Three Italian Parks

We change, we age, we stay or move away, and in time we end. The park, however, endures. John Banville

Zadie Smith visits Italy. She writes about the Boboli Gardens in City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, by Catie Marron.

Smith considers the Boboli too formal, few people, nothing like an English garden. I feel the same, although I never expressed it before. That is what good writing often does. It put words to the unarticulated feelings and thoughts we have.

Then she goes to Rome and writes about her visits to the Borghese Gardens. Unlike the Boboli, the Borghese is alive. There are children, couples, old and young, solitary strollers, and dogs and more dogs. There is a zoo, fountains small ponds, a museum, cafes and ice cream vendors.

Benches along each side of the paths, once in a while you see a reader, and in the spring and summer a great many readers. Everything is old, mossy statues, algae-filled ponds, ancient pines. Nothing formal about the Borghese Gardens, you are never quite sure where you’re headed. All you know is you don’t want to leave, don’t want to head down to the crowded, noisy, city below.

I first heard of the Borghese Gardens in reading Mark Helprin’s The Soldier of the Great War. Before he goes to war, the young man rides his horses under the pines in the Borghese. Each time I’ve been in Rome, sometimes alone, at other times with my wife and then once with our children, I’ve wandered through that very open and very public park. It never changes.

In Mary Gordon’s The Love of Our Youth two former lovers chance upon one another in Rome. They spend most of the time catching up as they stroll along the paths of the Borghese Gardens.

“In a public Italian garden a Briton has all the things she loves about Italy—the sun, the food, the sky, the art, the sound of the language—without any of the inconvenient rules that attend their proper enjoyment.” Zadie Smith

The Parco Delle Cascine is an enormous park on the western edge of Florence that stretches along the Arno for miles. Over the years I have gone there often, first as a runner, then as a walker, and now as a sunbather. I marvel at how few people I usually see in the Cascine. It is surely because the park is so vast and so heavily treed that the people are simply hidden in between the bushes and shrubs and down the long pathways that traverse the park from one end to the other.

A few miles into the park there is a public swimming pool, the Publico Piscina where I used to swim. It is far from luxurious; I was reluctant to shower there. But it is the sun and surrounded by lovely tall trees and open fields. On day I realize that the sun that shines on the sunbathers at the Publico Piscina is the very same one that shines on the beautiful people by the pool at the Splendido in Portofino.

As I prepare to return home, I am once again reminded that we are what our situations hand us. In Florence it is warm; at home it is cold. In Florence it is quiet; at home it is “noisy.” I am a different person in Florence. I am turned upside down mostly by the warmth that seems in some strange way to be remarkably therapeutic. Each time I go there I realize how much difference the temperature and light can make, how much they seem to matter to me, how noticeable they are. I feel more at home here than anywhere else.