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The Most Beautiful Garden I Never Saw

September 23, 1993|VIANA LA PLACE

I've seen many lovely gardens, private and public, but for me, the most beautiful garden of all is one I never saw. Described to me by my mother, it was the garden surrounding Villino Riccardo, her childhood country house on the outskirts of Palermo, beneath Monte Pellegrino. On weekends and in the summer, her family would head there, to le falde , the area at the foot of the mountain just before it begins its dramatic rise. My mother was born at Villino Riccardo.

The villa was named in memory of one of my great-grandmother's children, who died in infancy in the city house in Palermo. In a tragic moment, the baby slipped from the arms of a housekeeper while she leaned over a balcony to pull up the panierino , the small basket attached to a rope used to ferry purchases sold by traveling vendors--wild greens, roasted seeds and nuts--to the upper floors of palazzi in Palermo; she had been lifting a newspaper up in the basket. Antonia, my great-grandmother, named the country villa after her son, to honor and remember him.

Nearby was Piazza Ranchibile. The winding path that led to the top of Monte Pellegrino began here, and this is where pilgrims to the shrine of Santa Rosalia would begin their journey on foot--the path predating the road that was eventually built to the Church of Santa Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo.

Our family's villino was situated on a very narrow, unpaved country road surrounded by other villas, all hidden behind high walls. A large shady fig tree grew just inside the tall iron gates that faced the road. From the gate a serpentine path lead to the front door--no driveway existed since automobiles had not yet taken over the streets. Next door were the La Barberas, who later would become a part of my mother's family--Pietro La Barbera married my mother's Zia (Aunt) Rubina. The family on the other side of the villino were the Jacchs--my mother's Zia Savina would one day marry Giovanni Jacchs. Across the street lived a music professor who gave piano lessons to my mother's aunts in both their country and city homes. From the villino you could hear the sounds of Professore Ferrara's piano adrift on the air.

Villino Riccardo was two stories high, with the bedrooms on the second floor. On one exterior wall was a chiocciola , a spiral staircase forged of iron with three landings. From the tiny top landing, really just an observation post, one could see villas and gardens, miles of orange groves and the sea. Standing at the top landing, with room enough for only one, you could feel cool breezes coming in from the aquamarine sea that glistened on the horizon.

Then there was the garden. This was a Sicilian garden: no grass, just the cultivation of plants, sun-baked earth and crushed stones. Threading through the garden were gravel pathways bordered with pansies. A sparkling fountain refreshed the hot air that in summer was a jumble of intensified scents: Jasmine climbed, aromatic and glorious, over tall garden walls; citronella added its sharp lemon perfume; roses bloomed, exuding the fragrance of tea, berries and citrus; and carnations gave off their pungent spiced scent. Added to the dizzying mix were the sweet oils of mint and basil.

A banana tree grew in the garden, which bore fruit that would be fried in olive oil. There were trees with tiny apples and a pear tree with fruit as small as thimbles. There were susine --plums, pale-gold and rich-tasting--and peaches and apricots. During vendemmia --the grape harvest--the pergolas would be laden with bunches of dusty grapes. On one side of the villa, the gardener planted all kinds of vegetables--tomatoes, broccoli, chayote (called centinaia ), which grew over a trellised arbor creating a canopy of leaves and dappled light, from which dangled hundreds of pale green fruit.

For my mother, the villino held the special memories of childhood--the scapacavallo (a little pony cart that she would ride in with her father at her side, up and down the dusty country lanes), and a small, delicately crafted wicker chair made especially for her at her grandfather's factory, where fine pieces of wicker furniture were made. She carried the chair with her around the garden and inside the house and allowed no one else to sit in it.

Into this dream came the reality of war. At the beginning of the war, Villino Riccardo was rented out to a photographer; he photographed my mother at the age of 14--hand-tinted photographs of a radiant girl with golden hair, wearing a necklace of tiny shells and a dress colored verde petrolio , a deep blue-green color popular at the time. This photograph now rests on our piano.

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