Il Palagio…Sting’s Villa
The 16th-century villa was built as a hunting lodge for the dukes of San Clemente.
Great gardens are made, not born, and usually with protracted effort—vast quantities of earth are moved here and there and back again, mature trees are arranged with the help of forklifts, hills are bulldozed into terraces, and, occasionally, rocky outcrops are blasted into submission with strategically placed explosives. By some point in the creative process, the land seems so distressed that the dream it represents to the landscape architect can look like a nightmare to the homeowners. This explains why actress and movie producer Trudie Styler and her husband, Grammy-award-winning musician Sting, took to wryly calling their garden guru, Arabella Lennox-Boyd, “Bomber Boyd” when their estate in Tuscany resembled a vast archaeological dig rather than the paradise illustrated on her beautiful pastel site plan. “There was an awful lot of excavation going on,” Styler says, recalling the seven-year, seven-acre project that was completed in 2008 and has now begun to mellow. “Sting and I thought, when is this going to end?”
A rambling assemblage of saffron stucco walls and red-tile roofs some 16 miles from Florence, Villa Palagio (palagio means palace in Florentine dialect) had been home to the dukes of San Clemente before it was purchased in 1997 by the singer and his wife. It was constructed in the 16th century as a hunting lodge, and as far as Lennox-Boyd was concerned, it needed an infusion of visual romance as well as structural revision. “The property had lost a great deal of its rural character through renovations and additions,” says the Italian-born, London-based designer, who has conjured two gardens in England for Sting and his family—the larger is at Lake House, an Elizabethan manor in Wiltshire. “Ensuring proper drainage was important, too, because a lot of boxwood was dying.”
Styler and Sting were in full accord with their landscape architect. Sitting exposed at the top of a hill, the house was “rather stark and barren,” the actress says, adding, “Arabella’s prime concern was that the house didn’t have a proper setting.” By that, the couple soon learned, Lennox-Boyd meant assorted gardens both intimate and grand, and masses of climbing plants to cloak the sprawling estate, from creepers clambering up the villa’s walls to magenta ‘Russelliana’ roses tumbling over parapets to wisteria blanketing a pergola that overlooks the Chianti hills.
“Arabella is very feisty and believes more is more in a garden, with lots of color and texture,” Styler says. “And I really applaud her for that.” Once the couple approved the overall approach—using heat-hardy plants, keeping thirsty turf to a minimum, and recycling water wherever possible—the details were largely left up to Lennox-Boyd. “The important thing was to keep it easy to care for,” she says. “Roses and lavender want the sun, and their needs are not fussy. Wisterias don’t mind where they are; the tougher the environment, the better they like it.”
On one side of Il Palagio, a parterre was reconfigured into a larger, more intricate maze of plantings. On the other side, Lennox-Boyd installed a grove of olive trees underplanted with lavender. Narrow terraces were broadened to more gracious dimensions, and one is now adorned with a giant chessboard. The toddler-size bishops and pawns are pushed around before dinner, Styler says, usually after several bottles of Chianti. “That was Sting’s idea,” Lennox-Boyd says of the chessboard, adding that the musician has good spatial instincts, too. “I thought the drive should come straight up to the house, to make it easier for people to reach the front door, but Sting wanted it curvy, to prolong the approach,” she says. “Luckily we both agreed the cars should be parked out of sight.” Lennox-Boyd’s decision to revive Il Palagio’s pastoral nature meshed nicely with her environmentalist clients’ desire to ensure the 900-acre estate and its biodynamic vineyards earn their keep. Homemade lavender and olive oils, honey, and wines are sold under the Il Palagio label. (When the family is not around, the villa hosts yoga retreats for paying guests.) “My father was a farmer, but after World War II he took a job in a lampshade factory to support me and my sisters,” Styler explains. “It’s a privilege to go back to my roots at Il Palagio and Lake House, as his daughter, and know they are proper working farms.”
Source: Architectural Digest, 2011.