Region: Liguria - Province: Imperia
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West of Ventimiglia, in the westernmost part of Liguria, shortly before the French-Italian border, there lies a 2-km long coastal plan called Piana del Latte - Latte being the name of the stream crossing it. Ever since the second half of the 19th century, this area has been characterised by a unified system of settlement, i.e. by the suburban villas built by wealthy families of Ventimiglia for their leisure hours with the relevant agrarian landscape. The villas date back to different periods, ranging from the 16th century up to the early 20th century, and highlight the long-established vocation of this area, which has always been especially well suited for leisurely settlements and agricultural production thanks to its temperate climate, rich soil, and beautiful landscape.
Indeed, there had been settlements ever since Roman times in the area along the route of the Iulia Augusta road - later on to be termed Via Romana - as shown by archaeological findings. Starting from the second half of the 16th century, the road became the connecting link in a system of villas that nowadays still shows its main features. After the 1870s, the Ligurian Riviera, which began being known to and admired by Grand Tour travellers in the early 18th century, became the province of a cultured, refined élite, which elected it as the place where its pleasure palaces were to be built.
The Plan is limited eastwards by an increasingly steep, rocky and fragmented coastline, whilst westwards the La Mortola promontory juts out to sea with its steep cliffs. In 1867, the young Thomas Hanbury, who lived in the nearby Cote d'Azur, struck by the beauty of the location and its peculiar climate, decided to buy it and turn the farmland into a place for botanical experimentation and the acclimatising of extra-European exotic plants. The property - which little by little expanded to include an 18-hectar area - was comprised of farmland and an area where the local Mediterranean vegetation had been allowed to grow freely. With the help of his brother Daniel, a scholar of medicinal plants, major German and English botanists and highly-skilled gardeners - some of whom lived in La Mortola, whilst others came from northern Europe - he carried on working on his project and created the "Hanbury Botanical Gardens", which soon became a model for the villa-garden system of western Liguria as well as being an outstanding example for their scientific value (in particular, special importance should be attached to the Hanbury Library and the herbarium) and their beauty.
After re-structuring the old Villa of Marchesi Orengo, which was expanded and embellished by a marble porch and terrace of Neoclassical taste, and laying a network of many paths and causeways, he slowly gave shape to the gardens in accordance with an original architectural design including areas with exotic vegetation. The wealth of bibliographic information on the Hanbury Gardens allows describing the property in detail. It is composed of the Orengo Palace, some appurtenances of the latter, and the 18-hectar parkland of unique beauty - thanks to the outstanding combination of rare natural elements, such as for instance the temperate climate resulting from its southward exposure, its location overlooking the sea, and the geological and morphological features of the site. The building includes a central core with a tower that was transformed and added to new buildings starting from the end of the 16th century, in order to better carry out the practical as well as residential functions that were typical of suburban villas. The contributions given by architects and artists both local and from England turned the building into an elegant residence, and the mixed architectural styles make it a significant example of eclecticism. The buildings located in various areas of the park as embellishments also mirror this cultural milieu, which further increases the interesting features of the property.
The transformation from farmland to botanical garden did not completely destroy the original architectural framework of the property. In spite of the different morphological features of the steep slope on which it is located, the garden was created by drawing inspiration from and re-adjusting the architectural elements of the villas in the Piana - using the sturdy pillared pergolas ("andamenti") as unifying elements and connecting links along level curves. They were meant both as the alleys to reach the innermost parts of the area and as the imposing, though rustic, avenues leading to the main building, which is preceded by the large 18th-century gate - protecting and embellishing it at the same time. The enclosures that initially marked the boundaries of the Gardens were replaced in part, in Thomas Hanbury's times, by airy wrought-iron railings, when the new access to the property was built in the northern area close to the Aurelia road.
Having become the Maecenas of the "La Mortola", Sir Thomas had also a school built there; he endowed the nearby villages with fountains, and donated a villa to the University of Genoa - where the Botanical Institute of the Faculty of Sciences is still housed. After Thomas Hanbury's death in 1907, his work was continued by his son Cecil with the help of the latter's wife, Dorothy.
What Sir Thomas Hanbury had started, with more ambitious and scientific objectives, in his botanical garden at La Mortola, was reproduced - out of emulation, as a mark of prestige, or for aesthetical reasons - practically everywhere in the gardens along the western riviera. Thanks to the temperate climate of the area, palms and exotic plants soon became fashionable appendages of the buildings - after the model set by the Hanbury Botanical Gardens. The panorama of the riviera was quickly transformed and the vegetation - mostly consisting in evergreens - gave rise to unusual natural scenarios suggesting remote exotic locations; seen from afar, the cape is a lush tropical forest placed amidst farmland sloping down to sea.
Ever since its foundation, the park aroused considerable interest from many different standpoints - it was mentioned in the Baedekers of the end of the 19th century as well as in national tourist publications, in naturalistic guides and botanical journals, in the history of tourist settlements along the Riviera as well as in the history of landscape and garden design.
A catalogue was drawn up and published by Oxford University Press, where about 6,000 species were mentioned. The Hanbury Gardens were purchased by the Italian State in 1960 and committed to the Istituto Internazionale di Studi Liguri [International Institute of Ligurian Studies]; as of 1983, they have been managed by the University of Genoa in co-operation with the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities as regards the protection of architectural components. Visitors have been admitted to the gardens ever since 1872.
The Executive Board of Hanbury Botanical Gardens has scientific contacts with the most important European Universities and Botanical Institutes; the Gardens can be equated to many of them in terms of their importance: from the Botanical Gardens of the University of Palermo to Villa Turet in Antibes; from the Botanical Garden of the University of Montpellier to Barcelona Botanical Gardens and the Botanical Garden of Naples.
Generally speaking, the circumstance that ownership of the land in the Piana di Latte remained mostly with the Clergy and a handful of wealthy families allowed reducing the fragmentation of farmland, some of which could go unscathed through the tourist transformation that affected, at the end of the 19th century, the nearby towns of Sanremo and Bordighera; here, the integrity of the site could be retained up to this very day.
In particular, the purchase of the La Mortola estate by Sir Thomas Hanbury in 1867 and subsequently by the Italian State, in 1960, allowed creating and safeguarding the largest acclimatising park in Italy.
Thanks to the Istituto Internazionale di Studi Liguri, the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities, and the University of Genoa, the complex was fully restored and its value enhanced further. Thus, the property has preserved both all its original architectural elements and its scientific character. Conservation and integrity of the property are ensured by the financial support provided by the State.
In Europe, the creation of acclimatising gardens based on the eclecticism and exoticism that became fashionable in the second half of the 19th century was not an isolated occurrence; in fact, it concerned Italian lakes, Cornwall, Brittany - thanks to the influence due to the Gulf Stream. Nowadays, all these locations are rich in exotic plants that were introduced in the Mediterranean environment where evergreens prevailed.
The La Mortola Cape is the most accomplished example of the integration of acclimatising plants along slopes and in a landscape context of markedly Mediterranean nature - the outcome of the extraordinary, unequalled "incorporation" of exotic vegetation into the Mediterranean milieu.
The Hanbury Botanical Gardens are of outstanding value both in scientific terms and because of their beauty; moreover, they became the driver of all other gardens along the Italian and French Riviera and served as the model for all other garden designers - starting from the most famous ones, such as the great Lawrence Johnston, the owner of the de la Madone conservatories at Menton and the designer of the well-known Hidcote Manor gardens in England, which are still regarded as the most accomplished landscape garden in that country.
Additionally, the Hanbury Botanical Gardens also play a leading role in scientific terms, and can be compared with the Hortus camaldulensis in Naples and the Colonial Garden that is part of the Botanical Garden of the University of Palermo. However, the acclimatising garden at La Mortola is not simply a collector's whim nor is it aimed at the description of a few species only; in fact, it is a veritable testing place to study the reactions to new environments and possible adaptive modifications.