Association’s History of “Amici dei Giardini Botanici Hanbury”
di Gian Lupo Osti
We decided to create this association during a meeting held at Rome at the end of April 1980 following a tour of the gardens and woods of Rome and Naples, together with Roger de Candolle, then president of the IDS, and Dick Norman, also a member. Roger and I had known each other for a long time, and had already had an opportunity to discuss the problems of La Mortola during a visit to the gardens with Charles de Noailles, Roger’s predecessor at the chair of IDS. I had met Dick for the first time during my visit to the Cote D’Azur where he lived at L’Oustal, a villa with a beautiful garden at Opio, near Grasse. We became good friends in a very short time, appreciating each other’s qualities. For example I remember once telling him a story of a repeated struggle with the local authorities to which he made the comment ‘very doggish!’ I was a bit disconcerted, for an Italian to be compared with a dog is not complimentary. However afterwards I discovered the word ‘doggish’ is one of the peculiar features of John Bull, so I had to change my mind, it was indeed high praise!
In spite of the fact that I recognize that I am very sensitive to the charms of neglected gardens, I have to say that La Mortola was at that time in a very devastated situation. The Italian State had granted it to the Istituto di Studi Liguri which at that time was headed by Prof. Roberto Luciferi, a very influential man in the West Italian Riviera having promoted the purchase of the gardens from Lady Hanbury, thus saving it from any speculative interest. However when the president died the Istituto found itself without any financial means and therefore gave up the grant. The consequence of this was that the gardeners were not being paid, and everything was in the hands of Dr. Pier Giorgio Campodonico who, as an employee of the Genoa University, was the only one in the gardens with an official position. Fortunately there were a few gardeners bound to La Mortola since the golden era of the Hanburys before the war who, out of affection, undertook the most urgent works which could not be postponed. It should be borne in mind that the gardens had suffered heavily during the war.
It was therefore necessary to find an institution who would take responsibility of the gardens and in the circumstances Genoa University were the best possible solution, especially as they were already involved by having an employee as curator. However the university did not appear too enthusiastic, the trouble being that La Mortola is too isolated. It is not easy to reach even from Genoa, especially pre-motorway days, through all the towns and villages, and therefore even more difficult from Rome and other Italian towns. It is no exaggeration to say the Hanbury gardens were much better known in Great Britain than in Italy. Gardening, or better still horticulture (originally an Italian word, though its meaning is lost even here) is a national passion in the British Isles, to which the Hanbury family is indissolubly bound hence their role at the beginning of the Royal Horticultural Society. I remember an anecdote: Each New Years Day before the last world war the Times of London published on their first page a list of all plants flowering in La Mortola which caused the owners of British gardens, still suffering under the grey winter skies, to burst with envious rage!
The British enthusiasts were soon convinced that it would be necessary to create a pressure group, in an organized form which would be able to intervene officially with the Italian authorities and it was considered a good idea that there should be an important and well qualified Italian participation. At the time I was living in Genoa, or more precisely my work had just taken me there after ten years in Rome. I had many friends and acquaintances in England because, as my interest in plants and nature grew I was educating myself in this sector by visiting gardens and arboreta. Where better to do this than in Great Britain, as, according to an illustrious German botanist, Kew Gardens are to a botanist what the Vatican is to a Roman Catholic. Therefore some British horticultural institutions tried, and succeeded, to recruit me to realize their project. I have to say that I wasn’t thrilled by the idea. I realized that in practice I would be more involved with the bureaucratic red-tape than in the garden. However La Mortola is an enchanting site, a unique place which takes us back to the Riviera as it was at the time of Dr. Antonio di Giovanni Ruffini, before it became so built up. Moreover to see the passion with which the situation was followed from the British side, especially from Dick Norman, stimulated my sense of guilt. The gardens were owned by the Italian state, should strangers take care of them? Previous experience in foreign botanical gardens, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, led me to realize that the best results would be obtained if an efficient cooperation is realized between qualified professionals and keen amateurs. This is as true for botanical gardens as museums and other cultural institutions open to the public. In Italian we say ‘dilettante’ a person who is doing something not for profit or ambition, but for for love, that is diletto. Unfortunately amateurs are nowadays considered slipshod people; I am convinced that in these days of unbridled commercialism a re-evaluation of amateurs should be considered.
Finally what is the purpose of a Botanical Garden? Is it to acclimatize and get to know plants from far away countries, especially today when traveling is so easy and there are more people visiting the Maldive Islands than the Botanical Gardens. Is it for scientific research? What are the results? I often think that today one aim could be to let people living in towns become more knowledgeable and better acquainted with nature. To come closer in this way to the comprehension of the mystery of life, as Goethe says of the hours he spent in the garden.
These are the reflections which brought me, together with Marella Agnelli, Roger de Candolle, Robin Herbert and Chris Brickell (respectively Chairman and Director General of the Royal Horticultural Society), Giorgio Luciani (President of Italia Nostra), Dick Norman and Arturo Osio (Secretary General of WWF Italy) to constitute the Friends of La Mortola, and to accept the presidency. This happened on 13/03/1986, a beautiful day in the spring and I remember with pleasure the lunch and visit to the garden of Villa Wolkonsky, invited by Lord Bridges, at the time British Ambassador in Rome and still a member of our Board today. However to get the Sandro Pontremoli The Genoa University, The Ministry of Monuments and Fine Arts and the State Property Office to sign the grant agreement required a long procedure, and the intervention of the President of the Italian Republic, Pertini, whom Roger de Candolle and I visited together, was crucial.
It would be hypocritical to say that from then on everything always went according to plan. As I said La Mortola was coming out of a long crisis and there was the necessity to find an efficient modus vivendi between the University and the Monuments and Fine Arts Office, and I will not hide the fact that we also made some errors on our side. For instance with the help of the University and our financial support we invited a young Englishman to come to La Mortola to help the people operating in the gardens. Even with his past successes at Kew and in other gardens this proved a disaster. It is a very different matter operating within an efficient structure which supports and leads rather than one which if not hostile, is surely wary, and where you have to make big efforts just to overcome the obstacles put in your way from the very people who institutionally should be committed to helping you and be grateful for what you are attempting to do.
Anyway I am happy to acknowledge that we made a considerable leap forward when prof. Paolo Profumo assumed the directorship and prof. Paolo Gastaldo became Secretary General of our Society, (I am glad to have the opportunity to remember her),under the two Paolas we were finally able to draw a sigh of relief and know that at last the Hanbury Gardens were in good hands. However we know very well that gardens are living beings that require constant attention and care from everybody, and this is especially true in our country where experience teaches us that people are always above par in respect to institutions. We need therefore to protect this delicate seedling that arose in the Hanbury Gardens, something no less precious and rare than the plants in the garden, this comprehension and co-operation between the University, the Office of Monuments and Fine Arts and our Society.
I am convinced that the Society of the Friends of La Mortola with the President Boris Biancheri and the Secretary General Ursula Salghetti Drioli Piacenza, both with deep local roots, is now in the best hands to go on and possibly improve. I also believe that the mutual understanding and co-operation between all the people involved are the only ways through which the Hanbury Gardens will once again reach the level of excellence on a par with all Mediterranean gardens which they deserve due to the beauty of the place and the care and passion of past and present generations dedicated to these Gardens. This is the aim of every one of us, those who are there professionally, those who desire to pass a few hours of recreation and those who are conscious of their civic duty to lend a hand to preserve this enchanting place and leave it intact and, if possible, improved for the future generations.