Ercole Silva, pioneer of the English garden in Italy

by / tag , , , ,

At the end of the eighteenth century the fashion of the grand tour was rampant: a cultural and educational journey that led the scions of European noble families, together with writers, philosophers and artists, to walk the streets of the “country where lemons bloom”, in search of the vestiges of classicism and Renaissance art masterpieces. On the other hand, Italians traveled across the Alps less frequent, but they often turned these journeys into precious opportunities to know and import into the Peninsula the main artistic and technical innovations that flourished in the northern countries.

It was therefore curiosity that prompted 27-year-old Ercole Silva, Count of Biandrate, in 1783, to embark on a journey that would keep him away from his Milanese home for about three years, visiting Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, England and France. Fervent years of encounters and discoveries, densely writed in notes, unfortunately lost, but which, according to the biographer Cesare Rovida, would have aroused amazement and success, if they had been published, “since there were few savant Italian travelers at the time”.

Among many passions of Hercules, a scholar of law, ancient and antiquarian epigraphy, there were natural sciences and above all the art of gardens, initiated to which by his uncle Donato, creator a few decades earlier of one of the most spectacular Lombard formal gardens, in the villa of Cinisello, on the outskirts of Milan. Ercole therefore took deep amazement when he visited the new picturesque gardens, increasingly popular in Europe at the time, especially in England, where Lancelot Brown had designed the landscape garden shortly before, which was increasingly popular in the courts and the aristocracy. Starting from 1785, Ercole also traveled with Archduke Ferdinand Karl of Austria-Este and Beatrice d’Este, and with the royal couple he visited numerous English (Stowe, Kiew, Richmond, Blenheim) and French (Ermenonville) residences.

Fascinated by the wise chromatic arrangement of the trees, by the sinuous flow of waters forming placid lakes or thundering waterfalls, and by the countless literary and philosophical suggestions aroused by the vision of temples, ruins and other buildings, picturesquely arranged, Ecole therefore returned to Italy with a new vision of gardens and modernity. With him also the royal couple, who returned to Monza, amidst new formal gardens, instructed Piermarini to create a very first “English” landscape garden. However, it was Ercole Silva who have been the pioneer, publishing in 1801 the treatise Dell’arte dei giardini inglesi, reissued in 1813 and in subsequent editions, in which the innovations introduced by the same author in his private garden, in Cinisello, were made known and proposed as a model. Without regret, in fact, the noble gardener upset the parterres created by his uncle, and with the help of the painter Giuseppe Levati, he created one of the first examples in Italy of an English garden, whose planimetric layout is preserved intact, along with many wonders he hidden among the vegetation, according to a symbolic itinerary of discovery, which at times remains mysterious.

Following the example of his uncle, who had collected natural rarities (pineapple, Dracoena reflexa, Arum bicolor, green tea), the nephew cultivated the first Italian specimens of Robinia pseudoacacia, divulging their knowledge and promoting their diffusion in gardens of delight and in urban areas. His theoretical and practical efforts were soon rewarded, by the attention that Lombard aristocracy poured towards the new landscape fashion, to the point that the villa in Cinisello, together with the Monza gardens and the garden of the Belgiojoso Bonaparte Milanese palace, became a model for new creations, which would soon spread to every corner of Brianza, forever erasing the geometric and rigorous parterres of the century of enlightenment. The Romanticism had almost begun. The Italian garden entered fully into modernity.

A choice that today we could involuntarily define farsighted. The radical transformations of the nineteenth century allowed the survival of the gardens themselves during the following century, when the decadence of the aristocracy, the strong industrialization of the Milanese territory and the disorderly urbanization inevitably canceled large parts of the delightful landscape, of which the villas made part. The “English” trait of the gardens, which can easily be transformed into those public parks so essential in the new landscape of the widespread city, has almost always allowed their protection.

History wanted Cinisello to experience rapid urban and industrial expansion after World War II, to the point that the countryside surrounding the Silva possessions was soon lost and the garden itself, which had been public since 1926, saw some formal and botanical qualities disappear, partly recovered at the end of the twentieth century.

Visiting the park of Villa Ghirlanda Silva today, means taking an unusual promenade in a world unknown to many inhabitants of the Milanese suburbs. The distracted passer-by does not even notice the park and its vastness, enclosed by the perimeter wall and with an imposing Magnolia grandiflora that obscures the view from the road of the seventeenth-century front of the noble residence.

As usual, the garden extends to the back of the villa, whose front, adorned with splendid eclectic terracotta cornices, was commissioned by the grandnephew of Ercole, Carlo Ghirlanda Silva, wise keeper of his uncle’s legacy. From the windows of the villa you can still admire the grassy parterre, enclosed between different green shades of lime trees, plane trees and cedars. Only two examples remain of the statues that once adorned the spaces in front of the villa.

A sinuous path allows you to leave the sunny parterre to enter the most wooded areas, where Ercole arranged a series of architectures, to create a romantic walk between different ages. One after another thus reveals the exedra of health, with a classical style, followed by an obelisk hidden among yews, an element also present in many gardens of coeval England. A little further between the hackberry and the conifers, one of the minor entrances of the residence appears, with a picturesque Scottish lodge, built in the middle of the century, to replace the Temple of Janus in Ruin, spectacular architectural folly commissioned by Ercole and depicted in the engravings of Gaetano Riboldi accompanying his treatise.

At the farthest point of the villa, a small hill finally rises, where the original Doric temple of Ercole gave way in the mid-nineteenth century to a Swiss chalet, still present today. Among the conifers, the attentive observer will notice the overturned lid of a stone sarcophagus, on which, in engraved letters, we read ET IN ARCADIA EGO, as if to remind the walker about transience of life and domination of time and death on the human reality and its creations, including gardens.

The rest of the park retains only the paths and part of the botanical wealth of the past, being able anyway to convey the greatness of the original project and the genius of its inventor, Ercole Silva, the pioneer.

Reference bibliography:

  • Ercole Silva, Dell’arte dei giardini inglesi, Milano, Genio Tipografico, anno IX, 1801.

  • Laura Sabrina Pelissetti, Modelli iconografici e appunti di viaggio nel trattato di Ercole Silva in V. Cazzatto, P. Cornaglia (a cura di), Viaggio nei giardini d’Europa. Da Le Nôtre a Henry James, Venaria Reale, Edizioni La Venaria Reale, 2019, pp. 193-196.

  • Andrea Spiriti, Ville e giardini fra Brianza e Lario in V. Cazzatto, P. Cornaglia (a cura di), Viaggio nei giardini d’Europa. Da Le Nôtre a Henry James, Venaria Reale, Edizioni La Venaria Reale, 2019, pp. 269-273.

  • Laura Sabrina Pelissetti, Il ruolo di Ercole Silva nella diffusione del giardino “all’inglese” tra XVIII e XIX secolo in Fabio Finotti (a cura di) Melchiorre Cesarotti e le trasformazioni del paesaggio europeo, Trieste, EUT Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2010, pp. 145-164.

  • Laura Sabrina Pelissetti, I giardini e i parchi in G. Guerci (a cura di), I beni culturali a Cinisello Balsamo, Cinisello Balsamo, Centro di Documentazione Storica, 2001, pp. 61-70.