It is easy to forget, as one strolls through the Italian Garden, that Maymont is a public space. The garden is magnificent—featuring exquisite stonework, statuary, gazebos, fountains and, of course, beautiful flowers, shrubs and trees. The Victorian garden is far better suited to an exclusive mansion than to a public space. And yet, during its unique existence, Maymont has been both—a private estate joyously thrust open to the public through the generosity of its owners. Watch a video of the Italian Garden’s 100th anniversary.
Major and Mrs. James H. Dooley originally commissioned Maymont’s gardens at the turn of the 20th century. The sweeping lawns that surround their mansion and the other estate buildings were landscaped in the English pastoral style. In contrast to this planned, naturalistic landscape was the formality of the Italian Garden.
Noland and Baskervill of Richmond designed the Dooleys’ Italian Garden, using elements of the classical style developed in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries as their model. In fact, their designs for the Cascade as well as the Fountain Court above the east entrance to the garden appear to have been patterned after similar features at the Villa Torlonia near Rome. Completed in 1910, the Italian Garden’s exquisite stonework is Petersburg granite, and remains unmatched by any other public garden.
The Maymont garden incorporates a number of features characteristic of the Italian style: fountains, geometrically-shaped beds, sculpture, the contrast of sun and shade within the long pergola that stretches along the northern edge of the garden. In keeping with the classical ideal, the Maymont garden was laid out in several levels and situated on a south-facing slope overlooking a body of water. An expansive vista of the James River was visible from the Italian Garden in 1910.
The formal entrance to the Italian Garden is at its western end, oriented toward Maymont Mansion. A stone arch with the Latin inscription “Via Florum” (flowering way) marks the transition from informal parkland into the enclosed world of the Italian Garden. The Via Florum Garden, flourishing along the walks that connect Maymont Mansion to the Italian Garden, was restored in 2003 through generous funding from the Harrison Family Foundation.
One enters the garden under the shelter of the pergola, a structure consisting of parallel rusticated granite colonnades supporting a trellis-work roof. Early photographs indicate that climbing roses were originally trained along the pergola. At the east end of the pergola is a dome under which the slightest sound produces a curious echo. The Italian Garden pergola is especially sought after for outdoor weddings during the warmer months of the year.
Geometrically patterned beds, or parterres, are a distinct element of the Italian style. Traditionally, Italian gardens had few flowers. The plants were primarily evergreens for texture and shape, often in manicured topiary. The shaped beds of Maymont’s main level, however, reflect the Victorian taste for flowers, now the modern preference as well.
Three additional levels of the garden can be seen from the main level: the Secret Garden, the Promenade and the Cascade. In Italian gardens of the Renaissance, the secret garden was designed as a small, enclosed courtyard to which ladies could retire to talk and do needlework.
To the east is an important vista designed to be viewed from the garden. The focal point of the view is a gazebo of classical design imported from Italy by the Dooleys. This charming complement to the Italian Garden is at its loveliest in late spring when the peonies encircling the gazebo are in full bloom.
In 1997, Maymont took action to restore the relationship of the Italian Garden to the larger landscape. Archival photographs documented that the views from the Italian Garden were a key design element. To restore these vistas, the Maymont Horticultural Committee approved the removal of Hick’s Yew, Taxus baccata ‘Hicksii’, in the main garden and shrubs along its east end-all planted under the direction of the City of Richmond in the 1950s and 1960s. Roses, similar to those favored by Mrs. Dooley, replaced the yews. Yews are present today at the east end of the garden, and the perimeter features planters with clipped evergreens. The spaciousness of the garden, its correlation to the Italian marble gazebo and waterfall, and its relationship to the surrounding landscape was enhanced.
Since the Dooleys summered at Swannanoa, their estate in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, spring flowers were emphasized in their gardens at Maymont. However, as Maymont now enjoys year-round visitors, its garden beds are planted with a variety of shrubs and flowers that bloom from spring through fall.
When visiting Maymont’s Italian Garden, consider its geometrical design, its multiple levels, its historical vistas, its color combinations and its relationship to the larger landscape.