In 1896, an Oxford undergraduate fell in love with the wild beauty of a 15th century military fortress in the Lunigiana area of Northern Tuscany. Seven years’ later, on his honeymoon, he returned to show his bride the sunset that changed the colour of the marble peaks of the Carrara mountains from apricot to the shades of a Florentine iris.
Within two years, the Waterfields had moved into the inhospitable fortress, which they first leased and then bought, with only camp beds and a packing case for furniture. So began their unusual life in the Fortezza della Brunella in Aulla, which was to result not only the restoration of the fortezza itself, but also in the construction of an extraordinary garden in the sky.
Aubrey Waterfield was a painter, who loved gardens almost as much as he loved painting. The idea of a magical garden in sky took root when he discovered that, following the occupation of the fortezza in the 18th century by the Spanish, soil had been hauled up onto the roof to absorb the recoil of the Spanish cannon.
Waterfield designed his garden in the sky around a rose-covered pavilion of white trelliswork with a central dome, inspired by the Brighton Pavilion in England. Beneath the dome, sparkling with goldfish and water lilies, was a sunken marble bath, six feet square and five feet deep. Miniature box parterre containing beds overflowing with fragrant flowers edged the broad grass walk that led to the rampart walls, out of which grew small irises. Vines, a hedge of rosemary, and a large persimmon tree added to the enchantment. The most startling aspect of the garden was the avenue of mature ilex trees that provided shade to the garden in the sky.
In the heat of the summer, cooled by the late morning breeze that found its way up the valley from the coast, the roof garden was the focus of life at the fortezza. In the evening, dinner was hauled up in a large basket from the courtyard below and eaten by candlelight to a background of cicadas and tree frogs, and illuminated by dancing fireflies. When it was too hot to sleep inside, the family hung old canvas naval hammocks between the trees or under the trellis pavilion. They would listen to the nightingales and cool off in the deep water of the marble pond.
Kinta Beevor, author of A Tuscan Childhood, first saw the Fortezza as a child of five in 1916, and her excellent book recollects her childhood while her father silently painted and her mother took her typewriter off on visits to Rome, and when they entertained tourists such as DH Lawrence and Rex Whistler. Her fascinating account describes the lost garden in the sky, life in Lunigiana and Florence, the sad history of the fort during World War II, its deterioration and, finally, its sale in the 1970s to the Italian authorities, who removed the garden and changed the shape of the towers as part of an expensive and pointless project. The fort is now home to the Natural History Museum of Lunigiana.
To commemorate Kinta Beevor’s time at the Fortezza, there will be a reading from A Tuscan Childhood at the Fortezza on 15 May 2011. Entry is free, so do go along if you want to find out more about this wonderful time in the fort’s history.
Lunigiana’s lost garden in the sky – Fortezza della Brunella, Aulla appeared on Ciao Lunigiana on 1 May 2011. All rights reserved.