How many important Italians do you know?
I bet you know a lot of them! Lots of Italians – like Andrea Bocelli, Sophia Loren, and Federico Fellini, just to name the first three that come to my mind – are famous all over the world. But there are a lot of lesser-known Italians that have done incredible things in their lives and that are definitely worth knowing.
This is why I have recently come up with the idea for a new series of posts, here on the blog: I’d love to write about Italians who are not so famous abroad but whom I think deserve to be known more. I want to list photographers, gardeners, designers, writers, artists, public figures in general who have – or have had – important careers and interesting lives.
Some of these figures are popular in Italy but almost unknown abroad, while some others – like the one I am writing about today – are not very famous in Italy as well. The reason why I want to write about them is that I think that their work needs to be known more but also because I feel it could be a great way to share with you some aspects of Italian culture that are different from the usual food, beautiful scenery, and la bella vita combination.
As much as I love the standard depiction of Italian culture and way of life, I think that there is much more that needs to be discovered and brought to the attention of people who are interested in diving deeper into Italy and its culture. So I truly hope this series will be interesting!
At the end of each post, you’ll find some additional resources. Also, this blog post has an Italian version and an audio version too. You can find them in Your Italian Toolbox, the private section on my site where I upload all language-learning material. But let’s dive into the topic now!
Today I want to tell you about a very special Italian man: Libereso Guglielmi.
If you mention his name to many Italians, very few of them will know about him. This is a pity because he has been a very important figure in Italian gardening and Italian culture in general. Plus, he was the gardener of Italo Calvino, one of the most important Italian writers, and has inspired one of his most famous books. So, it is definitely a man worth knowing!
Libereso was born in 1925 in Bordighera, a nice town in Liguria not far from the French border. He was the son of an anarchist who had a passion for Esperanto, the universal artificial language invented in the 19th century. Therefore, he chose for his son the name of Libereso, which in Esperanto means freedom – by the way, his brothers and sisters also had wonderful names like Germinal, Omnia, and Fulcro.
The family was a very simple one but was very cultured and open-minded too: they were vegetarians, had many interests, and could speak English and French, which made it possible for them to have contacts with the foreign artists and intellectuals who lived in the Italian Riviera at that time. They also had contacts with Mario Calvino, the father of Italo, who was a very important agronomist and botanist.
Mario Calvino, who had spent some time in Mexico, Cuba, and Brazil, returned to Sanremo, his hometown, in 1925. Nowadays, Sanremo is a very ordinary beach location but it was quite unique back then. There were people coming from all over the world: old Englishmen, Russian grand dukes, and many eccentric cosmopolitans. In Sanremo, Mario Calvino worked as a botanist and was the head of the Istituto Sperimentale di Botanica at Villa Meridiana, where he lived with his family.
At the age of 15, Libereso Guglielmi started working with Mario Calvino at Villa Meridiana and there he met young Italo. Italo, who would become one of the most important Italian writers, was a quiet and silent teenager, who liked to observe people and write about them. Libereso, with his wild and extravagant nature, was to be the main character of one of Calvino’s first short stories.
The tale is about a young man (Libereso) who falls in love with a young woman (Maria, who was working for the Calvinos at the time) and gives her as a present first a toad, then a grass snake. This perfectly describes the nature of Libereso: he was wild and in close contact with nature. Animals were really important for him, he was a vegetarian and his family taught him to respect animals and treat them as equals. So giving Maria a snake was not meant by Libereso as a stupid joke yet as a precious gift from his own natural world.
And nature would be the most important thing in his life until his death, which happened in 2016 when he was 91. For Mario Calvino he was the son he always wanted – his sons weren’t interested in nature at all – and taught him all he knew about plants. Libereso spent all the time he had among plants and used to taste everything he found. “Every plant in the Italian Riviera is edible,” he said, “but unfortunately people are forced to eat vegetables who are made to grow quickly and with almost no light”.
Libereso was a wild young man, who ran around the garden with bare feet and was always with his hands in the soil but the time spent with Mario Calvino was also an incredibly formative experience for him. It was so educational that gave him the knowledge to get very important jobs in Brazil and then in England, where he worked for the Myddelton House Gardens in Enfield and for the University of London.
When he retired, he returned to Sanremo, where he spent time writing books and teaching kids to enjoy nature and have fun with plants and flowers. He also devoted his life to spreading knowledge about nature and the importance of respecting it. This is why he never forgave Italo Calvino for selling Villa Meridiana, which was transformed into an apartment building for tourists, just another act that marked the transformation of Sanremo into a common tourist location, losing all its cosmopolitan charm.
Libereso will always be remembered as “the gardener of Calvino” and as the person that has inspired one of the most famous characters of the writer: Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the main character of the novel The Baron in the Trees, a boy who climbs up a tree to spend the rest of his life in an arboreal kingdom moving from one tree to the other, a perfect representation of Libereso.
Additional resources (in Italian)
- Libereso, Il giardiniere di Calvino, prefazione di Nico Orengo, Muzzio Editore, 1993;
- Oltre il giardino: le ricette di Libereso, a cura di Claudio Porchia, ed. Socialmente Bologna, 2008;
- Mangiare il giardino: la lezione di Libereso, a cura di Claudio Porchia, ed. Socialmente Bologna, 2009;
- Cucinare il giardino: le ricette di Libereso, a cura di Claudio Porchia, ed. ZEM Vallecrosia, 2012;
- Ricette per ogni stagione, di Libereso, a cura di Claudio Porchia, ed. ZEM Vallecrosia, 2014;
- L’Erbario di LIbereso, a cura di Claudio Porchia e Pentagora, 2018;
- Diario di un giardiniere anarchico, a cura di Claudio Porchia, ed. Pentagora, 2019.
- Un pomeriggio con Libereso, di F. Revelli, Zemiafilm, 2008;
- Libereso Guglielmi, di Maury Dattilo – audiodocumentario Rai Radio3 (2021).
- Libero Giardino, an interview with Libereso
- Libereso drawing and chatting in his garden
- Libereso describing the plants in his garden
- A very detailed article about Libereso’s life and career
I hope you’ll find this new format interesting and useful. I have many Italians to tell you about in the future and I can’t wait!
If you are looking for interesting ways to practice your Italian daily, I’d suggest you check my brand-new program called Giorno dopo giorno, a daily Italian practice.
If you sign up to Giorno dopo giorno, you will receive an email every other day for 365 days. Each email will contain a prompt, a little exercise, something to watch, read, listen to, or something that will gently force you to practice your Italian every day, making it part of your daily routine.