Edith Wharton’s Italian Gardens

by Vivian Russell

Though most know her as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of novels such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton was also something of a doyenne of domestic taste, and fortunately neither a nearsighted nor a parochial one. She published the first serious treatment of Italian garden architecture, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, in 1904. A lifelong Italophile as well as a lifelong gardener herself, Wharton had an instinctive attraction to both the clipped precision and the sensuous disarray that characterize an Italian villa garden. 19 of the gardens Wharton and her illustrator Maxfield Parrish brought to public attention are virtually unchanged by the passage of the single century since her descriptions were written. Garden photographer and writer Vivian Russell has recaptured both the essence of the gardens themselves and Wharton’s experience of them in a series of luscious photographs and historical summaries of each garden. The Villa Cetinale, pictured on the cover from the vantage point of its lemon garden, was singled out by Wharton for its charm and its long green park, marked by a 15th-century gateway at one end and a romitorio, or hermitage, at the other. The book’s considerable charm lies in the historical perspective it affords of Wharton and her Victorian colleagues as well as the many centuries borne so gracefully by the beautiful land they loved. It’s a marvelous homage to Wharton and a must-read for all lovers of things Italian.