Villar Perosa, Turin, Piedmont, Italy
1952 to 1963
Archive of Garden Design Ref: RP/1/10/24
Russell Page thought of Villar Perosa as his ‘Shangri-la’ (Agnelli and Chia 58). The estate, sitting on a hill overlooking the Val Chisone, halfway between the Po Valley and the Alps in northern Italy, had belonged to the Agnelli family since 1811. Although Perosa was a special place for Page, and somewhere to which he would return for the rest of his life, the redesign of the gardens was not without its challenges. He had to contend with almost one hundred and fifty years of Agnelli history and a resident gardener who was resistant to change.
According to Marella Agnelli’s accounts of the garden, Page began working at Villar Perosa after she and Gianni Agnelli married in November 1953 (in The Agnelli Gardens at Villar Perosa she gives the date as 1955). The first of the plans, however, is dated January 1952 (modified in September 1954; see RP/1/10/24/1). This drawing appears to be for the addition of a swimming pool at the end of the Italian gardens; no swimming pool was added until the 1980s (designed by Gae Aulenti) but it may be that Gianni Agnelli was exploring the possibility of adding one earlier. Page had already designed for Gianni Agnelli at La Leopolda, a neo-Palladian villa close to Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French riviera, built in the 1920s by the American architect Ogden Codman Jr, and described by Marella Agnelli as ‘something out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel’ (Agnelli and Chia 82). It is possible, therefore, that Gianni had asked Page to prepare designs for a swimming pool before his marriage; he had inherited Villar Perosa in the mid-1940s, when he was only twenty-four years old, and had immediately begun the process of post-war restoration.
In any event, it was with Marella Agnelli that Page devised the new garden schemes at Perosa. He had been recommended to her by Stéphane Boudin, the Parisian interior decorator of Maison Jansen fame, who was restoring a wing of the house (Page and Boudin had often collaborated since first working together at Ditchley Park in the 1930s). Marella Agnelli, who had made a point of visiting the nearby Castello Carpento, Page’s first project in Italy, thought it an excellent idea. She felt a special connection to Perosa, recalling of her first visit there: ‘It felt as if I had stepped into an enchanted place where time had been suspended’ (Agnelli and Chia 37).
Page’s first experience of the garden was more pragmatic, as Marella later recalled:
Page slowly walked around the garden in a quiet and reflective mood. He inspected all of it, starting with the lawn in front of the house. On that first day, Page also spent considerable time visiting the house and appraising the views of the landscape from the windows and from the open verandas and balconies. He did this to try to get an idea of the entire panorama and the various perspectives. From time to time, he would jot down a few notes or trace a rough sketch on a small notepad he kept in his pocket (Agnelli 83).
Following this visit, as he explained in The Education of a Gardener, Page wanted to rip out much of the existing planting: ‘My first aim was to open up the site in order to get the shape and feel of the landscape’ (285). He likened the densely planted ornamental conifers and laurels to a ‘suburban garden in Streatham or Neuilly or Brooklyn.’ Nor did he care for the ‘endless rows of ugly terracotta vases and white marble fountains and statues’ (Page 285). In part, he was successful in his ambition. The original fountain which sat in the round reflecting pool in the middle of the main lawn was replaced with a much simpler one; statues and pots were relocated to less visible places; gravel paths were removed. Some of the formal parterres were redesigned; trees and plants were taken out.
Stripping the garden back took time. It also involved disputes, both with Gaetano Aloisio, the gardener who had worked there for more than fifty years, and with Marella Agnelli herself. Despite Marella’s admiration for Page, their working relationship was not always an easy one.
Perosa had been the Agnelli family summer retreat since the beginning of the nineteenth century (the villa had been built in the eighteenth century as a hunting lodge for Vittorio Amadeo II, the first king of the Savoy dynasty). Page’s desire to open up the space and reveal the views beyond threatened to eradicate from the garden the quality Marella most valued about it: its connection to generations of Agnellis. When Page, without permission, ordered a bank of fir trees to be felled, she summoned the courage to stand up to him. The trees had been planted by Ancieta Agnelli, Gianni’s great-grandmother; for Marella they were as much part of family history as the house (Agnelli and Chia 63). Standing on a rustic wooden bridge (also installed on the orders of Ancieta) they had a ‘long and animated discussion’ (Agnelli 86). This conversation took place above the area of the garden which Page would transform the most: the valley. (He was also allowed to redesign the bridge on which they stood.)
There is only one plan in the archive which relates to the valley (RP/1/10/24/9) yet what he achieved there is nothing short of remarkable, creating an alpine garden with a series of lakes from what had been streams surrounded by thick vegetation. Page described the process at length in The Education of a Gardener:
A little ravine under great beech trees runs down through the garden under a rustic bridge to join this valley. Here I started gardening in earnest, making wide beds of peat and planting the ravine with rhododendrons, kurume and Exbury azaleas, magnolias, Japanese maples and all sorts of plants which might thrive in this moist, shady and sharply drained position. In the darkest shade I used bergenias, Vinca minor and clipped mahonia with masses of Scilla nonscripta, daffodils and muscari to give spring colour; I used, too, another admirable ground cover which you are likely to find in every Italian garden from north to south. In Italy they call it convallaria and in France “turquoise”; but it looks to me like a dwarf ophiopogon with its characteristic narrow leaves and tiny club-headed mauve inflorescence and it grows happily in sun or shade.
The main valley was altogether a larger problem. Attracted as always by the presence of water I decided to make a very simple water garden on a fairly large scale. The valley ran downhill so rapidly that we first had to build a succession of dams with the local stone so as to form a series of pools. These dams – and there are eleven of them – vary from three to nine feet in height and make eleven pools varying from twenty to fifty feet in length. To take away the artificial look I thought it would be best to let a year of spates and storms bring down silt and stones so that the ponds might take on a natural look. I had not, however, reckoned with an August cloudburst higher up the valley which swept away all the first season’s planting and many tons of topsoil and peat. We remedied that by building a larger dam out of sight higher up the valley and from it we brought a concrete pipe a yard wide and set underground to carry off all the surplus water. This made it possible to maintain an even flow for the cascades which fall from pond to pond.
As the valley is on the outskirts of the garden and has already a sufficiently dramatic form, with its steep, wooded sides and series of pools widening as the valley floor widens, I decided to limit the waterside planting to drifts of Iris sibirica, hemerocallis, lythrum, astilbes and here and there large patches of Senecio clivorum and Hydrangea quercifolio. For shrubs there are groups of Rhus cotinus, brooms, Rosa hugonis, Rosa moyesii, Viburnum tomentosum mariesii, Spiraea cantoniensis with some berberis and cotoneasters and several wide plantings of Pyracantha coccinea which, though hard to get started, once established grows well on a dry and stony slope. The wooded cliffs on the far side were in bad shape. All I could do was to eradicate the brambles and the acacia stools and plant thickly with very small plants of beech, hornbeam, silver birch and Scotch fir. As these grow and crowd each other we will be able to thin them out and group for the eventual effect we want. On the valley floor I have planted groups of Robinia hispida and Japanese cherries, liquidambars and scarlet oak and Taxodium distichum for the moister places, some weeping birch and a few conifers and evergreens. Groups of Pinus nepalensis and Pinus sylvestris mark bends in the valley, several libocredrus make vertical accents and wide-spread plantings of Juniperus chinensis pfitzeriana cover some of the steeper banks near the waterfalls, while broad-leafed hollies such as Ilex aquifolium camelliaefolia will eventually make a shining dark-green foil to the deciduous plantings (286-9).
Work on the valley took several years to complete. Indeed, Page continued to work at Perosa, on and off, for many years. There are later plans for a pool (RP/1/10/24/13 and RP/1/10/24/14) which were never realised, as well as for outbuildings and a children’s playhouse (see RP/1/10/24/8, RP/1/10/24/10, RP/1/10/24/11 and RP/1/10/24/12).
Following Page’s death in 1985, Paolo Pejrone continued to work on the garden in much the same spirit. Fittingly, Perjone, who was a great admirer of Page’s work, had first met the Englishman at the Agnelli’s home in Turin in January 1970 during a snowstorm.
Agnelli, Marella. The Agnelli Gardens at Villar Perosa: Two Centuries of a Family Retreat. Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1998
Agnelli, Marella and Maralla Caracciolo Chia. Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan. Rizzoli, 2014.
Page, Russell. The Education of a Gardener. Harvill, 1994.
van Zuylen, Gabrielle and Marina Schinz. The Gardens of Russell Page. Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2008.
Related material in the Archive of Garden Design
RP/4/3/1: Photograph of Gianni and Marella Agnelli
RP/4/3/15: Villar Perosa, Border and Shrubs
RP/4/3/16: Villar Perosa, Façade of House with Planters and Shrubs
RP/4/3/28: Four black and white photographs relating to a garden designed by Russell Page at La Leopolda, Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, probably for Gianni Agnelli, c.1947-1955
RP/1/10/25: Gianni and Marella Agnelli, Villa Frescot, Turin
RP/1/33: Gianni and Marella Agnelli, Villa Bona
Related material elsewhere
There are several mounted colour transparencies of the Villar Perosa garden in the RHS Lindley Library reference collection (PAG/2/1/29 and PAG/2/2/9).