Modern Landscaping Lessons From A Historic Italian Garden
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Modern Landscaping Lessons From A Historic Italian Garden

On a trip to Villa d’Este—a fountain-strewn, Renaissance-era estate outside Rome—our writer learns the secrets to crafting a truly immersive garden.

By J.S. Marcus
Thu, Jun 9, 2022 4:43pmGrey Clock 3 min

It seems as if I have always known of the Villa d‘Este, the celebrated Renaissance villa and adjoining gardens northeast of Rome, but until this spring I really didn’t know much about it. I was dimly aware of the complex’s influence on landscape design, especially the fountain-rich, terraced gardens behind the frescoed house, but I couldn’t really work up a picture in my mind. Then, during a trip to Rome this spring, I decided to find out what the five-hundred-year-old fuss was about and hailed a taxi on the Via Veneto in the early morning traffic.

Located in Tivoli, a playground for ancient and Renaissance Romans about 20 miles from the Colosseum, the Villa d’Este was the brainchild of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (1509–1572), son of Renaissance art patron and Duke of Ferrara Alfonso d’Este and his controversial wife, Spanish-Italian power player and putative poisoner, Lucrezia Borgia. These days, it is reached only after a rather dispiriting trip through the anonymous eastern suburbs and exurbs of contemporary Rome, which might as well be outside Rome, N.Y. Even the entrance to the complex is kind of sad, off a small-town square with a curious work of menacing public art. But then the jaw-dropping splendor begins.

The stately villa, whose wholly frescoed interiors are spectacular enough, is perched above the gardens, which swoop down over countless levels, crisscrossed by a skyscraper’s worth of staircases and punctuated by some 50 sculptural fountains that run the gamut from large to huge to building-size.

A technical marvel in its time—and a Unesco World Heritage site and museum today—the 11-acre site’s sunken gardens use gravity to turn the local Aniene River into a constant motor for fountains, pools and dozens of artificial waterfalls. The Villa d’Este relies on the basic building blocks of Renaissance garden design—evergreen trees and Italian stone—to frame and fashion the gurgling, rushing and sheer wetness of all that water, which is not only meant to be seen but heard, felt and even endured, splashing you in the face when you least expect it.

The gardens start with…a pause.

Between the house and the garden slope is a quiet vialone, or avenue, bordered by a low wall and punctuated by elevated ceramic pots. This allows the mind to catch its breath between the fabulous frescoes and the watery wonderland beneath.

I heard falling water before I saw it, then my eye traveled to the right, to the so-called Hundred Fountains, a lane along which grotesque masks shoot water into a trough. Then I descended to the Cypress Rotunda, a giant display of twisting trees, some dating back to the 17th century.

Down I went, to the long array of fish ponds, or decorative reflecting pools, which lead the eye up to the Fountain of Neptune and, beyond, to the Fountain of the Organ, which uses river water to power an actual organ.

Then up I went to the piazza-fronted Oval Fountain, whose mammoth cascade of water suggests a glistening glass curtain, and back down again to the Fountain of Diana, a surreal multi-breasted symbol of fertility. I was getting tired, and hot, and after breathing the heady aromas of the rose garden, I paused in the cool darkness of the Grottoes of the Sibyls.

As it turns out, I was supposed to get tired, said Michael Lee, a professor in the history of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, and a fellow this spring at the American Academy in Rome. The gardens are dense in mythological imagery, and the need to hike up and down was meant to “re-enact the labors of Hercules,” he said. I was expected to get tired and wet and hot and to notice the sounds of the fountains increase from nearly musical to almost deafening.

“The Villa d’Este is meant to be immersive,” said Prof. Lee, engaging all our senses, while later western garden design, from the French formal variety to the English landscape version, became ever more visual.

I later asked landscape designer Adam Woodruff, in Marblehead, Mass., how a gardener of more modest means and acreage could make a plot immersive. In his own meadow-style garden he converted a circular zinc planter, about 3 feet in diameter, into a reflecting pool. By adding a bit of black dye formulated for the purpose, he made the surface mirrorlike, so that sky and flower stalks prettily echo off the water. Thirsty birds steadily supply bird song (and avian-safe mosquito larvicide keeps bugs from breeding there). The simple vessel serves as a strategic focal point in the loosely structured garden, which includes a number of grass species.

Feeding all the senses was but one of the lessons Villa d’Este offers the home gardener. Others include creating a buffer between your house and your garden. Don’t be afraid to add humor, or even a bit of the grotesque. Save a place among the plants for stones, water, a statue or two or even a whole fountain.

The spring morning at the complex had turned into an almost summery afternoon, but now the weather grew overcast and faintly fall-like. It was time to go back to Rome, wetter and wiser, with the reminder that great design—in a garden, as in a house—should be lived rather than just looked at.



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Is ‘Rizz’ the Secret to Getting Ahead at Work?

Whether you call it charisma, charm or magnetism, some people seem like naturals. Good news: It can be learned.

By Rachel Feintzeig
Mon, Jul 22, 2024 4 min

Great leaders have it. Gen Z has a new word for it. Can the rest of us learn it?

Charisma—or rizz , as current teenage slang has anointed it—can feel like an ephemeral gift some are just born with. The chosen among us network and chitchat, exuding warmth as they effortlessly hold court. Then there’s everyone else, agonising over exclamation points in email drafts and internally replaying that joke they made in the meeting, wondering if it hit.

“Well, this is awkward,” Mike Rizzo, the head of a community for marketing operations professionals, says of rizz being crowned 2023 word of the year by the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s so close to his last name, but so far from how he sees himself. He sometimes gets sweaty palms before hosting webinars.

Who could blame us for obsessing over charisma, or lack thereof? It can lubricate social interactions, win us friends, and score promotions . It’s also possible to cultivate, assures Charles Duhigg, the author of a book about people he dubs super communicators.

At its heart, charisma isn’t about some grand performance. It’s a state we elicit in other people, Duhigg says. It’s about fostering connection and making our conversation partners feel they’re the charming—or interesting or funny—ones.

The key is to ask deeper, though not prying, questions that invite meaningful and revealing responses, Duhigg says. And match the other person’s vibes. Maybe they want to talk about emotions, the joy they felt watching their kid graduate from high school last weekend. Or maybe they’re just after straight-up logistics and want you to quickly tell them exactly how the team is going to turn around that presentation by tomorrow.

You might be hired into a company for your skill set, Duhigg says, but your ability to communicate and earn people’s trust propels you up the ladder: “That is leadership.”

Approachable and relatable

In reporting this column, I was surprised to hear many executives and professionals I find breezily confident and pleasantly chatty confess it wasn’t something that came naturally. They had to work on it.

Dave MacLennan , who served as chief executive of agricultural giant Cargill for nearly a decade, started by leaning into a nickname: DMac, first bestowed upon him in a C-suite meeting where half the executives were named Dave.

He liked the informality of it. The further he ascended up the corporate hierarchy, the more he strove to be approachable and relatable.

Employees “need a reason to follow you,” he says. “One of the reasons they’re going to follow you is that they feel they know you.”

He makes a point to remember the details and dates of people’s lives, such as colleagues’ birthdays. After making his acquaintance, in a meeting years ago at The Wall Street Journal’s offices, I was shocked to receive an email from his address months later. Subject line: You , a heading so compelling I still recall it. He went on to say he remembered I was due with my first child any day now and just wanted to say good luck.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, I don’t have a good memory for that,’” he says. Prioritise remembering, making notes on your phone if you need, he says.

Now a board member and an executive coach, MacLennan sent hundreds of handwritten notes during his tenure. He’d reach out to midlevel managers who’d just gotten a promotion, or engineers who showed him around meat-processing plants. He’d pen words of thanks or congratulations. And he’d address the envelopes himself.

“Your handwriting is a very personal thing about you,” he says. “Think about it. Twenty seconds. It makes such an impact.”

Everyone’s important

Doling out your charm selectively will backfire, says Carla Harris , a Morgan Stanley executive. She chats up the woman cleaning the office, the receptionist at her doctor’s, the guy waiting alongside her for the elevator.

“Don’t be confused,” she tells young bankers. Executive assistants are often the most powerful people in the building, and you never know how someone can help—or hurt—you down the line.

Harris once spent a year mentoring a junior worker in another department, not expecting anything in return. One day, Harris randomly mentioned she faced an uphill battle in meeting with a new client. Oh!, the 24-year-old said. Turns out, the client was her friend. She made the call right there, setting up Harris for a work win.

In the office, stop staring at your phone, Harris advises, and notice the people around you. Ask for their names. Push yourself to start a conversation with three random people every day.

Charisma for introverts

You can’t will yourself to be a bubbly extrovert, but you can find your own brand of charisma, says Vanessa Van Edwards, a communications trainer and author of a book about charismatic communication.

For introverted clients, she recommends using nonverbal cues. A slow triple nod shows people you’re listening. Placing your hands in the steeple position, together and facing up, denotes that you’re calm and present.

Try coming up with one question you’re known for. Not a canned, hokey ice-breaker, but something casual and simple that reflects your actual interests. One of her clients, a bookish executive struggling with uncomfortable, halting starts to his meetings, began kicking things off by asking “Reading anything good?”

Embracing your stumbles

Charisma starts with confidence. It’s not that captivating people don’t occasionally mispronounce a word or spill their coffee, says Henna Pryor, who wrote a book about embracing awkwardness at work. They just have a faster comeback rate than the rest of us. They call out the stumble instead of trying to hide it, make a small joke, and move on.

Being perfectly polished all the time is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. We know this, which is why appearing flawless can come off as fake. We like people who seem human, Pryor says.

Our most admired colleagues are often the ones who are good at their jobs and can laugh at themselves too, who occasionally trip or flub just like us.

“It creates this little moment of warmth,” she says, “that we actually find almost like a relief.”

MOST POPULAR
11 ACRES ROAD, KELLYVILLE, NSW

This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

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Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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