After experimenting with a themed garden on the family estate in Essex, English heiress and seasoned “gardener” Ellen Willmott fell in love with the Mediterranean light and joined the English community on the Riviera, creating a lush garden overlooking the sea.

Giovanni Ruffini’s 1855 novel, written in English, tells of an impossible love between a young English noblewoman called Lucy and the “Doctor Antonio” of the title. The book revealed the charms of the Ligurian Riviera to the British, prompting a “colonization” of this landscapes, suspended between sea and sky. Before long, many an English residence would spring up. The most famous of all was Villa Hanbury, which Miss Willmott frequented assiduously before purchasing the Boccanegra estate, with its antique olive and citrus groves, from parliamentarian Giuseppe Biancheri in 1906. Before planting her garden, she had two large cisterns built, and paths and dry stone wall terracing laid. A woman with an almost sacred respect for plants, Ellen preserved the olive grove and only planted bulbs there, combined with lavender, lentisk and rosemary from local crops with succulents – aloes, agaves and opuntias – as well as special plants such as agathis robusta from New Zealand, and Encephalartos longifolius from South Africa. Boccanegra soon rivalled Villa Hanbury for its botanical richness and harmonious combinations. In 1923, the property passed on to Englishman John Tremayne, who added a pond and built the main body of the building. In 1956, it was bought by Mario Sertorio of Turin, who gave it to his wife Emilia Rolla Rosazza. For the next decade, they carried out major works on building and garden, and then in 1969 it was inherited by the Piacenzas, a family of entrepreneurs from Biella with a long-standing interest in the field of botany. In 1986, Guido Piacenza’s wife Ursula started looking after the garden, enriching it with bulbous plants and species of tree from arid climes.


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A rich English heiress, willing to lose an entire patrimony in order to find rare plants, owner of Villa Boccanegra in Latte and two gardens in Essex and Savoy, one of the first women members of the Linnean Society, she was one of the greatest English gardening experts between the 19th and 20th centuries…