Carolyn Hanbury is chatting with her friend, the Italian botanist Ursula Piacenza, in a beautiful villa facing the sea, with a beautiful Mediterranean garden that goes down to the seashore. The most famous Italian gardener and landscape architect, Paolo Pejrone, who was one of the closest pupils of Russell Page, is there.
Carolyn is drinking her seven o’clock whisky that Ursula keeps just for her. The conversation is about the Hanbury Garden, and there are many little details to discuss on the eve of a board meeting of the Friends of the Garden that they will attend the following morning.
I ask Carolyn: What is so special about the Hanbury Garden?
The garden was created by the Englishman Thomas Hanbury in 1867. I should say that The Hanbury Garden is an historic English garden with a good botanical collection and a strong horticultural tradition. Thomas Hanbury was not a botanist, he came from a pharmaceutical family, and he was interested in creating a subtropical garden, an experimental garden, introducing plants from many different sub-tropical worlds.
It was a private garden?
Yes, until 1960, when it was sold to the Italian State. No private individual would have been able to buy it after the war.
Who runs it?
As we are in the village of La Mortola, almost at the border with France but still in Italy, the first to run it was The Institute of International Studies in Liguria, then the Province of Imperia and then, since 1986, thanks to the Amici dei Giardini the garden was taken over by the University of Genoa.
And how do they run it?
Professor Mariotti, a very well-known biologist and botanist, is the Chairman of the garden and does a remarkable job. The most important thing to be acknowledged is that the University of Genoa saved the park. I would say that the bottom line of a garden is a love of plants. Of course, if the bureaucratic world was less heavy many more things could be done. But luckily there are excellent curators, even if they have to spend much time dealing with administrative problems.
Even if the main Palazzo is now shared between the University of Genoa and the Ministry of Culture for their offices, you still have a family house on the top of the garden where you and your family often come?
I come to La Mortola as much as I can, because I want to realize all my husband’s dreams. He adored the garden and I want to help to promote it. I am not a gardener, but I can be a facilitator and an ambassador. Let’s say that the garden is well-known, but not well enough promoted.
What makes the Hanbury Garden exceptional?
First of all the position, coming down from the Aurelia to the sea, it is located on a cape that somehow is a natural border between Italy and France. The climate is exceptionally good, and moderate, and my friend Ursula swims all year round.
Then of course, the garden itself is very big, made of many smaller gardens and maybe the best definition would be a garden of acclimation. And besides its aspect, its grandeur, its very rare plants, it has a very good atmosphere, as if a family was still there. It could have been turned into a park but it is not. At a certain point it is crossed by the Julia Augusta road built by Augustus.
How many people visit the garden?
Around fifty thousand a year, which is too few for a garden of this importance, but there should not be more than sixty to seventy thousand visitors, otherwise they may spoil the garden. Today it is still a garden of very respected importance on a scientific level, run by the University. Maybe it should be better promoted.
The main Villa is called Villa Orengo. Why?
The Villa belonged to three prominent families including the Orengos, and then in 1867 it was bought by Thomas Hanbury. He bought it because he did not want to go back to England after he made his fortune in Shanghai. He was a Quaker and his religion was to be a philanthropist. He built five schools, a home for old people, and he employed everybody in Ventimiglia. Seven thousand people attended his funeral, following his cortege, and every shop closed in sign of respect. This is remarkable for a foreigner. Between Menton and Ventimiglia he also built six fountains, for the use of animals and humans.
Is the garden linked to others around the world?
It is very close to Wisley because Thomas Hanbury gave Wisley to the Royal Horticultural Society. So there is a strong tie. In the association of the Friends of the Hanbury Gardens we have people like Chris Brickell, who is a famous garden writer and a botanist who was the director of Wisley. We also have Paolo Pejrone, Marella Agnelli, Ursula Piacenza.
But why is the climate here so special?
It is a sub-tropical climate, and here you can grow an enormous variety of plants, from South Africa to Western Australia to California.
What is your dream for the garden?
I have many dreams, but what I really dream is that the gardeners keep on being in love with their work and the plants and that the University of Genoa continue to fulfil Thomas Hanbury’s vision of acclimatizing sub-tropical plants.
Is it possible to help the University?
Yes, it is, in volunteering to work in the garden and procuring plants for them. Professor Mariotti, the President of the Garden, is a botanist and he is very good at raising funds to keep the garden going; and this is excellent because gardens are very expensive. The garden has forty-eight acres (eighteen hectares), ten are open to the public.
Why do you think that people love gardens so much?
Partly the beauty, the challenge; and the mystery, the atmosphere, the history. It is an enormous question. The English have gardening in their genes and the Italians do too. If you create a garden, you have to remember that it is a living thing and plants need a lot of attention, but it is a great satisfaction.
The night falls and it is time for dinner, fish, red wine and delicious homemade dessert.
June 2nd, 2014