A Royal Villa

The Villa Reale in the comune of Marlia is one of the grandest of aristocratic villas built by the Luccan nobility for their use both as a summer residence and also as a place to grow crops, especially vines.

Its origins go back a long way. In the longobard era there was a fort here built by the duke of Tuscia. It then passed to the Buonvisi family (the same that owned the Villa Webb in the old part of Bagni di Lucca) who held the property until 1651 when they got into financial difficulties

The Olivieri and Orsetti family then came into possession of the villa and refashioned it, adding a splendid baroque garden, parts of which still remain to this day. They also built the Palazzina dell’Orologio to house the villa’s servicing department.

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Big changes occurred when Napoleon’s sister, Elisa bought the villa from the Orsetti who were, in fact, rather unwilling to sell the place. Elisa paid the princely sum of 700,000 French francs which today (roughly) would equate to around 7 million pounds.

It was Elisa who gave the name “Reale” (royal) to the villa. She enlarged the villa at a cost of another few million euros, ordering the architects Lazzarini and Bienaimè to transform it into the neo-classical building one sees today, and completely re-drew the grounds into an English garden layout with large lawns à la Capability Brown. In the course of this re-structuring many features of the previous baroque garden were swept away to be replaced by trees and bushes transplanted from the royal palace of Caserta (Naples) where one of the first English landscape gardens was laid out.


It’s a pity one can’t visit the interiors as they contain fine plasterwork, frescoes and decorations by among other artists, Tofanelli (1750 – 1812),  a lucchese who also painted fine religious pictures for the cathedral and San Frediano in Lucca. These photographs are taken from public sources:

It must have been fantastic to be present at the grand soirées held by Elisa in the villa’s new ballroom. Among artistes invited was the great violin virtuoso Paganini who became the princess’s music teacher and, perhaps, a little more. Elisa had quite a few lovers including the chief of her armed forces, Bartolomeo Cenami.

When Napoleon was (regrettably, in my opinion) defeated at Waterloo, just two hundred years ago, British forces under the command of Lord Bentick chased poor Elisa out of her former domain  although she was pregnant for the ninth time. Sadly forgotten and in somewhat straightened circumstances Elisa died in Trieste in 1820, one year before her brother, aged just 42.

(It’s significant that, for a short time, Lucca was part of the British Empire since it was occupied by Bentinck’s troops).

The villa passed to the Bourbons and Maria Luisa. The great architect Nottolini (he of the chain bridge at Fornoli near Bagni di Lucca) added a Viennese-style coffee house and an astronomical observatory.

In 1928 the villa was bought by the Pecci-Blunt family in whose hands it remained until 2015.

Who owns it now? When the Villa Reale was put up for sale there was speculation of the usual sort. Would the Russian magnate buy it or the Arab sheik? Neither, in fact. It was sold to a swiss couple who intend to convert it into one of Italy’s first super-luxury hotels.

No doubt we’ll now see the likes of the Beckhams and Clooneys parading through the villa’s grounds. But will we be able to visit it?

I’m quite sure we will continue to admire the Villa’s magnificent gardens, some of the best in the Lucca and indeed, Tuscan area. The villa itself was never on the visiting list although, no doubt, it may be open for wedding receptions and the like.

The gardens are full of scenic features including fishponds, a Verzura (green hedge) theatre, grottoes, statues and are a joy to visit at most seasons. Rather than describe their features I’ll just show a few photographs from the time we first visited their magic ambience in September 2005.

Can it really be that long ago that we first visited the Villa Reale?

PS If you are super-rich and looking for luxury villas in Italy do consult the site at


You might even be able to find out how much the villa Reale was sold for!

La Traviata’s Favourite Flower

The camellias of the Pieve di Compito valley in the Pisan Mountain, which separates Lucca from Pisa like a natural “peace wall” between two formerly warring states, are by now of international status and people come to admire them from all parts of Europe.

Among visitors I did notice a large number of Germans which was explained by an important section of the beautiful exhibition dedicated to PilInitz palace where camellias first arrived in 1801.

PilInitz palace is near Dresden which I visited in 2001. There was a very moving variety called Frauenkirche named after that resurrected treasure of a church which had been part of the photographs of the devastating exhibition at Tate Modern recently.

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The varieties of this wonderful tree with flowers that always fall as a whole, without shedding individual petals, (as I know every morning to my cost when have to sweep the garden of those camellias from our own tree) are eternal and exquisite.

There was a very good section on Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, which has several schools and grand masters. I was particularly intrigued by the framing apparatus of this transcendental art.

Pieve di Compito is a lovely place for a visit with its gentle hills and mild micro climate. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (e.g. at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/thankyou-camellia/ ) camellias arrived here in the early nineteenth century, largely thanks to English ex-pats who chose to stay among these hills during the torrid Tuscan summer in the plains.. The camellietum can be visited any time (see my post at  https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/one-hundred-roman-farms-and-one-thousand-camellias/ ) but it’s when the festival takes place during the March week-ends that it’s possible to visit the gardens of the historic villas and truly take in the wonderful ambience of this extraordinary plant without which no-one would have been able to drink their favourite cuppa in this world.

We visited four villas, including the most gracious of them, the villa Orsi and the Villa Giovanetti. These noble, if somewhat dilapidated, mansions can only be visited at this time since they are all in private hands.

The weather was wonderfully sunny and I was so glad that I was able to take my three distinguished guests to this lovely exhibition after an absence of two years.


PS If you didn’t get the reason for the title it’s because Verdi’s “La Traviata” is based on Dumas senior’s (a visitor to Bagni di Lucca) romantic novel “La Dame aux Camellias”.





Morris Here, There and Everywhere.

No it’s not our little moggy which has travelled to many places all the way from Greenwich, London to the Anatolian plateau I’m referring to in the title. It’s a human.


There’s still one famous person’s house I haven’t mentioned we visited London last month. In many respects it’s a house belonging to one of the most remarkable and multi-faceted persons who ever lived. The descriptions of artist, designer, typographer, writer, poet, translator, revolutionary, visionary do not exhaust his activities. Furthermore, he is the one person who, more than ever, links up places where I was born, where I was educated, where I lived, where I worked, where I am now – indeed all those places and more: all those places dearest to me today.

Walthamstow, notorious for its part in the 2011 London riots when large parts of that city were in flames, does not immediately suggest a pilgrimage on the Victoria tube line to visit it. Its multi ethnic high street is lively but has unremarkable shops and modest architecture. Nobody there seemed to know the place we wanted to visit. Had we come to the wrong place?

Of course not. Finally, we were pointed in the right direction. At the entrance of a park stands a fine Georgian mansion where the man whose achievements we had come to hallow was born and brought up: William Morris, Britain’s greatest designer, whose work we have already touched on in a previous post when we visited an exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery with a section on him. (See https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/arty-crafty/)

There’s a fine web site at http://www.wmgallery.org.uk/ dedicated to William who was also (naturally) involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, one of whom snatched his wife off him (I’ll leave you to find out who if you didn’t already know).


The museum is beautifully laid out and much better organised than when we last visited it  Here are some photographs of that museum thirty years ago (and us thirty years younger!)

But how does Morris link up with all the places I’ve lived and worked in? For a start there’s the Red House in Bexleyheath designed by Morris and Webb, where William spent the earlier part of his married life – a house called  “the beautifullest house in England” which is just round the corner from where I lived in the same borough. We were privileged to have known the couple who saved the Red House  from demolition when such architecture was unfashionable (what a philistine age I was brought up – the number of gorgeous buildings demolished in the Britain of the 50’s to the 70’s is too heart-breaking for me to go through.) We were also among the first visitors when the National Trust realised the uniqueness of that Red House and was able to add it to its list of very precious London properties. Again these photographs date from our distant past:

Red Lion square in Holborn, London, where William Morris had his design company headquarters, was also the square where I worked as a civil servant in the now defunct Wages Inspectorate. (Incidentally, it’s the same square where Sir John Harrington, Queen Elizabeth I’s “saucy godson” invented the first flush toilet in 1596. Hence the use of the word “John” to describe the same useful invention in the states. But I digress…)

The Kelmscott press on the Thames at Hammersmith, which Morris founded and from which he published some of the most stunningly set books in the English language and his masterpiece of printing, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, also has an intimate and living association with me and the great river itself – a river about which Conrad in that book which I am constantly re-reading “Heart of Darkness” writes “what greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”

Even Bagni di Lucca enters into my associations as among William Morris’s best friends was Robert Browning whose holiday residence in Bagni di Lucca is being so lovingly restored (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/the-most-beautiful-house-in-bagni-di-lucca-villa/

William Morris is fortunate in having several houses in which he lived or is associated with. There’s Wightwick Manor, of course, near Birmingham and Standen in Sussex, both of which we have also visited and both which belong to the National Trust.

If you’re an American you can see this gorgeous stained glass window designed by William Morris in Trinity Church Boston (there’s also an archive of William Morris material in San Marino California,

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and if you’re an Australian and a fan of William Morris designs you must be the luckiest person in the world for Adelaide’s art gallery has the most comprehensive collection of Morris & Co. furnishings outside Britain).

If you’re in London and don’t want to go that far to see some William Morris you can always have a cup of tea at the V and A  – the dining area  was designed by William Morris and is now appropriately called “The William Morris” room.


I don’t have to go too far either in Bagni di Lucca to see that Browning house with its associations with William Morris. After all, not only were they good friends but Morris can justly be counted as the main inspirer of the art nouveau (“stile liberty” as they call it here in Italy movement so gloriously seen in much of Italy, particularly around Lucca and Viareggio, and now revealed like an awakened sleeping beauty in BdL itself.

Few people read much of William Morris’s literary work today but two of his phrases have certainly echoed in the minds of many of us:

There’s this one which some of us try to aspire to:

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

And there’s this one too, a little more difficult in this day and age to practice.”

“No work which cannot be done with pleasure in the doing is worth doing”.

To conclude, here are some photographs we took last February of a few of the items designed by Morris in the house that makes a visit to the end of the Victoria line at Walthamstow worth every minute of the journey: