The Verginese Landscape

Written by  Ada V. Segre
A former "Delizia" is undergoing restoration.
The project to restore part of the gardens of the Delizia del Verginese has provided an opportunity to rediscover the landscape of the plain to the east of Ferrara, commonly known as the Polesine di San Giorgio.

The project, commissioned by the municipality of Portomaggiore in conjunction with the Province of Ferrara, was designed by the present writer, along with architect Giampaolo Guerzoni and agronomists Giovanni Morelli and Stefania Gasperini. The new garden is now being prepared and is expected to be completed, with financial support from the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara, by the end of 2003.

The garden is currently a large meadow between the eastern façade of the Villa-Castello and the impressive dovecote tower on one side and the public road and the Verginese conduit on the other. The eighteenth and nineteenth century design, which has now disappeared, is known, but in its very simplicity this remains a space across which the eye is drawn to the surrounding countryside, across the line of perspective created by the eastern entrance of the building and the open windows of the dovecote tower. In actual fact, delving a little into local history, it is possible to trace the landscaping of the entire Verginese estate, and to understand that its positioning in the countryside was a weighty task and not without a certain grandiosity.
The reliable records which have been handed down to us, and which enable us to carry out a detailed analysis of the layout of the land, date to the mid-eighteenth century, which was a period during which landed estates underwent considerable modernisation, often forgotten and still not fully evaluated. Fifteenth and sixteenth century records are scanty and not backed up by any visual documentation.

From the end of the sixteenth century the Verginese lay at the heart of a vast agricultural estate. The estate, which comprises a large number of holdings, consisted mainly of fields and pasture, as well as arable land interspersed with lines of trees and vines. In the late fifteenth century the farmhouse had been converted into a country house under the supervision of Biagio Rossetti (1485-88) and the use of the estate was transferred by Duca Alfonso I to the Duca di Sora, Sigismondo Cantelmi. Under his management and that of his son Francesco, the estate was transformed into a successful productive farm.

On the death of Alfonso I (1534), the property was inherited by his companion Laura Eustochia Dianti and their sons Alfonso and Alfonsino. We know, and it is also clear from the architectural stratifications, that Laura Dianti extended the country house, transforming it into a Villa-Castello, adding the four mock towers at the corners of the building to give it the appearance of a stately home in accordance with the then-current architectural fashion in the Ferrara region.
We also know that when the Este family took up residence in Modena, much of the farmland surrounding the Verginese was sold or let. The dovecote tower, with the farmland of the same name behind it, was passed to the Pecchiati family (1590-1603) There are no records of the fate of the estate during the seventeenth century, and we have no way of knowing what happened to it during this long period of silence. We may imagine that it was a dormant time, with no radical changes in the site.

We have to jump forward in time to for a detailed account of the composition of the Verginese estate, with the names, areas, use and ownership of each single holding. The survey carried out by Vincenzo Bertoni is 1821, which is confirmed by a very detailed map and by valuations of the buildings and open fields, is the most valuable and exact source of historical information to have emerged to date. It also provides a point of reference in time which makes it possible to establish with certainty that the situation in the early years of the nineteenth century had changed very little since 1762, a year for which we have considerable information, and that this settlement had already been established for some considerable time. The Verginese is best documented during the periods when it was under the Roverella (1748-1764) and Bevilacqua (1764-1828) families.

The end of the Bevilacqua period coincides with a decline in the estate, and the property changed hands repeatedly before being bought by Enrico Fontana and the comparatively recent transfer of the house, the garden and a small adjacent area to the Province of Ferrara.
At the centre of the Verginese in 1533 there stood a "farmhouse" with an "orchard", "kitchen garden", "vineyard" and "dovecote", in other words a farm with areas of specialised cultivation of fruit, vegetables and wine. This was at the centre of two agricultural holdings, the size and position of which is unknown, but which raised cattle, produced wool and cheese and provided work for stewards and farmhands.

Livestock production predominated, while agricultural activities remained restricted to the area around the farmhouse, with viticulture being added after 1481. The surrounding land was therefore mostly given over to pasture and grazing, a typical use of poor land such as is found mainly to the north and southwest of the Verginese estate.

A description of 1590 records that the country house remained at the centre of an estate owned by Prince Cesare d'Este, and consisting of a large number of holdings apart from the country house itself and its attached gardens and kitchen garden. The property was divided into agricultural plots, with pasture and grazing, divided by rows of trees and vines. The livestock tradition continued, and in 1762 there were still beef and dairy cattle, pigs, horses and sheep, whilst wine production was consolidated and timber was produced from elm trees. The main arable crop was wheat, followed by barley and to a much lesser extent chickpeas, flax, hemp and broad beans. There was extensive use of elm and oak for the production of stakes and timber.

The summary of the lost Farini-Migliari survey indicates that in 1762 the domain workshops, the garden on the eastern side and the long meadow to the west were set aside from the rest of the agricultural holdings making up the Verginese estate, and regarded as a unified area which was unlike the other mainly productive areas.

The immediate reasons for this decision were dictated by the need to maintain possession of the estate until the death of Count Roverella, but this implied an vision of the land which established which areas were an integral part of the surroundings of the house, forming grounds for amenity purposes. It appears that the area indicated in the survey reflects this demarcation and historically formed basis for landscaping at Verginese, now lost particularly on the western side where the magnificent vista of the west façade of the Villa-Castello has almost completely disappeared apart from a narrow view of the south west turret.

In other words, in the mid-seventeenth century the grounds were laid out to provide a very peaceful area, no doubt inspired by other projects "à la française" throughout Europe, but which took on particular features in this remote spot, without a courtyard and set in a landscape in which the countryside influenced the design of the "delizia". From the surviving documentation, we know that by 1762 the area to the east of the house was described as the "Garden", both in the scanty plans and in the Migliari notebook containing the notes needed to draw up the valuation, which provides some valuable information. The Garden was enclosed by a wall 177 piedi ferraresi (p.f.), that is 71.48 m. long on the boundary with the road to the north, and a low wall 300 p.f. (121.15 m) long and 3.6 p.f. (1.4 m) high all around.

There were high, ordinary and small pillars at the side of the gate along the road boundary and in the central avenue there were two pedestals with terracotta statues, still clearly visible on Bertoni's 1821 map. There were also four statues in marble with two groups of putti, vases and bowls confirming that this was a prestigious garden and as such, in the mid-eighteenth century, still contained statues and other marble ornaments, perhaps surviving from earlier garden layouts.

The spatial division of the garden between the Villa-Castello and the dovecote tower is not known, except for the details given in the Bertoni plan of 1921, which shows a subdivision into sixteen square or rectangular sections, alternating with avenues at right angles, with two small pillars in the centre of the garden, and a gate with four pillars on the north side of the road. The house faces the dovecote tower, standing alone and rising in the centre of a strip of meadow land running from north to south, bounded on one side by the Verginese drainage canal.
The division into regular rectangles may be a simplified version of an earlier layout, of which no evidence remains but which must have been similar to the usual design of late eighteenth century country gardens and probably those of earlier times too. This is a traditional form, typical of the kitchen or herb garden divided into squares with fruit trees planted along the edges and, sometimes, also within the grassed areas, laid out in lines at right angles.

Planting laid out in this fashion encouraged the practices of flush irrigation and agricultural maintenance, and often made it possible to plant vegetable species at the foot of the fruit trees. The well-known garden plan drawn up by Belriguardo around 1590 is evidence of continuity of this layout in the region, which lies midway between an ornamental garden and a kitchen garden.

It is possible that the sixteenth century garden was more elaborate, although similar in its basic spatial division, with some sections subdivided in ornamental designs. This kind of refined design, requiring a good deal of maintenance, would have certainly disappeared at the first signs of financial difficulties, leading to an understandable trend towards simplification.


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