Sunday, October 30, 2022

Sheppard Craige’s Italian garden

Il Bosco della Ragnaia, San Giovanni d’Asso, Italy


Zoë Sharp


On the outskirts of San Giovanni d’Asso, not far from Siena, in Tuscany, I was taken to see the remarkable work of art that is Bosco della Ragnaia.


It is difficult to categorise this ten-acre woodland park and garden, into which has been woven images, sculptures, and words. Or perhaps the art is the cornerstone, and the garden has been formed around it?

This huge project was started in 1996 by American landscape artist, Sheppard Craige. He’s been working on it ever since, although when I met him in September, he declared his masterpiece was done.


“I’m trying to design ways it could be maintained, but nothing’s more fragile than a garden. It changes all the time. It changes every five minutes. There’s always decay. Things are dying, things are growing.”


It seems almost ironic that Sheppard has chosen to concentrate most on the land, when his art is particularly known for its depictions of clouds and sky. He reckons that being a painter was an ideal grounding for his work creating the garden.


“Sometimes when you’re painting you do things that you think, maybe it’s not right, but let’s do it anyway, or maybe you don’t have a real purpose—you’re just experimenting—and it was the same thing here.”

The lack of formal layout—sometimes of formal meaning—is part of what makes Bosco della Ragnaia so fascinating. As well as the straight lines, foliage, water and geometric patterns, there are odd words and phrases that seem placed only in order to make you think.


“I only have one rule—I try not to put in words that actually describe the place itself. They’re just things that occur to me, phrases or just three or four words together.”


Unlike landscape gardeners, who often mould the entire surface of a garden to meet their own design, Sheppard says he left the contours of the land undisturbed, and that this is the difference between land art and garden art. But he does like to play with perspective as well as perception.


“I didn’t know what it was going to be. I just started drawing lines on the ground, and then I started to make it. And as it got made, it changed itself.”


Sheppard is married to fellow artist, Frances Lansing, whose clay sculptures are also to be found throughout the park. You never quite know what you’re going to come across next—a quote from one of my favourite poems, to a David Mackie metal sculpture ‘Etruscan Chariot’. The addition of the fallen leaves only seemed to enhance it.


Much like a novel, Sheppard’s garden is telling you a story, even if you don’t entirely grasp what that story is. Nevertheless, it stays in the mind long after you’ve closed the pages, and makes you want to go back to it on a regular basis, just to see how everything has changed.


The good news for others hooked by Sheppard Craige’s garden is that it is free to enter and enjoy. Go take a stroll that’s a workout for the imagination.

Just watch those mosquitoes…


This week’s Word of the Week is shilly-shallya contraction of shall I, shall I not. To shilly-shally is to hesitate, to vacillate, a state of mind familiar to writers everywhere when they procrastinate. Its close cousin is dilly-dally, which suggests physical dawdling rather than indecisiveness. 


  1. What an amazing place. I hadn't heard about it before this.

    1. Thanks, Michael. I'd never heard of it either, before I went there!

  2. Cool, Zoë, thanks. Also, love shilly-shally. I'd never heard before, but it does pare nicely with dilly-dally. Something new, every day! :-)

    1. Thank you, EvKa. I aim to please, lol.

  3. SO fascinating, Zoe. I hope to see it, but I will be there in winter. At least that should keep down the bug population. Thanks for the tip!!