Pietro Porcinai, an Italian landscape architect, did his best to bring ‘the look of the countryside’ to stimulate and save a country that was mired waist-deep in the classic garden tradition. Porcinai’s preference for the look of the countryside may seem unkempt to the obsessively ordered. But Porcinai saw the possibility of trees, grass and open space for all. More than anyone else, from Italy, Porcinai advocated the need for green spaces particularly in the cities. A true biophilic innovator before biophilia was even a term.
Porcinai had “farm values,” envisioning a more relaxed, friendlier man-environment culture from his Tuscan past. One such example was his creation At The Brion Tomb at St. Vito d’Altivole, that overlooks Florence. Here he had planned a rough meadow of grass as well as marguerites unlike the sown lawn that currently occupies the space.
Porcinai was born in 1910, propitiously in one of the most prestigious historical gardens in all of Italy- the Villa Gamberaia. His father was the lead gardener there and this proved substantial in Porcinai’s decision to pursue landscape design. Porcinai would go on to become the most prominent landscape designer from Italy despite the absence of any professional level undergraduate programs in horticulture in his homeland. He began with the architecture program at the University of Florence and augmented his training with the additions of ecology and botany.
This prompted Porcinai to ultimately move abroad, leaving for Germany’s Institut fur Landschaftspflege and Naturschutz of Hanover, one of the most comprehensive faculties of landscape design and planning in the world, with departments that span the natural sciences like soil sciences through ecology, landscape history, design, horticulture and social and physical planning. Porcinai’s move abroad was a harbinger of future international success and recognition.
Porcinai’s early training, in particular, guided his decision regarding location, the Villa Rondinelli. Built and designed to the instructions of Cosimo I, of the Medici family (the ruling family of Florence in the 16th century), The Villa Rondinelli lies just below the more prominently known Villa Medici, which it was built to serveas a â€˜foresteria’, or guest house.
A majestic site that overlooks the Towers of Florence, the great central dome of its cathedral, and the valley of the Arno west towards Pisa, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and famous exterior landscapes of the world. The Villa Rondinelli is rife with beauty and not the least bit lacking in natural history and splendor. It could justifiably be considered Porcinai’s masterpiece.
The Villa Rondinelli had become his dream in which he envisioned a return to the 16th century, when l’Accademia Platonica had met there, such distinguished men like Pico della Mirandola savoring a stroll in its gardens, contemplating and revitalizing in a natural spa-like place. It was a haven of spiritual renewal or what Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson proposed was “man’s innate need for nature”.
Porcinai epitomized simplicity. He was more similar to, landscape architect, Thomas Church. He would often attempt to persuade his client to do something simpler than what the client had in mind, thus significantly reducing his fee.
Porcinai also won numerous prizes and awards, such as the prestigious In-Arch prize in 1960 and was the only living Italian to be assigned (1985) an extensive biography in The Oxford Companion to Gardens by Sir Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe.
Perhaps what is most telling about Porcinai is that he is the most widely recognized landscape architect from Italy. Yet he was not embraced by his countrymen and ultimately lead to his forced exile.
Enjoy our History of Green Thumb blog post series? Read about distinguished American landscape designer, Fletcher Steele, here.
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