|The history: The work of Lord Grimthorpe and the English period||| Print ||
At the end of the 19th century, the Villa was visited by an illustrious and well educated Englishman named Ernest William Beckett (1856-1917), 2nd Lord Grimthorpe. He was one of the intellectual aesthetes on the “grand tour”, constantly seeking out the roots of Western history and culture on their travels. He fell hopelessly in love with the place and in 1904 he bought part of it (the largest section, on the west side) from the Amici brothers of Atrani. This rich banker came from a cultured and refined family, which counted among its members several prominent and renowned architects: worthy of a particular mention among these is his uncle Edmund Beckett (1816-1905), 1st Lord Grimthorpe. In addition to designing important churches, mainly in the family’s home county of Yorkshire, he was responsible for the clock mechanism that rings the chimes of Big Ben, in the tower which has become a symbol of London.
Some of Beckett’s acquaintances had advised him to go to Ravello, partly to help him recover from the deep depression that afflicted him following the loss of his beloved wife Lucy Lee, who passed away at the age of just 28 while giving birth to his only son. This small town had earned itself an excellent reputation over the years: many foreigners who had long suffered from severe inner conflict had managed to regain the tranquillity for which they yearned. It was a place to rediscover one’s soul. This was also confirmed by Beckett. Cured and spurred on by the great happiness he found here, he decided to revive the Villa and make it a real treasure: “the most beautiful place in the world”.
In making his dream reality, he received the full support of a person from Ravello that he had met in England and that he entrusted with carrying out the work: Nicola Mansi. The local man was an eclectic, imaginative and highly inventive character. He was always able to comply with the wishes and proposals of the enlightened Lord, who was an experienced traveller and a keen collector of art works. The garden was partially redesigned, although its form was to a large extent determined by certain pre-existing elements, in particular the central path that provided the main axis crossing the property from North to South. Characterized by the aesthetic concepts of English architects and landscapers such as Harold Peto, Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, it was expertly organized, with various “episodes” and trails branching off from the central path that leads from the monumental entrance to the panoramic viewpoint.
Among the rich and varied native and exotic plants, in a delightful union between English landscaping and the tradition of Italian gardens, a large number of splendid decorative elements were added: fountains, nymphaea, small temples, pavilions and stone and bronze statues. They were the result of the strong influence of classical literature and the reinterpretation of the “Roman villa”. When choosing the trees and the plants for the flowerbeds, the Lord initially used the services of a French botanist, while recent studies have confirmed that there was input in the design of the garden from the English botanist Vita Sackville West. The latter was a friend and self-professed admirer of the famous gardening expert Gertrude Jekyll, who was the author of numerous books that can be found in the Villa’s private library.
The work done to the “palatial house”, which was derelict and in a poor state, included replacing the central Byzantine tower with the current one with battlements, raising the height of the “guard” tower next to the entrance, rebuilding the largely collapsed Moorish cloister, and constructing the Gothic open gallery – known as the Crypt – and the floor above. Several decades earlier at Villa Rufolo, the Scottish gentleman Francis Nevile Reid had with great passion and dedication managed to pull the “little Alhambra” that had been the prestigious residence of the Rufolo family away from the brink of oblivion.
Lord Grimthorpe, and later his favourite daughter Lucille, also wanted to leave a permanent trace of their love for this small town. They were generous benefactors to the local people too: they had strong ties to the town and its inhabitants, who devoted their time to agriculture and raising livestock; the only ways to make a living. They financed road, aqueduct and school building projects, promoted vaccinations and medical assistance and helped the most needy families for decades. They did such good work that they were made honorary citizens. They also left the first, extremely important mark in the consciences of the people of Ravello: real wealth can be found in the conservation and respect for history and the strong, longstanding pride for being privileged in having a prestigious past.
We would recommend that tourists who want to find out about the journey and development of Ravello’s rich, historical, artistic and cultural history consult the most reliable and easily accessible sources (also in anastatic copies). These include: