Set foot in La
Mortella, the gardens of the late English
composer, William Walton, located on the island of
Ischia in the Bay of Naples, and you will know
what Francis Bacon meant when he said: "God
Almighty first planted a garden. And, indeed, it
is the purest of human pleasures."
The composer and his wife, Susana, settled on Ischia in the early 1950s. There, one of the great musical spirits of our age set about to continue his life's work. His wife set about her own life's work, as she says, of building "a garden for an artist." It was to be a place of serenity to offset the turmoil within the composer, a place that would invite him to look not just out at the garden, but within himself. That is a tall order, indeed, when you start with a rocky, waterless gully covered with a bit of evergreen holm oak and some dying chestnut trees.
The transformation from scrubby rock quarry to enchanting blend of rock garden and tropical rain forest was planned by the distinguished landscape architect, Russell Page (1906-85), and begun in 1956. His designs evolved through 1983, but the work is still going on under the "green fingers" of Lady Walton, for whom "…gardens reflect our dreams and aspirations… they are our fantasies." In that spirit, over the years, La Mortella, has been magically transformed —but, delightfully, not tamed. You will not find the obedient and trimmed vegetation of, say, a Japanese garden. La Mortella looks more like a forest ruled over by a totally benevolent but mischievous goddess who simply can't be bothered to pick up after herself!
Of course, the art of true helter-skelter is to plan it carefully. Thus, the paths curve at all the right places, and the terraces offer evershifting perspectives; when viewed from where Walton, himself, must have paused from his work to look out, fountains are arched by trees, and this puzzle of vegetation suddenly solves itself and fits together.
At La Mortella you find everything from the extravagant pot-bellied Chorisia speciosa tree from Argentina (where they, appropriately, call it "the drunkard") to purple-pink geraniums from Madeira; ferns from the Canary islands and dwarf rosemary from the gardens of the University of Jerusalem; honey-suckles from South Africa, the soft green-yellow petals of California tulip trees, water lilies, jasmine, orchids, bright green Thalia and, as you ascend, even the lotus, set off meditatively alone in its own pond at the highest point of La Mortella. Water has been brought in, not just to nourish the gardens, but to provide for the Alhambra-like presence of fountains and pools, the sounds of which remind us that even here in the presence of the composed music of man, nature has its own music.
All that, however, is just half the story. La Mortella exists as part of the William Walton Foundation, dedicated in 1989 as a center of the performing arts, a place for young composers and artists to study and perform, with "special reference" to the music of William Walton. (The composer passed away in 1983.) Here you will find not only the Waltons' home, but rehearsal rooms, as well. Each year, auditions are held to select participants in a master class, a month-long session of rehearsals culminating in performances open to the public.At La Mortella there is also a museum, where you can browse among memorabilia from Walton's life as a composer, as well as watch a film on his life and work. And there is a tea-shop, where you can sit and simply look out over the gardens —and if that is all you do, it's still reason enough to go.
*update note-2010: Lady Walton passed away
on March 21, 2010.