When I win the lottery . . . I’ll take Close to Paradise, by Robert Fisher, with me to go house-hunting around the Bay of Naples. A picture book with plenty of text also, its main title is correct, but the subtitle isn’t quite accurate—it really is just as much if not more about the residences and their residents/caretakers, past and present, as about the gardens themselves.
Fisher starts us off just north of Naples on this tour of houses and gardens, which are in the “Italian language with an English accent.” The English are responsible for many of these spots from about the mid-nineteenth century on, having discovered them on grand tours. Many of the little Edens go back 2,000 years to Roman times, or, as Fisher over-repeats himself, to Homer’s Odysseus and the songs of the Sirens. But certainly every shade of royalty from the Angevins to the Bourbons put their stamp on these marvels of nature transformed by human hands.
We shall eventually turn the corner around Sorrento—where, it is again over-repeated—the Italian poet Torquato Tasso lived, but not until we do the 600-lbs. gorilla in the room is Mount Vesuvius. If you don’t have a view of the still-active volcano, you ain’t in this book.
Four parts will eventually lead us to the “Belvedere of Infinity” on the grounds of the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello—“Naples and Environs,” “Capri and Ischia,” “Sorrento and the Sorrentine Peninsula,” and “The Amalfi Coast.” Along the way each villa outdoes the last. Don’t settle on Capri before you’ve seen Sorrento and the little area around the peninsula to the south.
But, of course, the stars of the book are the photos, where I’m struck by the presence of the human hand—ancient, medieval, and modern—in the most enchanting pictures. Plants, trees, and flowers are great and all, but we should remember that gardens are really the work of humans. The English, especially, had a penchant for lawns, which some of us know take a lot of work and plenty of water. Yet, nature does provide the canvas . . . and some pretty good views.
The texts for each location name the flora—of which bougainvillea seems to be mentioned most often—but the people who found, bought, tended, cherished, improved, and inhabited the places are the focus of Fisher’s serviceable prose. Among the more famous of those folks are the Emperor Tiberius (seems he had 12 villas on Capri!), Richard Wagner, the Swedish physician and author Alex Munthe, elevendy billionaire William Waldorf Astor, Greta Garbo, Graham Greene, and Rudolph Nureyev.
And don’t forget the almost-human—seems Munthe’s miniature baboon (didn’t realize there was such a thing), named Billy, used to raid the liquor cabinet when the humans were out and cause havoc on Capri. You can’t make that up.
My main issue here is with the complete absence of maps. After every short chapter, I went looking again for the maps to see where exactly to find the place. But the pictures will have to suffice for now.
F. Scott has been to Naples, Capri, and Sorrento. He one day hopes to return and turn the corner.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Frances Lincoln. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.