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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The Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index reveals investments of passion are paying strong dividends, in some areas at least

By Bronwyn Allen
Tue, Apr 9, 2024 4 min

Art was the investment of passion that gained the most in value in 2023, according to Knight Frank’s Luxury Investment Index (KFLII). This is the second consecutive year that art has risen the most among the 10 popular investments tracked by the index, up 11 percent in 2023 and 29 percent in 2022. Art was followed by 8 percent growth in jewellery, 5 percent growth in watches, 4 percent growth in coins and 2 percent growth in coloured diamonds last year.

The weakest performers were rare whisky bottles, which lost nine percent of their value, classic cars down six percent and designer handbags down four percent. Luxury collectables are typically held by ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs) who have a net worth of US$30 million or more. Knight Frank research shows 20 percent of UHNWI investment asset portfolios are allocated to collectables.

In 2023, the KFLII fell for only the second time, with prices down 1 percent on average.

Despite record-breaking individual sales in 2023, a surge in financial market returns contributed to a shift in allocations impacting on luxury asset value,” the report said. “… our assessment reveals a need for an ever more discerning approach from investors, with significant volatility by sub-market.

Sebastian Duthy of AMR said the 2023 art auction year began with notable sales including a record price for a Bronzino piece. But confidence waned as the year went on.

“It was telling that in May, Sotheby’s inserted one of its top Old Master lots – a Rubens’ portrait – into a 20th Century Modern evening sale. But by then, it was clear that the confidence among sellers, set by the previous year’s record-busting figures, was ebbing away. In the same month, modern and contemporary works from the collection of the late financier Gerald Fineberg sold well below pre-auction estimates.”

The value of ultra contemporary or red-chip’ art contracted the most in 2023.

“Works by a growing group of artists born after 1980 have been heavily promoted by mega galleries and auction houses in recent years. With freshly painted works in excess of £100,000 almost doubling in 2022, it was little surprise that this sector was one of the biggest casualties last year. There is a risk there are now simply too many fresh paint artists with none really standing out.”

In the jewellery market, Mr Duthy noted that demand was strongest for coloured gemstones of exceptional quality, iconic signed period jewels, single-owner collections, and items with historic provenance in 2023. In the watches market, Mr Duthy said collectors chased the most iconic and rare timepieces.

A Rolex John Player Special broke the model record when it sold for £2 million at Sotheby’s in May, double the price for a similar example sold at Phillips in 2021,” he said.

Although whisky was the worst-performing collectable in 2023, it has delivered the highest return on investment among the 10 items tracked by the index over the past decade, up 280 percent. Andy Simpson of Simpson Reserved, said 2023 was a challenging year but the best of the best bottles gained 20 percent in value. In my opinion some bottles that lost significant value in 2023 will return through the next two years as they are simply so scarce and, right now at least, so undervalued, Mr Simpson said.

Whisky was the worst performing collectable in 2023 but it had highest return on investment over a 10-year period. Image: Shutterstock

Classic car expert Dietrich Hatlapa said the 6 percent fall in collectable vehicle values in 2023 followed a 22 percent surge in 2022. The strong performance of other investment classes such as equities may have dampened collectors’ appetites it’s a very small market so it only takes a minor change in portfolio allocations to have an effect, and there has also probably been a degree of profit taking. However, we have seen some marques like BMW (up 9 percent in value) and Lamborghini (up 18 percent), which appeal to a younger breed of collector, buck the trend in 2023.”

Mr Duthy said a dip in the share price of the top luxury handbag brands last Autumn appeared to spook investors. Last autumn it was possible to pick up an Hermès white Niloticus Himalaya Birkin in good condition for under £50,000. The recent slide reflects a general correction at the upper end that’s been underway for some time rather than changing attitudes to the harvesting of exotic skins.

According to Knight Frank’s Attitudes Survey, the top five investments of passion among Australian UHNWIs are classic cars, art and wine. Fine wine values gained just 1 percent in 2023 as the market continued its correction, said Nick Martin of Wine Owners. “It’s been a hell of a long run, so I’m not that surprised. Some wines from very small producers that had enjoyed the most exuberant growth have seen the biggest drops. It had got a bit silly, £50 bottles had shot up to £200 or £300.”

Favourite investments of passion: Australia vs Global

1. Classic cars (61 percent of Australian UHNWIs vs 38 percent of global UHNWIs)
2. Art (58 percent vs 48 percent)
3. Wine (48 percent vs 35 percent)
4. Watches (42 percent vs 42 percent)
5. Jewellery (18 percent vs 28 percent)

Best returns among investments of passion (10 years)

1. Whisky 280 percent
2. Wine 146 percent
3. Watches 138 percent
4. Art 105 percent
5. Cars 82 percent

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11 ACRES ROAD, KELLYVILLE, NSW

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

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