“She is a narcissistic lady who lived mysteriously in love with herself and certainly with her growing creation, the garden of the Gamberaia.” – 1897 – Bernard Berenson, Art Dealer and Collector
Imagine that you are wandering in a lovely Italian garden that surrounds a beautiful old villa. It is dusk and the brilliance of the bowling greens, the lemons hanging on the branches in terracotta pots, the coral pink of the roses – all the color is turning and starting to fade as the sun sets. A movement above you catches your attention – a door has just opened. You look up at a balcony and see a darkening figure standing there, very still and draped in veils that cover her completely, even her face.
She doesn’t see you in the fading light, her head is held straight and it would seem she is looking through the veils and out toward Florence, the city now golden in the falling sunlight. You can’t take your eyes off of her. Who is she?
The moment I have described to you is something that happened on most evenings, more than a hundred years ago. The veiled woman was a princess. A Romanian Princess known as Ghyka.
Married, but not particularly interested in men, Princess Ghyka bought the Villa Gamberaia in 1897. The noble villa sits on a ridge overlooking Settignano – in the hills above Florence, known as the area where Michelangelo learned to cut stone as a boy.
When British and American women of that era who were prone to independence because they wanted to write, paint, travel and did not want to marry or otherwise were fleeing the constraints of a society they did not fit with – Tuscany was a tantalizing and amazingly affordable option.
Princess Ghyka, who obtained her title through marriage – kept the title and ditched the husband. She studied painting and sculpture in Paris, fell in love with Florence and kept company with other women very much like her. The expats flocked to the Tuscan Hills.
Her companion and most likely her lover, Florence Blood, was a painter and socialite – and Florence was the only person Ghyka would allow to see her when she aged. When she no longer could bear looking at her own image, she had all the mirrors in the Villa covered, donned veils and would only come outside twice a day. At dawn, to swim in the pools of the garden and at dusk, on the balcony.
Prior to that, there were many parties and gatherings at the Villa Gamberaia. Visitors included English Poet and Novelist Vita Sackville West, (describing her bi-sexuality as “the joyous liberation of half my personality“), Bernard and Mary Berenson who lived at nearby Villa I Tatti (now owned by Harvard University), Novelist Mark Twain, Novelist Henry James, grande dame Janet Ross, the writer Iris Origo (who described Gamberaia as “the most romantic and beautiful garden of them all.“)
Edith Wharton wrote in her famous book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens about Gamberaia: “it is the most perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale.”
But can you imagine what a delightful sanctuary this Villa and Gardens were to those women who could not be free to be who they were in stuffy Old England or Puritanical America? Oh, Italy. You always welcome with open arms.
The Villa Gamberaia is a place we often visit when I bring guests with me to Florence. We enjoy private visits into the home, often enjoying a sumptuous Tuscan lunch, overseeing these exquisite gardens.
Alessandra (my friend, business partner and historian) regales us with tales about these characters who lived long ago – quoting their famous writings that were inspired by the beauty of Florence and the Tuscan Hills.
(I always make sure I look up at the Princess’s balcony. I can see her there and her spirit is here still.)
Spring 2020 Tour Dates: March 21 – 28 and April 18 – 25. Putting together a group of ten for each tour. Cost is $5,000 (double occupancy). Filling up! Contact me: [email protected]