A park of works made with flowers. The contemporary garden of the Montellori Farm.


On the outskirts of Fucecchio, Tuscany, lies an unusual park. It is the Montellori Farm: it houses works of art created by important artists and which are distinguished by one peculiarity: they are all made of flowers. It is therefore nature that decides each year how they should be presented.

“Some gardens are described as refuges, when in fact they are traps.” The tender early spring air that channels along the avenue of pine trees at Montellori Farm does everything it can to belie the aphorism of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Scottish poet who is credited with pioneering the invention of the artist’s garden. The sounds of traffic flowing along the nearby regional road arrive muffled, every now and then a few rays of sunshine break through the blanket of clouds to draw passing geometries on the roofs of Fucecchio, on the facades of its houses, on the bell towers that dominate the Fattoria and its garden from above. The same family, the Nieri family, has owned the villa since 1895, and the garden at the time was already there, embracing with greenery the neo-Renaissance building over which the shade of the pines spreads. The Nieri family has maintained the garden over the decades without altering its original forms. Its flowerbeds, pathways, shrubs, the romantic English-style grove, everything has remained as it was. So this is a retreat, comes the immediate thought. A flowery refuge. A sweet refuge. Other than a trap.

Translated this way, trying to grasp its literal meaning and keep the wordplay, Finlay’s aphorism would seem to have a single, unambiguous reading. In English, however, the phrase has more nuanced veils, stirs some doubt, and retains an ambiguity that is difficult to render in Italian without losing along the way the witty juxtaposition of terms: Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks. It is a manifesto of Finlay’s work: both reassuring and subversive, suspended in the dialectic between nature and culture. Echoes of his thought have reverberated from the Highlands to Tuscany, and not only because at Celle Farm there is one of his works, the Virgilian Wood. But because it is here, in the countryside that stretches between the Pistoia Plain, the Empolese and the Valdelsa, up to the crags of Volterra, that the idealhumus was produced to gather and develop Finlay’s experiments.

Fertile lands, those of the Tuscan plain. Lush lands, lands shaped over the centuries by the action of human beings who have worked them, smoothed them, tamed them, caressed them, and produced those “Tuscan landscapes” so famous, carved in the common imagination, painted by artists of all centuries, sung by poets, those landscapes that today attract tourists from all over the world. Respect for the landscape, in these parts, is imprinted in the genetic code of the inhabitants. In Siena, as early as the fourteenth century, the protection of “belleça” was enshrined in law in the Municipal Constitution. Natural, then, that “the problem of environmental art” originated, as Enrico Crispolti noted, “precisely from experiences implemented in good part in Tuscany.” The Montellori Farm is one of the most recent, and at the same time most innovative, environmental art experiences: here the works change every year, because they are made of flowers. And this is not a metaphor: we are not talking, as is the case with almost any park that has a minimum of order and is managed with care, about a garden so enchanting as to deserve comparison with a work of art. When, in 2008, Eva Perini and her husband Alessandro Nieri began planning Montellori’s “contemporary garden,” transforming a field that stretched to the edge of the villa into an outdoor art collection, they involved some well-known contemporary Italian artists and asked them to imagine works of art made of flowers. “Encounters between art and nature, and between artist and patron, with complicity and sharing that make possible surprising and fascinating outcomes; and expectations and rebirths that, in the sudden, cyclical and ephemeral enchantment of seasonal blooms, reveal to the viewer the idea, the intuition, the poetic gesture”: this is how Eva Perini sums up the idea from which the contemporary garden was born. For her, art is “construction of meaning and expression of thought,” and she wanted the artists summoned to Montellori to try to give substance to this idea by using flowers as a means of expression.

Montellori Farm, Fucecchio. Photo: Montellori Farm
Montellori Farm, Fucecchio. Photo: Fattoria Montellori
Montellori Farm, Fucecchio. Photo: Montellori Farm
Montellori Farm, Fucecchio. Photo: Fatt
oria Montellori
Montellori Farm, Fucecchio. Photo: Montellori Farm
Montellori Farm, Fucecchio.
Photo: Fattoria
Montellori
Montellori Farm, Fucecchio. Photo: Finestre Sull'Arte
Fattoria Montellori, Fucecchio. Photo: Finestre Sull’Arte
.

Here then, the contemporary garden at Montellori Farm is a retreat, but at the same time it is also an attack. In this case an attack in the true sense of the word, rather than a trap, since an entire collection made of flowers defies the common perception of the work of art. In Tuscany there is nothing else like it: at Montellori the same works, every year, are different, since it is nature that decides what they should look like, it is nature that decides whether they should bloom at the same time, it is nature that decides the timing of the openings, it is nature that decides whether this’year the blooms will be lush and colorful or will be more stunted or not there at all, completely changing the aspect of the artist’s work, who must therefore measure himself against a situation that is new to him, not having full control over the final result.

When, in the 1960s, Nils-Udo created his first works with plants and natural materials, rising on a par with Finlay to the role of precursor of environmental art, this dialogue with nature was born as the result of a new awareness, said the German artist: “I am part of nature, I am incorporated in it and I live in it, so it seemed to me that acting in accordance with the laws of nature was something obvious and necessary for survival. Preserving the original character of nature, its intact state, because it is like preserving the air I breathe, the basis of my existence. The idea of literally planting my work in nature - of making it part of nature, of submitting it to nature - to its cycles and rhythms, filled me on the one hand with a deep inner peace and on the other hand with new possibilities and seemingly inexhaustible opportunities.” The works in Montellori’s garden also start from the same assumptions, although they were mostly made by artists unaccustomed to working with the elements of nature.

For some, it was a completely new experience. Daniela De Lorenzo confesses this to me in front of her work, Respiro, a Cretan labyrinth built with nine hundred bulbs of white daffodils. Seen from above, its shape resembles that of a human brain. A labyrinth in the strict sense: if the maze confronts those who enter it with several possibilities to reach the center, the labyrinth proper has instead a one-way path, a single obligatory road. It is a labyrinth that is not meant to lead its visitors astray, despite the fact that it can be frustrating, as we walk through it, to believe we are almost there and instead find ourselves facing another circumvolution, which seems to lead us out, away from the center. It is a metaphor for the obstacles one encounters when searching for oneself. Finding oneself, then.

Next to Daniela De Lorenzo’s Respiro is the other work present in Montellori’s contemporary garden since its inception, Remo Salvadori’s Splendor in Yellow , a floral translation, with one thousand two hundred golden yellow daffodils, chosen for their elegant bearing and ability to maintain it, of one of the Tuscan artist’s best-known works, Nel momento: geometric shapes that call to mind the Renaissance and the art of Piero della Francesca, shapes that seek to introduce the dimension of time into the work of art, heaven and earth meeting, the original metal work that cuts and bends as if it were blooming, by the artist’s own admission. The work has thus truly blossomed, and time has come with disruptive force, since Salvadori’s Splendor , like all Montellori’s works, is a transitory work, in the making, never the same.

In that poetry of the ephemeral that is Montellori’s garden, it may happen that one arrives at certain times of the year and does not see the works. It is the rhythms of nature that impose it. In spring, therefore, it is not possible to admire Luca Vitone’s Convivio , a flowerbed inaugurated in 2010 and composed of nearly six hundred bulbs of crocus sativus of the iridaceae, the saffron plant, a precious and delicate purple flower that blooms in early autumn. A circular flowerbed covered with a flower that has long provided sustenance for many Tuscan farmers, since saffron is still routinely cultivated not far from Fucecchio, in the countryside of San Gimignano, where the production of this essence has been historically attested since the 13th century, while further north it is harvested along the slopes that crown the town of Barga in the Serchio valley, at the gateway to Garfagnana. Vitone’s work, whose primal idea can be traced back to an exhibition that the Genoese artist himself first presented in San Gimignano in 2000, is thus meant to be an invitation to preserve the memory of the peasant culture of these lands.

Daniela De Lorenzo, Breath (2009)
Daniela De Lorenzo, Respiro (2009; white daffodils, 8 x 9 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Daniela De Lorenzo, Breath (2009)
Daniela De Lorenzo, Respiro (2009; white daffodils, 8 x 9 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Remo Salvadori, Splendor of the Yellow (2009)
Remo Salvadori, Splendor of Yellow (2009; golden yellow daffodils, 8 x 8 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Remo Salvadori, Splendor of the Yellow (2009)
Remo Salvadori, Splendor of Yellow (2009; golden yellow daffodils, 8 x 8 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Luca Vitone, Convivio (2010)
Luca Vitone, Convivio (2010; saffron bulbs, 4.5 m diameter; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Luca Vitone, Convivio (2010)
Luca Vitone, Convivio (2010; saffron bulbs, diameter 4.5 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Marco Bagnoli, Red Furrow (2011)
Marco Bagnoli, Solco rosso (2011; red tulips, 60 m long; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Marco Bagnoli, Red Furrow (2011)
Marco Bagnoli, Solco rosso (2011; red tulips, length 60 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Stefano Arienti, Untitled (2012)
Stefano Arienti, Untitled (2012; tulips (formerly medium cyclamens), 2 x 11 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Stefano Arienti, Untitled (2012)
Stefano Arienti, Untitled (2012; tulips (formerly medium cyclamens), 2 x 11 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Salvo, Loving Me (2012)
Salvo, Amare me (2012; pink dwarf dahlias, 1.5 x 10 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)
Salvo, Loving Me (2012)
Salvo, Amare me (2012; pink dwarf dahlias, 1.5 x 10 m; Fucecchio, Fattoria Montellori)

A long red stripe, sixty meters of six hundred tulips, has been accompanying those who walk along the pathway of the pines in the Montellori garden since 2011: with his Solco rosso, Marco Bagnoli has translated with flowers a recurring element in his practice, the red line that alludes to the infinite, the eternal, but also to the emotional dimension that the experience of art is able to disclose. Like all the works created at Montellori, Bagnoli’s Solco rosso was born out of a sharing with Eva Perini and Alessandro Nieri, who are used to having close relationships with the artists they involve in their projects, hang out with them and get to know them, enjoy their company, and end up establishing lasting relationships. Many of the artists who created the works in the garden meet again, years later, at the openings of the blooms. Even discomfort is thus perfectly intended, sought, welcomed: a strip of tulips along an avenue may seem like a hindrance, an element that introduces disorder, that makes the path tiring, and then if the strip is red it will almost seem like a wound. But it is from the wound that new dimensions open up.

This is a bit what happens with Stefano Arienti’s work on the other side of the garden: a large red hand comes out of the bushes that separate the garden from the farmyard and seems to want to invite the visitor to the garden to follow it, to be guided with it into the dimension of nature, to live with it, to breathe with it, to be part of it, to be part of the universal breath that governs it. Initially, the hand was born from the flowering of eight hundred red cyclamens, which gave it a soft, seductive, almost sensual shape. Then, it was decided to change flowers: tulips instead of cyclamens, and that fairy hand that seems to become a claw, the griffin hand of a woodland witch that, instead of gently calling the visitor seems to want to gherm him, to drag him. To forcibly remind us, since with good we often don’t get it, of the goodness we owe to the environment.

The latest addition, in 2012, is Salvo’s Amare me , a work of pink dahlias blooming in summer, with which the artist repurposed the inscription of one of his 1970s gravestones, atoms ofa personal mythography that Salvo had begun to construct in those years, “self-advertising signs,” as Giorgio Di Genova would have called them, with which the Sicilian artist had begun to invade the milieu of contemporary art. The marble becomes grass, the carving becomes a flower, the work takes on a new meaning. Who is it that says “Love me”? Perhaps it is the plants themselves that speak to those who visit the garden?

A D’Annunzian image comes to mind, from the Heavenly Poem: that of the talking laurels, the laurels that surround the garden that rises blooming “like a dream from the heart rises / rifled by pure melody / in an unusual spirtal light / that was not of heaven but on the world / effused by the immortal page.” Here in Montellori, nature speaks, moves, blows, breathes, comes alive in the encounter with art, in the fruitful dialogue with the result of the human mind that imagines, creates, produces, weaves forms, gives birth to, says Eva Perini, “works that are deliberately non-transportable, non-alienable and non-substantial, almost like drafts of color on invisible canvases, deep and light as delicate musical notes, which by statute and mode of representation perfectly express the researches and motifs of a contemporaneity that reflects on formal and structural conventions in order to unhinge and reinvent them.” Order and disorder meeting in a flower garden in the Tuscan countryside, there where the most daring experiments in environmental art were born, there where it all began with the Volterra 73 experience, there where Giuliano Gori pointed the way to an art in complete fusion with nature, there where artist’s parks and gardens have blossomed with a concentration and density that perhaps exists nowhere else in the world. Calm and agitation. The bourgeois calmness of a nineteenth-century garden, the rebellious originality of an art that can be seen only when nature determines that it must be seen. Refuge and trap. Retreat and attack.


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