Italian gardens

by Samuele Sodini

Teatro di Verzura - Villa Reale - Lucca


The Teatro di Verzura at Villa Reale

What better month than Mayfor a visit to the sumptuous grounds of the Villa Reale at Marlia?
Here will find one of the best preserved historic gardens in Italy. The Villa itself was known to have been in the hands of the Buonvisi family as far back as the early 1500s, but it was only in 1652 when it was acquired by the Orsetti family that the gardens were first laid out and planted with various species designed to create a baroque style landscape.
The so called “Teatro di Verzura” dates from this period, going back to around 1680, from which time it has remained unchanged.
But what is a Teatro di Verzura? It is an open hair theatre, in which natural forms such as artfully placed and trimmed trees, hedges and shrubs make up the backdrop, the wings and the stage, creating the architectural structure with the decorative elements then supplied by statues, seats and columns.
The origins of these natural theatres are not clear; they are thought to have been used for simple or povere performances, poetry readings, songa and open air concerts. By the early 17th century, the art of topiary was already well developed, especially by Roman gardeners, seeking to “sculpt” trees by pruning them in reconisable forms. The box tree, they yew and the laurel lent themselves especially well to being shaped in the form of human figures, hunting scenes and animals. From these origins arose the strange architectural phenomenon of the late 1600s that we know know as the Teatro di Verzura.
The theatre at Marlia, while not unique, is certainly a rare and brilliant example of topiary, preserving the original 17th century greenery. It is more elaborate and better preserved, for example, than the one at Villa Garzoni at Collodi, or those at the Villa Gori and Villa Sergardi at Siena.
It cnsists of a stage, wings and backdrop of evergreen cypress trees, a prompt box in appropriately enough, box wood, a rostrum for the conductor, stalls for the audience with box hedges setting out the rows of seats, and series of bow-fronted opera boxes, entirely constructed from greenery.
A row of little semicircles of boxwood runs along the proscenuim arch to hide the lights used for evening performances.

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