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Gianmario Motta, Società Italiana della Camelia, Vice-President; International Camellia Society, Vice-President for Europe (

Nicola Tartaglione, advisor of Villa Porfidia, formerly a garden of Dukes of Bovino (

England and Naples were key elements of the acclimatization of camellias in Europe. For, at the end of Eighteenth Century, the Reggia of Caserta, a Versailles-like residence of the King of Naples, hosted camellias planted outdoor, one of the first times in Europe. The seed was english and also English people played an important role at the court of Naples, with Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson. Close to the Reggia, in the ancient garden of Dukes of Bovino, we have found a rare variety, called “Atroviolacea” by the local enthusiasts. We think this camellia and the garden of the Dukes have an historical value. For, the Dukes were in close relations with the King of Naples and with Lady Hamilton. On the other side, “Atroviolacea” is a peculiar flower with a rose-violet color. We also suppose this camellia might stem from an old english cultivar, first mentioned in 1833.

The garden of the Dukes of Bovino

The history of the garden of Dukes of Bovino, an old aristocratic family, is closely related to the Reggia of Caserta. The Reggia belongs to the series of royal residences that were built during the Eighteenth Century throughout Europe; in them the formal garden was integrated by an informal “English” garden, in which new plants were raised. Specifically, Caserta was designed by Luigi Vanvitelli in 1752, on input of Carlo III of Borbone, an extremely brilliant king, who conquered the kingdom of Naples and eventually became King of Spain. The garden lay-out of the Reggia is based on a downhill suite of waterfalls, and, on a corner, on the informal English Garden.


Figure 1 Map of the garden of Dukes of Bovino, in Recale

The palace of the Dukes, built in the late Eighteenth Century around a medieval tower, is perfectly preserved and it shows the typical ingredients of the aristocratic residence: a scenic staircase with sculptures and a suite of painted rooms. The garden, is largely influenced by the Reggia, that is only one kilometre far. Rare enough, it still keeps its original lay-out, said to be designed by Vanvitelli. Near to the boarder, a cylindrical tower was the terminal of the water duct, that conveyed water from the Reggia, as by a royal privilege of 1781. The central part is a formal Italian garden, with clipped Taxus Bacchata, walls covered with roses, lemons. A long path, called Path of Umbrellas, goes through the formal garden and it is bordered by Buxus clipped with the shape of umbrella and garden benches. Then you enter an ancient wood of Quercus Ilex, that made the core of the garden in Seventeenth Century. The transition from classic to romantic, from formal to informal is reflected by the planting, in the middle of the squares of the italian garden, of new (at those days) tropical species as the gigantic (nowadays) Camphora and Lyriodendron Tulipifera, with the prescription of “letting them grow freely without pruning”. Also, in the wood you find a small pond and benches for rest and meditation. Between the wood and the italian garden, some camellia varieties are planted: “Anemoniflora rosea”, “Atroviolacea”, “Comte de Gomer”, “Francesco Ferruccio”, “General Pescetto”, “Sacio”.

 Figure 2 Emma Hamilton (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight: 1790-91 "Emma Hamilton as Bacchante")The history of the garden and of the dukes is closely related to the history of Reggia and kings. In 1752, during the works on the Reggia, the architect Luigi Vanvitelli writes he was many times dining guest of the Father General of Jesuites (the Palace of Dukes was then inhabited by Jesuites). In 1770-80,  the Duchess of Bovino, Anna Maria Suardo, is dame de compagnie of the queen Maria Carolina, and in 1781 obtains from the king Ferdinando IV (son of Charles III) the usage of the waters of the Reggia for her garden. In 1786, Emma Hart, from 1791 Lady Hamilton, came to Naples, joining Lord Hamilton (1730–1803), England Ambassador to Naples since 1764. Spouse of Lord Hamilton, lover of Lord Nelson, the English Admiral who defeated Napoleon on the sea at Abukir and Trafalgar, Emma had an enormous influence on the fashion, where she  promoted the passage to a natural dressing and look, as it is painted in the famous Romney’s portrait. Emma also promoted a return to classic reminiscences and romantic sentiments. As Goethe reports in his “Italienische Reise”, Emma was giving a peculiar show, called attitudes, where she played mythological characters for a little public of the royal court.[1] Last not least, Emma was an enthusiast of flowers. A local tradition, transmitted by the Dukes to the Porfidia family (current owners of the garden), tells Emma set a plantation of Mimosa Pudica in their garden.

In more general terms, the context was extremely passionate in gardens and botanical novelties. In 1786, John Graefer, introduced by sir Joseph Bank, was appointed as gardener of the queen Maria Carolina, who was in close relations with the Duchess of Bovino. Sir Hamilton was the supervisor of the garden. Always in 1786, a camellia was planted in the English Garden of Caserta and it is still alive, though it lost the main trunk (current research may prove or disprove this gentle tradition). Hence, the convergence of the Garden of Dukes, the English Garden of Caserta and its camellia has some evidence. Here below you find a more complete story, which has been put together by Herbert Short. [2] A further interesting element is the presence of very old and healthy camellias in aristocratic gardens of Naples. We can reasonably suppose that the use of planting camellias outdoor, originated in Caserta, became popular among aristocracy. For instance, the garden of Princess Uzza De Gregorio, designed by Vanvitelli, the same architect of the Reggia [3], counts tenths of monumental camellia trees.

Which “Atroviolacea” is the true one?

The “Atroviolacea” in the garden of Dukes is a mature and healthy tree, that flowers freely, even if shadedatroviolacea1.png by a Magnolia. The flower has a rather peculiar colour, rose to violet, it is of medium size, anemone form. When maturing, the flower becomes red-violet. There is a high percentage of semidouble striped sports. More detail is given by the pictures, that illustrate the flower just open and maturing, and the tables here below, which describe the cultivar according to the framework used by Corneo and Remotti and compare key elements of different descriptions .

With the bias of a local enthusiast, we atroviolacea2.pngconsider “Atroviolacea” a remarkable variety, thanks to the peculiarity of its color. However, matching the plant of Caserta with the descriptions given in literature is a rather controversial issue. Since violet is an unusual color, it is possible that different cultivars received, independently, the name “Atroviolacea”, that in Latin means “dark violet”. For, the descriptions as “Atroviolacea” in Camellia Register are heterogeneous[4]. The first description by Courts in 1833 shows a loose parentage with the plant of Caserta. In 1837, Berlese describes a different flower with the same name and, furthermore, he excludes it can be considered as violet. The Register records also a citation in 1857 by the English Garden of Caserta, on which we have not found any evidence. We suppose a violet colour was regarded as a curiosity and not as a regular item in camellia catalogues. For instance, Atroviolacea  is not mentioned in the 1847 edition of the French almanac Le Bon Jardinier, that lists hundreds of cultivars. Conversely, we have found a description of “Atroviolacea” in an Italian handbook on camellias, published in 1926.

On the other side, the plant of Caserta looks old, but not enough to date back to the Nineteenth Century. Its closest description could be the one by Courtois but, helas, no illustration can support our hypothesis. Therefore, we might eventually guess the tree of Caserta stems from a plant probably imported from UK to the Naples area.


[1] Goethe describes Emma Hart (1766-1815) in his Journey in Italy in the letter dated  march 16, 1787 : “Sir Hamilton (…) after so a great love for arts, so a an intensive love for fine arts, has eventually found a real masterpice of nature and art, a beautiful young Ernglish lady about twenty, who lives with him. He let make her a costume at the greek fashion, that is perfect to her. Shee let her hair loose, takes two shawls and presents a series of positions, attitudes, and gestures, that on seeing her you would believe to dream. Actually you see, one after one, those plastic postures, that so many artists have been studying to reproduce their statues and paintings. Now she stands up, now kneals, now sits, now lies downs, now she takes a serious appearance, now melancholic, now ironic, now delirious, now of a penitnet, now coquettish, now threatening, now sorrowful; and all this without interrruption and rapidly. […] The old gentleman holds the candle, and he abandones himself with all his soul to the contemplation of this spectacle”. George Romney  painted Emma as a greek statue. Frederick Rebberg, a painter at service of the King of Prussia, made twelfe drawings of “Attitudes”, that, engraved by Tommaso Piroli in 1794, were  printed in Rome.


[2]  In 1981,  John Tooby did a congress paper on "The Early Introductions of Camellias to England from China". It tells of James Gordon, who was gardener to Lord Petre at Thorndon Hall in Essex, England, where the first known camellia in England was grown in the 1730s. Gordon started his own nursery at Mile End in 1742. John Tooby then writes:"When Gordon retired in 1775, his sons brought in John Graefer as a partner. Graefer must have left the business by 1781 when it became Gordon Dermer and Thompson. A catalogue of theirs running to 154 pages, which can be dated 1791-1795, includes 'Camellia Japonica Evergreen Japanese Rose' under both greenhouse and hothouse plants. So if James Gordon grew anydouble camellias they had been lost. Graefer, like James Gordon, had a great reputation in his time and in 1786 we find him appointed gardener for the Queen of Naples' new English garden at Caserta on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks. The English garden was under the general supervision of Sir William Hamilton and both he and to a less extent Graefer corresponded with Banks. When in England,Hamilton spent some time with his nephew the Hon. Charles Greville, another keen naturalist and gardener. Before moving to a larger house and Garden at Paddington, Greville lived in a small house in Edgware Row with a housekeeper, Mrs. Hant and her young daughter Emma. Greville treated Emma almost as an earlier "My Fair Lady' seeing that she had lessons in singing and in music and art appreciation. She became a favourite subject of the artist Romney who painted her many times. Hamilton was enchanted and when returning from leave in 1786 he took both mother and daughter back to Naples where Emma soon became the second Lady Hamilton." In1985, Tom Savige published an article "The ancient camellias of Europe".  He writes: "The 'Botanical Magazine' of March 1788 includes an illustration of a single, deep pink Camellia flower, so it would seem that Camellias were obtainable in England at least from about 1771 onwards. When Gordon retired in 1775, his sons brought in John Graefer as a partner, so he would have been familiar with Camellias when he left in 1786 to take up the appointment as Gardener for the Queen of Naples newly started English Garden at Caserta. This was under the supervision of Sir William Hamilton, who, in the same year, took the beautiful painter's model Emma Hant to Naples, where she soon became the second Lady Hamilton, eventually met Horatio Nelson, and entered history as his 'poor Emme'. It seems an obvious thing that, with these English horticulturalists in charge of the English Garden they would ensure that the garden contained one of the very latest plants -- the Camellia. Research by Dr. Stelvio Coggiatti, horticultural author of Rome, indicates that the Caserta Camellia was planted in 1784 and came from England. As there was no other source in Europe for Camellias at the time, and due to the similarity of the three lots of Camellias, it seems logical to conclude that they were all supplied from England and probably from the Mile End Nursery  [the three lots of camellias were the camellias at Caserta, Pillnitz in Germany and Campo Bello in Portugal.]."

[3] A further source on the Camellia of Caserta is the 1991 catalogue of the Italian Society of Camellia (see references); an inventory of old varieties of camellias in the old Naples gardens is in the 2002 catalogue of the Naples Camellia Show (see references).

[4] We here report the text from Register :

  • Atroviolacea (C. japonica) Courtois, 1833, Magazin d’Horticulture, 1[pt.D]:315, No description. Colla, 1843, Camelliographia, p.88 Originated in England from seed of ‘Rubra Simplex’. A semi-double cultivar, 9-10 cm across, of an intense rose colour, marked with rare, white streaks. The corolla petals, the outer disposed alternatively in 3.4 rows, regular, round-oval; those of interior, few, small, irregular, folded diversely. Berlese, 1837, Monographie, Vol I: Flower large, regular, well formed, clear red  and afterwards deep; petals of exterior rounded, acuminate; those of the centre narrower, elongated, distorted and acute. Synonims: ‘Atroviolacea Rubra’, ‘Atroviolacea Plena’. ‘Atroviolacea Serni’, ‘Atropurpurea Nova’.
    • Atroviolacea Rubra. Giardino inglese di Caserta, 1857. Synonim for ‘Atroviolacea’
    • Atroviolacea Plena, Burdin Catalogne, 1853, p.38 as ‘Atro-Violacea Plena’ Synonim for ‘Atroviolacea’
    • Atroviolacea Serni, Harrison Ed., Floricultural Cabinet, 1838, vol 16, p. 149. Synonim for ‘Atroviolacea’
    • Atropurpurea Nova, Trillon, Le Mans Nursery Catalogne, 1845, p.3. Synonim for ‘Atroviolacea’
  • Atroviolacea Superba (C. japonica). Trillon, Le Mans Nursery Catalogne, 1845, p.3.Deep purplish red, superb form. Originated in France.



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