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The Violet In Italy
by Giulietto Fanin, AVS Associate (Italy)

     The following article was the opening speech on the occasion of a Symposium on Heritage Roses and Violets held on March 21, 1998 at the sumptuous Villa Manin of Passariano, a historical mansion located near Udine, in the north eastern Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia (Italy).

            The Villa Manin of Passariano, a historical mansion located near Udine, in the north eastern Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, used to be both the Doge's summer residence and, due to its amazing architecture, his official seat. The villa was commissioned by the Doge Antonio Manin in the first half of the 16th century, but was late enlarged after the manner of Palladio and frescoed by Tiepolo. Here would reside the last of the Doges, Lodovico Manin, and here would stay Napoleon Bonaparte for a few days during the talks surrounding the signing of the Treaty of Campoformido which in 1797 put an end to the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia --the Most Serene Venetian Republic - and assigned all of its territories to the Austrian Empire. The 18th century architectural structure of Villa Manin brings us back to those days when our beloved violets enjoyed great favor amongst ladies who would adorn their bosoms with a fragrant posy and make ample use of the sweet violet's scent. Yet, the story of this sweet, humble flower starts long before, when ancient Greeks and Romans would wear violet wreaths at banquets to prevent inebriation. Several potions and remedies would also employ our flower, whose name probably comes down to us from the mythological figure of Io, Jupiter's wretched lover, turned by the king of the gods into a heifer to escape his wife Juno's rage. The story tells that sweet, tender violets appeared under the feet of poor Io, roaming along the Mediterranean coasts. Another legend maintains that violets would gush from the mythical Orpheus' lyre. Proof of the legends' soundness is the fact that we find some 400 species of violets spread all over the Mediterranean area, the rest of Europe as well as Asia and North Africa. Actually, violets are also widespread in Australia and New Zealand...perhaps the result of an unreported Jupiter's mistress?
Conte de Brazza Violets Image
Conte de Brazza Violets

            The ancients regarded the violet as the symbol of tranquility and the guardian of sleep. It has always been connected to feelings of sweetness and amicability. Peace and wisdom be with those who pick the newly grown spring violet and keep it between the pages of a book! Under such auspices, violets, together with roses and few other flowers, have survived through the ages, maintaining their original charm and adapting themselves to the times. During the Middle Ages, a period imbued with religiousness, the Viola Tricolor was known as the herb of the Holy Trinity (herba Sanctae Trinitatis). Our contemporary Violet Golden Age, however, was no doubt the 19th century when the words of the poet Andrea Chenier aptly described it as "a pallid shape of love." France, however, was to be the country of adoption from the second part of the 18th century, and during the heat of the Revolution, when enthusiast gardeners were busy creating new varieties, and increasing, step by step, the rounder corollas.

            Violets became also the symbol of the Bonapartists. Father or Corporal Violet was the password used by Napoleon's supporters during his exile on the Isle of Elba, and from where he claimed he would return to France during Spring time, when violets come back. Napoleon's passion for violets coincided with his ardor for Josephine Beauharnais, his Empress, who never missed the opportunity to pin a posy to her dress. So deep was her devotion to this flower that she had her wedding dress embroidered with violets and would grow them in the rosary at the Malmaison.

            The new trend of decorating pots, garments and accessories with violets would last throughout the 19th century continuing down to the 1920s. In Italy, the Viola Odorata doppia, i.e. Viola odorata pallida plena or suavis pallida plena italica reappeared with the Bourbon dynasty that ruled over the Kingdom of Naples and the Dukedom of Parma from 1730 to 1860. It is quite possible the Bourbons brought this violet from the Spanish region of Catalonia and introduced it in Naples. That might explain either the term Neapolitan Violet (adopted by the English) or the term Violetta Portoghese (adopted by the Neapolitans). Most likely, it was a cross-breeding between the spontaneous V. odorata and the Russian V. Suavis or any of its oriental varieties such as V. Cyanea or V. Pontica. In any case, violets passed from Naples to Parma where British Ambassador Hamilton at first and Duchess Marie Louise later on launched the fashion, and fragrant violet posies became the favorite ornament for fashionable ladies' garments and hats. Naturally, the demand for our humble and delicate flower increased enormously. During the reign of Napoleon III (Second Empire 1852-1870), 200 hectares in the outskirts of Paris were dedicated to the violet crop. The city of Toulouse, thanks to the spontaneous mutation of the Violetta di Parma, or perhaps due to different climatic conditions, became one of the world's largest breeding centers. Nowadays, not very far from Nice, violets are still grown with the purpose of making posies and sweets.

             However, a new course for the Violet was about to start thanks to Count Filippo di Brazza Savorgnan, a gentleman and violet fanciers from Udine. The double parma violet he brought from Parma and which he patiently nursed and selected, turned rapidly into a dense cloud of delicate sapphire petals with a white eye, vaguely resembling a little rose (the remarkable feature of such a jewel known as Viola di Udine in this part of the world) and Blue Neapolitan Comte de Brazza, abroad.

             But Count de Brazza went further. He cross-bred an spontaneous white violet which he had found in the Tuscan Maremma, with a Violetta di Parma. The result was the superb, strongly scented, pure-white Conte di Brazza. Thus, the first white-flower plants created by the Count left the family mansion in Soleschiano (near Udine) for the Swanley nursery, purchased under exclusive conditions by Mr. Henry Canell who put the new violet on the English market and later on, the American market as the 'Swanley White.' And here comes the confusion! The same violet with two different names! The Count persevered in his breeding activities gaining great success. His efforts culminated in 1883 with an award received from the Royal Horticultural Society show with another 'Conte di Brazza.'

             After the death of Count Filippo, Cora Slocomb di Brazza, the American wife of Count Detalmo, strove to promote violet breeding and commercial cultivation in the countryside of Udine. Thanks to Cora's efforts - to whom we owe the park surrounding the Villa in Moruzzo (near Udine) designed according to innovative rules in Landscape Gardening - the peasant women of Friuli began to cultivate double violets along the rows of vines. The little plants would benefit from the Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate) that was sprayed on the vines as a fungicide. The region's favorable climatic environment (fresh summers and mild winters) made the violets flourish. At particularly harsh winters, the plants were covered with mats or simply, by egg shells under which the flowers would swell without losing freshness and fragrance. The small earnings contributed to the meager income of the working force which in those days was very poor. As a rule, marriageable young girls would spend on their bridal trousseaux the money earned from the violet sales. With the years, local nurseries started to produce the 'viola di Udine' and the 'Conte di Brazza' on a large scale. The Associazione Agraria Friuliana (Friulian Agrarian Association) arranged for special frames, equipped with glass covers to favor the violet cultivation destined to the markets of Istanbul, Alexandria, Russia and the United States. From November until March one million of turquoise or white tufty 'Violette Stradoppie' traveled from Udine for nine days to reach, fresh and fragrant the markets of St. Petersburg, where they would last another 10 days in perfect condition.

             Of course, everyone tried to imitate such a refined violet, starting with the Viennese nurseries. The results, however, were disappointing. It seemed impossible to repeat the magic of the flower bred in Udine, therefore, the precious violets continued to be exported. Gathered in ten-flower posies with the stalks wrapped in moistened moss, each posy would be placed over a layer of cotton wool, covered with tissue paper and packed in special cases.

             The Violet Golden Age faded away in the 1920s. Fashions changed and the Etherodera radicola (a nematode worm) undermined the plants' health. "It's no longer possible to obtain 'huge' flowers" complained the breeder Rizzardi. Finally, the ever increasing labor costs made this activity no longer remunerative. In 1943, Rizzardi bred 3,000 plants which drastically decreased to 1,200 plants after World War II, won over by those flowers whose cultivation proved easier.

This "star of flowers," cherished by none other than the Austrian Empress Elizabeth (Sissi) - who reportedly had a sweet tooth for candied violet petals,--would have completely disappeared save for the efforts of a few amateurs who have been obstinately searching old gardens as well as local and foreign nurseries for the Sweet Violet..

      © Giulietto Fanin 1998, 2000
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