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Love in the Gardens

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Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos
The Boboli Gardens in Florence, 2002; photograph by Chris Steele-Perkins

Boboli, Florence

When my father was old and I was still young, I came into some money. Though it was money “earned” for work done, it seemed, both to my father and me, no different than a win on the lottery. We looked at the contract more than once, checking and rechecking it, just like a lottery ticket, to ensure no mistake had been made. No mistake had been made. I was to be paid for writing a book. For a long time, neither of us could work out what to do about this new reality. My father kept on with his habit of tucking a ten- or twenty-pound note inside his letters to me. I took the rest of my family (my parents having separated long before) to a “resort” back in the “old country” (the Caribbean) where we rode around bored in golf carts, argued violently, and lined up in grim silence to receive a preposterous amount of glistening fruit, the only black folk in line for the buffet.

It took a period of reflection before I realized that the money—though it may have arrived somewhat prematurely for me—had come at the right time for my father. A working life launched when he was thirteen, which had ended in penury, old age, and divorce, might now, finally, find a soft landing. To this end, I moved Harvey from his shabby London flat to a cottage by the sea, and when the late spring came we thought not of Cornwall or Devon or the Lake District but of Europe.

Outrageous thought! Though not without precedent. The summer before I went to college, my father, in his scrupulous way, had worked out a budget that would allow the two of us to spend four days in Paris. Off we went. But it is not easy for a white man of almost seventy and a black girl of seventeen to go on a mini-break to Europe together; the smirks of strangers follow you everywhere. We did not like to linger in restaurants or in the breakfast room of our tiny hotel. Instead, on that first, exploratory trip, we found our pleasure in walking. Through the streets, through museums—but more than anywhere else, through gardens. No money has to be spent in a garden, and no awkward foreign conversation need be made, and no one thinks you odd or provincial if you consult your guidebook in front of a statue or a lake.

In public parks it is a little easier to feel you belong. I felt this instinctively as a teenager (and, thinking back, as a child on Hampstead Heath). Over the next few years, in college, I found myself attracted once more to gardens, this time intellectually. I wrote my final thesis on “English Garden Poetry 1600–1900,” putting special emphasis on the many ways in which “work” and “workers” are obscured in an English garden. Look at how the ha-ha replaces the fence or wall. See that solitary poetic hermit in his grotto, symbolic replacement for all those unpoetic men who dug the hole that created the artificial lake in the first place. The English lord looks out on his creation and sees just that—“creation”—unspoiled by workers’ cottages or beasts of burden. With a great deal of art he has made his garden imitate nature. The window from his Surrey bedroom reveals a view straight out of a classical pastoral, apparently untouched and yet exquisite, not unlike the hills of Tuscany he spied while on his Grand Tour.

Writing that essay, I became very interested in the notion of “The Grand Tour.” I read the diaries of English men of means, accounts of their travels in Italy or Germany, and followed them as they looked at and acquired paintings and statues, walked through elaborate gardens, marveled at all the marble, stood at the base of great ruins mulling the sublime futility of existence, and so on. Nice work if you can get it. During the Michaelmas break, I visited Harvey in his one-bedroom Kilburn box and thought: Why shouldn’t my old man get a Grand Tour too?

But when the opportunity arrived, I discovered that my father’s interests lay more in France than Italy. He liked the food and the cities and the look of the women. We wrangled a little, and I won: like all twenty-three-year-olds I was skilled at aligning any good deeds with my own pleasures (although we later went back to France). We booked for Florence. The hotel was called Porta Rossa. I understand it has recently undergone a transformation and now looks much like any other chic boutique hotel on the Continent, but when I went with Harvey it was a true pensione, unchanged since the nineteenth century.

Air came through windows—which we were under strict instructions to open only at night—and keys were heavy, key-shaped, and attached to giant velvet tassels. The rooms themselves were wondrously large though almost entirely empty, featuring one uncomfortable bed with scratchy sheets, one creaking wardrobe, one wicker chair, and a floor of dark red tile. No television, no minibar, no food. But you had only to look up at the ceiling, at the casually preserved remnant of some anonymous fresco, to feel what a stain it would be upon your person and nation to even think of walking down to the bellhop (no phone) to complain. True, like E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch and Charlotte Bartlett we did not have a room with a view—unless a patch of twelfth-century wall is a view—but I was at that point in life at which sharing a situation, albeit a poor one, even with a fictional character was pleasure enough for me.

In the morning, we set out. We had the idea of reaching the Boboli Gardens. But many people set out from a Florence hotel with the hope of getting to a particular place—few ever get there. You step into a narrow alleyway, carta di città in hand, walk confidently past the gelato place, struggle through the crowd at the mouth of the Ponte Vecchio, take a left, and find yourself in some godforsaken shady vicolo near a children’s hospital, where the temperature is in the 100s and someone keeps trying to sell you a rip-off Prada handbag. You look up pleadingly at the little putty babies. You take a right, a left, another right—here is the Duomo again. But you have already seen the Duomo. In Florence, wherever you try to get to, you end up at the Duomo, which seems to be constantly changing its location. The heat builds and the walls of the alleys feel very high; the thought of a green oasis is tantalizing but last time you remember seeing grass was that little strip in front of the train station. Will you ever see it again?

En route, we tried to amuse ourselves. Harvey, a talented amateur photographer, snapped pictures of beautiful women as they dashed from shade to shade. I, far less able, took a poor shot of a piece of ironic graffiti: Welcome to Disneyland, Florence. It got hotter. “Where are we?” I asked my father. “The Piazza of Fish,” he muttered, but then he was struck with fresh vision: “I’ve a feeling we should have crossed that bridge.”

I remember this small geographical insight coming over us both as a revelation: there was, after all, a way out of this oppressively beautiful warren of streets, and it led to higher ground. Height being the essential sensation of Boboli. Climbing toward it, we felt ourselves to be no longer British rats running around a medieval Italian maze—no, now we were heading up into the clear, entitled air of the Renaissance, to triumph over the ever-moving Duomo once and for all.

Through formal gardens we passed, each one more manicured and overdesigned than the next, our cameras hanging dumbly from our necks, for Boboli is a place that defeats framing. As an aesthetic experience it arrives preframed, and there’s little joy to be had taking a picture of a series of diametric hedges. “It’s not much like an English garden, is it?” ventured Harvey, confronted by Bacchus sitting fatly on a turtle, his chubby penis pointed directly at our foreheads.

In one lake, Neptune stood naked about to stab a trident into a rock; in another, a fellow unknown to us reared up on his horse, as if a sea that had once parted for him now intended to swallow him whole. I remember no ducks or wandering fowl, not a leaf or pebble out of place. In Boboli you don’t really escape the city for the country, nor are you allowed to forget for a moment the hours of labor required to shape a hedge into a shape that in no way resembles a hedge.

No, not like an English garden at all…though perhaps more honest in its intentions. It speaks of wealth and power without disguise. Boboli is Florence, echoed in nature. As a consequence of this, it is the only garden of which I can remember feeling a little shy. I would not have thought it possible to feel underdressed in a garden, but I did—we both did. Clumsy tourists dragging ourselves around a private fantasia. For though Boboli may be open to the public, it is still somehow the Medicis’ park, and the feeling of trespassing never quite leaves you. It was a relief to find ourselves for a moment on an avenue of curved yew trees, shaded and discreet, where we were offered the possibility of respite, not only from the awful sun, but from the gleaming of monuments and the turrets of villas.

At the very peak we rested, and took far more photos of the red roofs of Florence than we had taken of the gardens themselves. “Very grand, that was,” said my father a little later, when we had descended into a not-grand-at-all café to happily eat a baby cow covered in tuna sauce. Seeing his relief I thought sadly of Charlotte Bartlett, and heard her grating voice echoing in my own mind: I feel that our tour together is hardly the success I had hoped. I might have known it would not do.

Borghese, Rome

A little while after my father died, I moved to Rome. I was in mourning and it was winter, and the city was all stone and diagonal rain to me. I had no sense at all of it being a green place. I walked past the Spanish Steps into the wind without wondering where they led. With the spring, small patches of green revealed themselves: the ring of grass around the Castel Sant’Angelo; or the little walled garden off Via Nazionale, dotted with defunct fountains, one deep, waterless well, and covered in the scrawls of teenage lovers. rafaella—ti amo! We would never have found these spots if not for the dog, who sniffed them out. One day in April, under a hedge in this walled garden, my husband led our pug to something more melancholy and curious than a pine cone: an empty Statue of Liberty costume, a tin of green spray paint, an empty bucket, an Indian immigrant’s identity card.

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Gallerie Borghese, Rome/Scala/Art Resource
Apollo and Daphne; sculpture by Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1622–1624, at the Villa Borghese, located in the Borghese Gardens, Rome

It took us a while to discover the Villa Borghese. We lived on the other side of town, which is to say, less than fifteen minutes away, but of all the parochial spots in the world, Rome is one of the worst. Each rione is so charming and self-sufficient, you rarely feel the need to adventure beyond it. I should think we were in Monti a year before we crossed the river to explore the relative wilds of Trastevere. Once again, the dog provided impetus. By the summer she had helped pull us anxiously toward the Italian language, where we did our best to keep up with the chatter of the other dog owners we met in the walled garden, exchanging veterinary tips or boasting about bloodlines. (I never saw a mongrel dog in Rome. They all looked like they’d come straight of out of the “Breeds; Canine” section of the encyclopedia.)

E dove possiamo corriere con il nostro cane senza guinzaglio?” I tried, and was rewarded, despite my grammar, with an avalanche of friendly yet almost totally incomprehensible information—verbs running into adjectives at high speed—yet from which we were, in the end, able to pluck a few nouns. The best place to run a dog off the lead was in a bourgeois villa. And where was this middle-class villa? Why, up the Spanish Steps! We’d see a villa and then a park. There would be museums and bicycles and lakes and a zoo, which is not called a zoo but a bioparc. Che assurdo! And yes, dogs, everywhere dogs. There is a special place for dogs!

The Borghese Gardens are shaped like a cartoon heart, though only a map reveals this: when inside, you walk its winding arterial paths without any sense of a formal plan, surprised here by a café, there by a lake, here by a museum or a film festival, by the head of Savonarola or a carousel or a wild splash of lavender. It is a lovely example of a truly public park. Wrested from the fists of a seventeenth-century cardinal and his descendants (who opened it to the public on Sundays and public holidays), it was delivered, in the twentieth century, into the hands of the people.

Like Hampstead Heath, like Central Park, it has wide avenues on which to promenade, and high grass in which to read and kiss, and children and dogs are welcome to run wild—though in both cases they are better dressed than their London and New York counterparts. Once we saw a borzoi in a yellow raincoat, yellow rain hat, and four yellow booties. On Sundays you get little girls with a lot of froufrou curls and bows and underskirts, and boys in blazers and ties, like tiny CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

At the spot we had been told about—where dogs may run without leads—things were more casual, though the Roman fetish for that British sartorial horror the Barbour jacket was everywhere in evidence. (We are out in the open air, like an Englishman, these jackets seem to say, each to the other, exercising our dogs as the English do.) Towering Italian stone pines create a luxurious canine obstacle course; classy hounds chase each other in figures of eight while their owners laze about on a natural slope and settle in to watch people conduct their private lives in public.

It Happened in the Park is the English title of Vittorio de Sica’s 1953 movie (in Italian it was simply Villa Borghese) and that’s how it is: as if the doors of everybody’s apartments have fallen off and left a clear view for any passing stranger to take in. In the six separate vignettes that make up that film, de Sica trumpets the glories of voyeurism while celebrating the power of the segue: his vision of a public park is of a journey without maps. In life, as in the film, one arrives with a very particular plan—a picnic in a precise spot, or a visit to the gallery—but the park is so full of random temptations and opportunities that it will always thwart your ambition to get from A to B. In one vignette, a couple of Roman prostitutes on the run from the law stumble across, and enter, a Miss Cinema beauty contest taking place in the park. The message: anyone can make it in the gardens of the Borghese.

It is this easy transition between high and low that is central to the charm of the place. It does not exclude. That all those stone busts of famous men should have their names clearly printed beneath, for example—well, it may be only a small matter of nineteenth-century taste, but what a difference it makes. No need to wander around nervously, ashamed of a lack of knowledge. Any housewife can walk right up to Leonardo da Vinci and think: what girlish cheekbones! How weird he looks with that great beard! Any working stiff can eat gelato in front of Archimedes, peer into his stone eyes, and consider how much he looks like old Giancarlo from the post office. Harvey would have loved all that.

Inside the villa itself, the statuary shifts from pleasant to unequaled—while remaining entirely comprehensible to the casual shade-seeking visitor. What is the story of Apollo and Daphne if not a classic case of unrequited park-love? Bernini’s masterwork repeats the main action of the gardens, where the boys watch the girls while the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by. And having picked up my photographer father’s habit of ogling the beautiful, I know, as Apollo did, how it can be painful to gaze upon a beautiful human who can never be yours.

To this agony of desire Bernini offers a solution—at least on the aesthetic plane—sublimely combining all the mismatched materials of a public park into one sculpture: human flesh, tree bark, marble. On Daphne’s face you find the shock of transmogrification, but in Apollo’s eyes I detect signs of relief. There is a kind of peace that comes with finally giving up the chase. For my father, who never stopped desiring women who didn’t want him, Daphne’s absolute refusal might have served as a moment of recognition. Sometimes you just can’t get the girl. Sometimes the girl would rather be a tree.

There is a sentimental season, early on in the process of mourning, in which you believe that everything you happen to be doing or seeing or eating, the departed person would also have loved to do or see or eat, were he or she still here on earth. Harvey would have loved this fried ball of rice. He would have loved the Pantheon. He would have loved that Rossetti of a girl with her thick black brows.

In the first season of mourning there is a tendency to overstate. But still I feel certain that this was the garden that would have made us both happy. It was a bittersweet thing to walk through it without him, thinking of our last trip together, to crowded, expensive Venice, which had not been much more successful than Florence. Why had I never thought of Rome? Like me, he would have loved the glimpses of the new arrivals: African families, Indian couples, Roma girls hand in hand. Sitting for a picnic, unpacking foods that smelled wonderfully of coriander—an herb most Roman grocers wouldn’t know from a weed.

Harvey and I knew from experience that it takes a while for immigrants to believe a park is truly public and open to them: my mother always used to complain, exaggerating somewhat (and not without a little pride), that she was the only black woman to be seen pushing a stroller through St. James’s Park in 1975. Sometimes a generation of habitation is needed to create the necessary confidence; to believe that this gate will open for you too. In Italy, where so many kinds of gates are closed to so many people, there is something especially beautiful in the freedom of a garden.

For our two years in Rome, the Borghese Gardens became a semiregular haunt, the place most likely to drag us from our Monti stupor. And I always left the park reluctantly; it was not an easy transition to move from its pleasant chaos to the sometimes pedantic conventionality of the city. No, you can’t have cheese on your vongole; no, this isn’t the time for a cappuccino; yes, you can eat pizza on these steps but not near that fountain; in December we all go to India; in February we all ski in France; in September of course we go to New York. Everything Romans do is perfect and delightful, but it is sometimes annoying that they should insist on all doing the same things at exactly the same time. I think their argument is: given that all our habits are perfect and delightful, why would anyone stray from them?

I guess they have a point, but it is still a relief to escape into their gardens and eat food in any order while sitting in the grass and drinking a British amount of alcohol without anyone looking at you piteously. In a public Italian garden a Briton has all the things she loves about Italy—the sun, the food, the sky, the art, the sound of the language—without any of the inconvenient rules that attend their proper enjoyment. She is free to delight in that astounding country on her own slovenly terms. To think about her father and how he would have loved these oily arancini that she bought near the Pantheon (which he would also have loved). To watch the people come and go. And then perhaps go boating. And then perhaps fall asleep, a little drunk, in the grass.

When my father died I dashed to Rome leaving a lot undone. I’d packed what little I found in his room in a box and abandoned it in my basement. Two years later, when I returned, I had to go through his things properly. There was not much, but there were some photos of trips we’d taken together in France and Italy. I think he got some pleasure from those holidays, but the photos have a sort of dutiful air to them, as if he’s taking them to please me. He liked to get them blown up and sent to me in a large padded envelope, perfect as postcards and equally uninteresting.

The only sublime shot was taken in Carcassonne (his choice), where he quite uncharacteristically demanded a car stop so he could walk back a few yards to the edge of a sheer drop that gave on to a view of a valley. Here he took a magnificent panorama, of hills and dales and forests and fields, and a little thread of blue running through it all. He never sent me that one, but I found several copies of it among his things after he died, as if he didn’t want me to know that the gardens he liked best were the wild ones.

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