The first Italian feature of Thomas Jefferson's orchard was the name he gave to its mountaintop site. As early as August 1767 he was using the word Monticello, which was both a place name and a noun meaning "small mountain." At some point he gave the name Montalto to the adjoining higher eminence, which he coveted and eventually acquired, purchasing only that part visible from his own summit. He may have derived from his reading the idea of translating into Italian the local terms for the two landmarks, Low or Little Mountain and High Mountain.
Jefferson's first serious study of the Italian language probably began in 1764, when he purchased an Italian-English dictionary and three historical works in Italian. If by 1767 he saw a copy of Andrea Palladio's Four Books of Architecture in the original Italian, he may have been struck by Palladio's account of his most famous structure, the Villa Rotonda near Vicenza. The architect who most influenced the design of the first Monticello house described the Villa's particularly delightful situation on the top of "monticello," on one side washed at its base by a navigable river and on the other surrounded by cultivated hills abounding in fruits and forming a "gran Teatro." Whatever the direct inspiration, the indirect source of the name Monticello was undoubtedly Jefferson's early and intense study of the classical world and his deep identification with Roman culture. He filled pages of his commonplace book with extracts from well loved poems of Augustan Rome. He derived continuous architectural inspiration from Roman villas and their sixteenth-century Palladian descendants, and he considered the agriculture of the time of Cato and Varro as the origin of and model for modern husbandry. It is apparent that he regarded modern Italians as the heirs of the classical tradition. He believed that correct pronunciation of the Latin language could be learned in Italy, and perhaps he felt that traces of the idealized rural life so vividly portrayed in the poetry of Horace and Virgil might yet survive on Italian soil.
And so, when a boatload of Tuscan farmers, animals, and plants arrived in Virginia in 1773, Jefferson may have viewed it as a delegation from an ancient world. The conductor of this small band of colonizers was Filippo Mazzei, who in his forty-three years had been an itinerant surgeon, a teacher of Italian, and a wine merchant, and was now intent on initiating trade between Virginia and Italy and establishing the culture of some of the agricultural productions of the Mediterranean. Mazzei, on his way to the Shenandoah Valley to settle, was intercepted by his host at Monticello, where he had stopped for an introductory visit. Jefferson gave him a small parcel of land on the fringes of his own property and Mazzei purchased additional acreage. Mazzei named the property Colle, joining Monticello and Montalto as a third Italian name in a neighborhood of farms with names like Clover Fields, Edgehill, and Buck Island. For a time a Mediterranean Eden in Albemarle County seemed possible.
Undaunted by a May frost in 1774, which killed almost all the plants he brought with him, Mazzei imported more and in late 1775 declared in the pages of the Virginia Gazette that hundreds of orange, lemon, and olive trees were growing luxuriantly at Colle. There were no further bulletins from Mazzei on their progress. Jefferson quietly recorded their epitaph in his garden book, when in 1778 he removed from Colle to Monticello root sprouts of the sole survivors of his semitropical plantation — one olive and four sour orange trees. Mazzei's grapes fared better, but they too suffered from a climate in a state of transition. The Italian, who had been told in London by the Virginians who encouraged his emigration that Virginia had the best spring climate in the world, could only blame "the solar system." Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that the moderating climate had since 1769 produced uncharacteristic springs, in which "an unfortunate fluctuation between heat and cold" was often fatal to fruits. Prior to that year the buds remained "locked up" by the intense cold and heavy snow until the sun achieved the proper ascendancy for a general thaw. In the same section Jefferson mentioned Monticello's own immunity from random killing frosts: "I have known frosts so severe as to kill the hickory trees round about Monticello, and yet not injure the tender fruit blossoms then in bloom on the top and higher parts of the mountain; and in the course of 40 years, during which it has been settled, there have been two instances of a general loss of fruit on it: while, in the circumjacent country, the fruit has escaped but twice in the last seven years." This sentence seems to imply that fruit trees were already extant on the hill that Jefferson later called Monticello about the time of his own birth. The location of this early orchard is not known, but of Jefferson's own orchards there is ample record. In the spring of 1769 he first noted the planting of fruit trees in the south orchard, which alternately flourished and languished according to the schedule of his public service. The fruit from this orchard offered what Jefferson called "this precious refreshment.".
Philip Mazzei was one of the first to contribute to the diversity of an orchard later known for the remarkable variety of its fruits. In 1774, the first spring after the arrival of the Italians, Jefferson recorded in the garden book the planting not of apricots and cherries, but of albicocche and ciliegi. Besides the apricot stones and almost two hundred cherry pits given him by Mazzei, the only Italian tree he gave a name was the Cornelian Cherry, apparently unaware that this was actually a species of European dogwood, Cornus mas, cultivated for its fresh and preserved fruits. He probably continued to add exotic fruits from his neighbor at Colle until 1778, when the Revolutionary War shifted Mazzei's attention from agriculture to politics and dispersed his workforce.
When Jefferson made a detailed plan of an enlarged orchard in 1778, Italian influence predominates. Jefferson also sought to introduce Italian fine arts, especially music, which he said was in a state of "deplorable barbarism" in Virginia. He asked Mazzei's friend Giovanni Fabbroni to send to Monticello six artisans, sufficiently skilled on the French horn, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon to provide him with a resident band of musicians. No harmonious Italian weavers or stonecutters ever appeared at Monticello, but Jefferson did employ some of Mazzei's Tuscan farmworkers. Of the eleven peasants Philip Mazzei brought with him from Italy, at least six settled in Albemarle County. Anthony Giannini, who had come from near Lucca with a wife and child, was a skilled gardener and vigneron who worked for Jefferson off and on from 1778 to 1791. Jefferson may have thought of Virgil's celebration of the art of grafting and his admonition, in Book Two of the Georgics, to "soften the wild fruits by cultivating them," when Giannini took over the care of the Monticello orchard and performed the annual grafting and budding operations. Giannini left a number of descendants whose keen interest in genealogy has shed light on one Italian's life in Albemarle County. Almost nothing is known, however, of the second Tuscan who worked at Monticello, Giovannini da Prato. After serving Jefferson in an unknown capacity in Williamsburg and Richmond in 1780, Giovannini returned with the Jeffersons to Monticello in 1781 and worked in the gardens and orchards for several years.
Mazzei, in the meantime, had gone to Europe in 1779, returned briefly to Virginia in 1783, joined Jefferson in Paris in 1785, and retired to Pisa in 1792. Although Jefferson found this irrepressible Italian at times exasperating, once admitting that he dreaded his appearance more than the return of his periodical headache, he valued him highly and remained a constant friend through the political embarrassment caused by Mazzei's publication of one of his letters and a series of pecuniary emergencies of both Mazzei and his penniless relations in Virginia. Looking ahead to his retirement even while at the beginning of his first term as President, Jefferson wrote to his friend in Italy in March 1801, asking for plants of "good fruit, & especially of peaches & eating grapes." Peaches, always a Jefferson favorite both for their blossom as well as their fruit and gratifying because of their early bearing age, had become a principal article for the renewal of the Monticello fruit collection. Mazzei, who at this time occupied himself almost solely with the tending of his garden and orchard and had earned the local nickname "Pippo the gardener," responded by sending sixty stones of four varieties of peach: the Maddalena, Poppa di Venere, Mela, and the clingstone called Vaga Logia. The first two were Italian versions of well-known French varieties, the Maddalena being a very early peach and the Poppa di Venere or Breast of Venus being noted for the appearance and size of its fruit. The two others were Italian varieties and the Pesca Mela or Apple peach, which Jefferson in his rusty Italian translated as Melon peach, seems to have been grown more for its unusual resemblance to apples than for its taste. Jefferson planted these stones in his nursery, not transplanting the ten surviving trees to his orchard until 1810. In early 1804 Mazzei again sent a collection of plants and stones of several varieties of peaches, apricots, and plums. Included, in addition to those sent previously, were three new varieties of peach, a freestone Vaga Loggia, the San Jacopo, and the Alberges. The apricots were the Early Red, the German (the same as the French peach-apricot), and the Angelica, a variety, which Mazzei himself "baptized," having a straw color and delicate flavor. As the shipment reached Jefferson in Washington, he kept the young trees there for a year and transplanted the four surviving peaches (Alberges and Poppa di Venere) and two Angelica apricots to the Monticello orchard in March 1805. He gave the stones to Washington nurseryman Alexander Hepburn, who raised 150 young fruit trees that Jefferson sent to Monticello in the spring of 1806. His instructions and plan for their planting in a new section of the orchard survive, but their absence from later records raises some doubts about their fate. The flow of plant material from one fruit collector to another continued and Mazzei no doubt sent more of the peaches and apricots in which his orchard excelled. Giorgio Gallesio, in his Pomona Italiana published a year after Mazzei's death in 1816, refers to Mazzei's "interesting and rare collection of drupiferous and pomiferous trees" and notes finding some of the rarer varieties, like the Alberges and Apple peach, only in Mazzei's Pisa garden. It is quite possible that some of the beautiful plates that accompany Gallesio's descriptions were drawn from trees that provided the stones or grafted stock sent to Monticello in 1801 and 1804. By that time Jefferson's Italian trees were the only reminder of his early dreams of transplanting Italian civilization and its culture to his mountaintop. He had done more than that, by "planting the arts" in America, as one friend phrased it. And at Monticello he found satisfaction in practicing the fine art of gardening, "for, as they tell us," he wrote, "we all sprung from the earth, so to that we naturally return."
- Adapted from Lucia Stanton, "Italians in the Monticello Orchard," in Anniversary Dinner at Monticello, April 12, 1982 in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1982), 1-9.
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