval leaves and rich inflorescences, with funnel-shaped or trumpet-shaped corollas.
With a spectacular double tunnel of citrus trees planted on the ground and with a system of modulate greenhouses, Villa Carlotta attests to how these species were an important accessory for the stately gardens. Despite the excellent eastward exposure, the tunnels need winter protection. They are composed of different cultivars of citrus trees. In addition to the common lemon tree (Citrus limon) and bitter orange (C. x aurantium), there is not only a series of hybrids of various species, but also sweet orange (C. sinensis), mandarin (C. reticulata), grapefruit (C. paradisi), clementine (C. reticulata subs. unshiu), chinotto (C. x aurantium var. myrtifolia), bergamot (C. bergamia) and, finally, the Buddha’s hand citron (C. medica var. digitata), one of the most interesting cultivar.
More than 3000 m2 of the Villa Carlotta park, inspired by the principles and techniques of the Japanese art of gardening, hosts 25 different bamboo species within a context of great harmony between little waterfalls, streams and stone structures. There is also Phyllostachys sulphurea var. viridis, Phyllostachys aurea, Pleioblastus argenteostriatus, and Pseudosasa disticha, and the rare species Phyllostachys edulis var. heterocycla is also present with a stem characterized by strange bulges and distortions.
Villa Carlotta hosts a large group of exotic palms. Two species of Phoenix, the same genus as the date palm: P. canariensis, native to the Canary Islands, which has a lower, thicker trunk, and P. sylvestris, from India, which is taller and more slender, and whose leaves can reach a length of 4.5 m. Then, there are Californian Washingtonia filifera, approximately 10 m tall and characterized by a trunk covered with the remains of the dry leaves it has shed; a Guadalupe palm (Brahea edulis), with a fissured trunk and petioles as long as 1.5 m bearing costapalmate leaves 2 m wide; a Sino-Japanese fan palm (Rhapis excelsa), also known as dwarf palm because of its modest height; a Mediterranean palm (Chamaerops humilis); a Chinese palm Trachycarpus fortunei and, finally, a Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), native to the Andes, with a high straight trunk covered with scars left by the gradual shedding of the leaves gathered in a tuft at the top of the tree, from which they hang down gently, reaching a length of as much as 5 m.
There is a large stock of succulents, including many species belonging to approximately 15 different genera. From the most common, such as Opuntia, Aloe, Agave, Sedum, and Euphorbia to the lesser known Cereus, Mammillaria, Gasteria, Echeveria, Kalanchoe, Kleinia, Epiphyllum, and Zygocactus, not to mention the famous “mother-in-law’s cushion” (Echinocactus grusonii), a cactus with hedgehog-like spines on which no one would like to sit.
At one end of the “old garden” a green wall with aromatic plants, spreading an intense perfume in summer, is present. On this wall there are lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), absinthe (Artemisia absinthium), white wormwood (Artemisia alba), helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), wild rocket salad (Diplotaxis tenuifolia subsp. tenuifolia), origano (Origanum vulgare), Santolina pinnata, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), caraway (Carum carvi), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), catmint (Clinopodium nepeta), sage (Salvia officinalis) and different species belonging to the genus Mentha: mint (M. aquatica), variegated mint (M. suaveolens ‘Variegata‘), Moroccan mint (M. spicata ‘Moroccan‘) and pennyroyal (M. pulegium).
Monumental trees, dwarf coniferous and Ericaceous
The Villa Carlotta park not only hosts majestic monumental trees (Pinus nigra, Cedrus libani, Cedrus deodara, Liriodendron tulipifera, Calocedrus decurrens, Cinnamonum camphora, Liquidambar styraciflua, Magnolia tripetala, Ginkgo biloba, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, Quercus suber,…) but also a collection of dwarf coniferous including Taxus baccata Minima, Picea abies Pusch and Lombarts, Picea omorika Kamen, located near various species of Ericaceae (for example Erica vagans Valerie Proudley, Erica cinerea Rock Pool and Cairn Valley, Calluna vulgaris Island Mist, John Egets and Ariadne, Erica x watsonii).[/toggle] [toggle title=”Activities and projects”]
To valorise its educational mission, Villa Carlotta has developed a program of laboratories and services for the interpretation of its heritage for groups of visitors of different ages and provenance. Botanical gardens like Villa Carlotta are places favoured for carrying out activities of scientific education and education for sustainable development: plant collections are not only spectacular for the beauty of their colours and structures but they are also important for providing valuable food for thought about the importance of the plant kingdom in our daily life; just like a living encyclopaedia they offer an extraordinary richness of very good materials to carry out educational activities. The hands-on method is common to all age levels and to all workshops, with an experiential and participatory approach, towards the development of the divergent and critical thought. The educational services are divided on the basis of the end-user typologies: schools, groups and families, companies, summer camps for children and other initiatives (for further details visit http://www.villacarlotta.it/schools.php?pag_id=26&sez_id=18&lang_id=1 or write at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Between the projects in which the Ente Villa Carlotta is involved:
- “Radici per il futuro: recupero delle antiche colture lariane quali strumento di conoscenza, crescita e solidarietà”, funded by the Cariplo Foundation, has allowed to recover and restore an area of Villa Carlotta’s property characterized by a specific agricultural vocation. It is an area that in the past was cultivated for the production of Lario-typical cultivations (olive trees and vineyards). The restoration of the old agricultural area was therefore carried out by valorising the landscape valence and integrating the cultural opportunities of the botanical park. The Ente created new conditions able to guarantee a sustainable management of the restored area through new opportunities for maintenance.
- “Etnobotanica in Tremezzina: antichi saperi per i cittadini di oggi grazie ai cittadini di domani. Esperienza pilota di indagine etnobotanica sulla popolazione adulta a partire dalla popolazione scolastica, funded by Regione Lombardia, has been allowed to collect information and evidence about the popular use of medicinal plants in Tremezzina. This result was achieved through an ethno botanical investigation that involved local students interviewing members of their families; the results of these investigations were made available to the public through an exhibition which consisted of a collection of spontaneous plants within the agricultural area of Villa Carlotta. The data acquired from the research activity was then used in a creative way through a multimedia platform. Its aim was to valorise the cultural heritage and to continue the research project through personal contributions of its users. Moreover, the documentary materials were shared with the Archivio di Etnografia e Storia Sociale of Regione Lombardia.
Clauser M., Pavone P. 2016. “Orti botanici – Eccellenze italiane”. Nuove Direzioni, Firenze. 293 pp.
De Nicola A., Zuccoli F. 2016. “Paesaggi Culturali – Nuove forme di valorizzazione del patrimonio: dalla ricerca all’azione condivisa”. 210 pp.