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 opened to the public through the generosity of its owners.
James H. and Sallie May 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. Completed in 1910, the Italian Garden’s exquisite stonework is Petersburg granite. 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.
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. 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. Since the Dooleys did not summer at Maymont, spring flowers were emphasized in their garden. However, now that we enjoy the estate all year long, the garden is planted with a variety of flowers to bloom spring through fall.
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.
Maymont’s Italian Garden artfully combines the classical elements of geometric design, varied colors, multiple levels and historic vistas to create a distinctly formal garden experience within the natural setting of the James River fall line terrain.