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Home > Archive > Russell Page Archive: Villa Silvio Pellico

Russell Page Archive: Villa Silvio Pellico

A classical garden arranged across a variety of levels, Page’s design for Villa Silvio Pellico, an 18th-century villa close to Turin in northern Italy, demonstrates his remarkable ability to perfect his design according to the site.

  • Villa Silvio Pellico, Garden Sketch Plan

    RP/1/10/27/6

    c. 1957

    44.5 x 65 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A pencil and coloured pencil drawing on paper. Although undated, it is likely to be the earliest plan for Silvio Pellico in the Page archive collection. Overall, the design is close to that of RP/1/10/27/5. In both, Page’s idea of arranging the garden across two axes is in place, but in these earlier drawings the emphasis on the north-south axis. A central rectangular pool is flanked by two side gardens to the east and west. The idea of using a staircase to link the house with the lower garden is already in place. Here they are shown as curved (similar to those found in chateaux in France where Page had worked).

  • Villa Silvio Pellico, Garden Sketch Plan

    RP/1/10/27/5

    August 1957

    29.5 x 54 .5 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A pencil and coloured pencil design on paper dated 21 August 1957 (scale 1/200). The earliest dated plan for Villa Silvio Pellico, like RP/1/10/27/6 it shows a suggested layout for the garden with the main section running from north to south. Here, the proportions of the two side gardens to east and west create more of a Latin cross shape than in RP/1/10/27/5, an effect reinforced by the addition of a circular section of garden to the east. Trees and flowers (‘Arbes et fleurs’) are indicated in the areas surrounding the main structural design. The staircase that links the garden to the house is now angled in a diamond pattern (close to how it was eventually realised).

  • Villa Silvio Pellico, Sketch Plan of Garden

    RP/1/10/27/1

    November 1957

    50.5 x 63.5 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A dyeline design dated November 1957 (scale 1/100). A more detailed drawing than either RP/1/10/27/5 and RP/1/10/27/6, the plan has been significantly revised. There are now three separate garden areas on the north-south axis, each on a slightly different level. The varying levels are echoed along the east-west axis. The design for the staircase has also been altered to include both an angled and circular section.

  • Villa Silvio Pellico, New Garden Layout

    RP/1/10/27/2

    October 1958

    72 x 123.5 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A pencil design on tracing paper dated 10 October 1958, marked ‘Villa Silvio Pellico, Mise au point du nouveau jardin.’ The most detailed of the Villa Silvio Pellico plans, dimensions are included (although in places annotations indicate that these might not be exact). There is also a cross section of the ‘coupe de canal’ in the east garden. The locations of sculptures are indicated, as are trees, plants and pea gravel in the pathways. The bottom garden to the south is marked as being lawn (‘Gazon du ?’); this would later be changed to a low decorative maze made of box hedges (see RP/1/10/27/4).

  • Villa Silvio Pellico, Plan of Garden Steps

    RP/1/10/27/3

    December 1958

    70 x 62 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A pencil design on tracing paper dated 8 December 1958, marked ‘Villa Silvio Pellico, Avant projet d'escalier.’ It shows both an elevation and plan of the new staircase that Page added to connect the house and upper garden with the lower gardens. The number of steps is indicated (42 in total). Cyprus trees and a bench are also shown. (In the final execution, the delicate balustrade at the top was replaced by a wall that echoes that of the staircase below.)

  • Villa Silvio Pellico, Plans for a Labyrinthe

    RP/1/10/27/4

    October 1959

    50 x 73.5 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A pencil design on tracing paper dated 8 October 1959, marked ‘Villa Silvio Pellico, 2 projets alternatifs pour le labyrinth.’ The drawing shows two alternate designs for the low maze at the southern end of the lower level of garden. The design on the right, with interlinked box hedges, was chosen.

Villa Silvio Pellico, Moncalieri, Piedmont, Italy 

1957 to 1959 

Archive of Garden Design Ref: RP/1/10/27

Perched on a high hill, the view from Villa Silvio Pellico is arrestingstretching out to the south across the Po Valley to the Alps beyond. Page’s design, arguably one of his most successful, maximised this natural vista, using elements such as tall cypress trees to frame the landscape. In late 1956, Page was asked by the owners, Signor Marsan and his wife, to remodel the area of garden below the house. Signora Marsan was one of the eleven grandchildren of the founder of Fiat, Giovanni Agnelli, and it is likely that the Marsans would have heard of Page via Gianni and Marella Agnelli, whose garden at the nearby Villar Perosa Page had begun working on in the early 1950s (the designs are in the Archive of Garden Design: RP/1/10/24).  

The site presented challengesnot only how to deal with the steep slope down from the house but also the incline in the land from east to westPage’s solution was to reconfigure the site as a series of rooms across varying levels, connected to the villa above by way of a staircaseAlthough there are only six drawings in the Page archive collectionthey provide a step-by-step guide to the evolution of the design (there are more plans in a private collection, the first of which is dated December 1956). From the start, Page seems to have decided upon using stairs to navigate the precipitous site, connecting the house and upper lawn to the garden below. The major change from start to completion is the shift in emphasis from the north-south axis to the east-west. Page’s first inclination was to construct the design along the line of the view out to the mountains from the house (see RP/1/10/27/and RP/1/10/27/5), yet this was soon balanced out by lengthening the north-south axis (see RP/1/10/27/1)In addition, the central pool was changed from a rectangle to a square, allowing it to act as aanchoring point between both axes (see RP/1/10/27/2). Water, so often utilised effectively by Page, adds to the brilliance of the design. A series of pools are positioned along the east-west axis, each one acting as a mirror (the central pool is referred to as a ‘miroir d’eau’ on RP/1/10/27/2). Standing at the eastern end looking west to a statue of Poseidon in the horseshoe pool, because of the fall in gradient, the statue is framed not only by the backing hedge but, due to the water at the basealso from below.  

Page was presumably pleased with the result himself for he described the garden at length in The Education of a Gardener: 

‘One garden in which I worked on the “hill” near Moncalieri gave me a great deal of pleasure. This was at the Villa Silvio Pellico, named after the nineteenth-century poet whose home it was. To reach the house you drive up under magnificent cedars and libocedrus set in an immaculate sward of “Monza grass,” that fine Agrostis which grows thickly enough to make a lawn impervious to weeds. The main block of the house, of tawny orange stucco, has the good simple proportions of the late eighteenth century, and there is a rambling wing and a chapel in 1830 “gothick” added. This part of the house is shaded by fine old conifers and a vast paulownia at whose foot a fine Chinese stone Buddha sits in contemplation. The lawn in front of the house stops at the edge of the hill which falls sheer away to the flatness of the plain, hazy in the sunlight.  

‘When I first saw this garden, a steep bank beyond the lawn gave on to a very ugly sloping kitchen garden with badly-sited cold frames and many diagonal paths. To replace all this I devised a simple series of horizontal levels bordered by hornbeam hedges, in order to make a garden which would be interesting seen from above but which would not distract too much from the distant view. For this reason and to simplify the problems of maintenance I used water lavishly on each different level to make a connected series of simple stone-edged pools reflecting the sky. Once I was quite clear in my mind what I wanted to do about this part of the garden, we went ahead, levelled the ground, and built the pools, the low retaining walls and the steps. We even planted the hornbeam hedges before tackling the difficult problem of how to handle the steep bank and link the upper level to the new garden. I had to contrive a staircase that would drop some twenty feet and I had very little space into which to fit it. Eventually I made a very simple double staircase in three flights, starting outwards from the centre at the top and meeting again at the bottom. The steps are stone, with risers into the classical Roman profile. I colour-washed the stone-capped retaining walls and parapets in the same tawny orange as the house. Jasmine and trachelospermum will eventually cover them and the cypresses, bay laurel and box bushes planted on either side and in the central well will soften the severity of the architecture and, I hope, make the whole composition quiet and unassuming.’ (290-291) 

Described by Fred Whitsey as ‘a garden that seems to look back respectfully to long-established tradition but is of its own time in the use of its materials and its self-confidence’ (667), Villa Silvio Pellico triumphantly supports Page’s assertion that green should be regarded as a colour in garden design. The cypress trees, box and laurel hedges, punctuated by white statues, are likely to be a deliberate referencing of a classical Italian garden tradition. As Page wrote in an unpublished manuscript: 

‘In the geometrically designed gardens of the Italian Renaissance color[sic] effects were achieved through interplay among the deep green, almost black, spires of cypress, a brilliant blue sky, the white accents of marble statuary, and the prismatic hues of cascading water.’ (Page, “The Importance of Colour in the Garden” 4)

The garden is a relatively rare example of a project for a private client that exists very much as Page envisioned.  

 

Literature

Page, Russell. “The Importance of Colour in the Garden.” Unpublished typescript, [1970s?] (Archive of Garden Design RP/3/1/6)   

The Education of a Gardener. Harvill, 1994. 

van Zuylen, Gabrielle and Marina SchinzThe Gardens of Russell Page. Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2008. 

Whitsey, Fred. An English Garden Designer in Italy.” Country Life, 15 September 1977, vol. CLXII no. 4185, pp. 666-667. 

Related material elsewhere

There are photographs of the Villa Silvio Pellico garden in the RHS Lindley Library reference collection (PAG/2/1/26, PAG/2/1/27, PAG/2/1/29, PAG/2/2/7 and PAG/2/3/1).