I love this garden and the more I read about the lady who breathed life and fun into its rocky ridges the more passionately I fall for it. It took half a century of care to raise and now, five years after its creator’s death, it remains a growing testament to her spirit.
It was the English landscape architect Russell Page (1906 – 1985) who laid down La Mortella’s (Neapolitan for ‘myrtle’) first skeleton and then it was Susana Walton who determinedly breathed life into its rocky, waterless frame.
Slowly Susana Walton’s passion turned the steep hillsides into a garden, and now, more than fifty years later, it’s hard to imagine the harsh challenge that first faced her. Piped water from the mainland only reached Ischia in the late 1950s several years after the garden had begun.
Today a series of looping paths wind around each other up towards the views over Ischia. First comes the rich, green shade of the trees; the cool of water; small, sudden flashes of colour; and then the paths head past the tea room and further into the light.
Beyond the camouflaged splash and clink of teacups, halfway up the garden, the light and the sea filter increasingly between the leaves, and the shade starts to lift.
In the upper garden the ponds get larger and the surprises more evident.
There is a Temple to the Sun that Pompeii would have been proud of; a pool with a crocodile; and, near the top, an open air theatre with views out to sea and, set a little above and behind, a secluded Thai pagoda.
La Mortella mixes calm with exuberance; density with airiness; quiet with the sound of birds and water; and detail with the ease of trees and rock. It’s like a massage for the mind – the urgency of life set against the indifference of time.
For botanists it’s a chance to hunt down hundreds of plants from around the world, and for others a place to explore – a real garden, full of surprises.
On our way down we visited the aloe garden – a strong reminder that La Mortella, for all its pleasures, is also renowned for its collection of plants.
In my research for this piece on the garden of La Mortella I discovered two obituaries in different English newspapers about its soul, its creator, Susana Walton. The stories in both flooded me with distress.
Born and raised in Argentina, educated by Spanish nuns, Susana Walton’s life changed dramatically when she was just 22.
In brief it seems the acclaimed composer, William Turner Walton, her husband and 24 years her senior, had picked her on impulse when on tour in Argentina.
Susana’s horrified father could do nothing to stop the marriage. He just had to watch as his daughter was whisked off by this Englishman with a well-known enthusiasm for women, and, even worse, with no time at all for children.
The challenges for the young Susana Walton must have been huge. First she had to fit into London society with a known English celebrity and womaniser, and then, even worse, she had to deal with the consequences of a pregnancy her new husband, the father, had forbidden. The abortion he demanded was not easy.
Later, in the early 1950s the couple withdrew to Italy, to the edge of the Bay of Naples and found a site, with an old quarry attached, where music could be composed and Susana Walton could channel her energies into growing the vision for the garden.
That vision is now rooted into the soil of Ischia. It splashes, and dances, and whispers across the hillside. It’s been nurtured by Susana’s care and now it lives under the new wings she has fixed to her late husband’s music to ensure that the strength of his legacy feeds into the potential of her garden, her gift to life.
Our final stop of the day was at the spot chosen by Susana Walton as her memorial. By all accounts she was a woman who knew the significance of a memorable encounter and used her personality and taste in hats to great effect. Yet, despite this reputation the part of the garden she has claimed for herself is surprisingly plain.
Her memorial is simple, and the words she has chosen to be remembered by mix gentleness with a passionate belief in life and in what is to come.
Today the garden has been passed into the dedicated care of Alessandra Vinciguerra who worked with Susana Walton during the years before her death.
Below are links to two obituaries in English newspapers about Lady Susana Walton, and for balance I have also attached a link to an obituary on Sir William Walton by The New York Times.
Here are four other links – one on landscape architect Russell Page; an interview with Lady Susana Walton; and the final link to La Mortella’s own website.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018