One of the most famous villas in Florence, which I hope to take a garden group to visit one day soon is the L’Ombrellino. A beautiful place with a fascinating history now turned into a hotel.
The original building was called Bellosguardo, and was built in 1372 – so it has seen many changes and developments in it’s long life time – and it has housed many famous Florentine residents – including astronomer and philosopher Galileo Galilei, from 1617 and 1631 whilst he wrote the “Dialogue concerning the systems”, the poet and political writer Ugo Foscolo and the fighter for Italian Unification Guiseppe Garibaldi
In 1815 the Countess Spinelli Albizi took control of the property and added a large metal umbrella to the decorations in the garden – the villa was then renamed from the original Bellosguardo to L’Ombrellino – as ino is usually the Italian surfix for something little this name which suggests that the umbrella is a lot smaller than it actually is!
The painting below – with Galileo (1564– 1642 ) and his telescope – also suggests that the artist thought the umbrella had been around for a lot longer !
Alice Keppel is now best known as the maternal Great Grandmother of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall , but in her time she had her own right Royal scandal as from 1898-1910 she was the last ”favourite” of British King Edward VII .
His wife , Princess Alexandra when the couple first became a serious item , tolerated Mrs Keppel’s recognition as semi-official “Royal Consort” at Court only because Alice was one of the few people who was able to comfortably keep the King in a tolerable humour – like Bianca Cappello with Duke Francesco de Medici she alone in the Royal Circle was able to turn Edward VII into a genial host and tolerant sovereign.
Princess Alexandra, shown below with her husband and mother in law, was not singlehandedly able to deal with her husband’s cantankerous mood swings that got quite dangerous when he became bored , plus she also found Alice Keppel more genial and infinitely preferable to her predecessor – his previous favourite Daisy, Countess of Warwick so she maintained a friendly tolerant attitude towards her husband’s mistress.
Not surprisingly therefore that he had a difficult relationship with the archetypal Victorian mother – Queen Victoria herself!
Whilst she was King Edward’ mistress Alice Keppel was the confident of politicians who wished to influence the King - but on his death in 1910 – notwithstanding her hysterical tears of genuine grief – she was forcibly evicted from the English Court on the instruction of the long-suffering Queen Alexandra and told never to return, She was not even allowed to sign the Book of Rememberance.
Society beauty Mrs Keppel , with her ever tolerant husband, The Honourable George Keppel, son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle – and later with her daughter Violet Trefusis, (seen below as a child with her mother) , moved to Florence and started to refurbish their new home – starting with a demolition to broaden their view of the surrounding hills – taking down the attached Villa Torricella and replacing it with a lodge for their music parties .
Like so many of the Florentine Villas that were redeveloped by the Anglo Americans in Exile in 1926 the garden was transformed into an “ Italian garden ”with flower beds edged with box hedges, by the English architect Cecil Pinsent - it had a distinctly British feature however – a flower bed laid out to the design of the Union Jack! .
Like another Anglo American Villa La Pietra, which was owned by the Actons, the whole park and garden of L’Ombrellino was stuffed with statues – mainly neo-sixteenth and eighteenth-century neo-stone of Vicenza , with the figures looking out wistfully over the City of Florence.
When Alice Keppel died in 1947 , the house was inherited by her eldest daughter, Violet Trefusis (1894-1970), another lady much touched by scandal and social disapproval , who remained there until she died.
Violet, whose passionate friendship with novelist Vita Sackville-West was the cause of much of the scandal that surrounded her , tried to maintain the villa and garden as it was when her mother had a fleet of gardeners working on the project! Although the pair were ultimately separated Violet continued to write passionate loving letters to Vita, posted through a mutual friend, throughout her life.
Its lovely gardens, still planted in the way originally developed by Vita, are world renowed and remain the most visited in England.
Our next garden tour – led by garden historian Dr Katie Campbell – starts on 10th October with a visit to La Foce in Val d’Orcia and continues until 15th October – guests can join us on a daily basis for €110 per day or the discounted rate of €500 for the full week.