The Secret Gardens of Sicily

Every morning sitting on the beautiful terrace looking out over the gardens I would look and scream “I’m in Sicily. I’m in Sicily.” Ira posing with orange fan next to garden bust on stone benchIra Yeager, Sicily 2012And at night time we had dinner on this beautiful, beautiful terrace with views of flowers and palm trees and pomegranates and citron trees, and the smell of orange blossoms.

All of my thanks for this incredible period of my life, the trip to Sicily, must go to Clarke and Elizabeth Swanson for making this possible. And also to Rosanna Donzella, who was a wonderful concierge. We laughed for one month. And the Contessa Tea Tasca whose beautiful villa we stayed in with one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in all of Sicily, with swan ponds and exotic plants and walkways and gazebos and beautiful, beautiful trees and flowers.

For one month we did nothing but visit palaces, gardens and charming villages. Our Tea knows everybody in Sicily. She was married on the island of Elba with 1,500 people in attendance. She’s the most wonderful, cozy person you could ever imagine, and generous — she opened up many, many houses and gardens for us to see. Usually no one would ever be able to see these secret gardens. Also, a part of Palermo, Mondello, which has 19th century palaces instead of 18th century, with beautiful gardens, about a 20-minute drive from Palermo along the coast. Tea took us to the Lauria Club there.

Tea’s son, Alberto, who is married to the Princess Francesca Borghese, took us around to palaces out in the middle of nowhere. The owners probably hadn’t been there for years and they’d open up these crumbling gates with crumbling walls. We would enter these beautiful villas, some with an old gardener and an old attendant there to watch over these beautiful, beautiful places that no one went to. I just couldn’t believe it.

Also, the Tascas themselves have the most beautiful farm in all of Italy. It’s the only place where they still grow and make everything on the land, from dried tomatoes to olives to dried pomegranates to dried everything, and jars of marmalade. When we arrived to their beautiful farm, women in native costume came with little tiny cordial glasses and gave us elderberry juice. We thought it was alcohol, but it was just elderberry juice, bright blue. We walked around these beautiful gardens with different ways of hanging tomatoes and places where they dried tomatoes and the beautiful flowers that were later made into wreaths they used for the holidays.

Then we would drive on our own with Rosanna
— our wonderful concierge, who was also our driver. She was the most charismatic darling (half Scottish, half Sicilian) fun person you could ever imagine. She would take us to these out-of- the-way places, old crumbling villas with statuary falling down inside. In fact, a lot of the Sicilians during the 18th century used cloth dipped in plaster to make sculptural parts. 

Being cheeky, in several places when I saw somebody going into a palace I would ask, “Could we possibly come inside?” We were told by one Italian nobleman all we had to do was mention his name and we would be let in, because he knew the Mafia, and they could not say no.

At one place we were presented with beautiful, beautiful fritters…made out of zucchini. Another time, we were let into a place where the owner, who must have been Mafia, said he’d only have 10 minutes to show us around because he was going to Naples. He had a cleaning lady in the house, a huge, huge woman, whom he screamed at all the time we were in the gardens.

Another beautiful garden we went to was the temple, a Chinese temple that had just been redone. I was given permission to go in by one of the people, and we may have been the first to go in. The gardens were very extensive. The house, of course, was a palace of the Bourbon Kings when they were in prison in luxury
— the Bourbon King and Queen.

And so the gardens continued. I was never so impressed in my life as I was with these secret gardens, which nobody gets to see. I couldn’t wait to get back home to paint, playing my dangerous game of chaos versus order, inspired by the overwhelming beauty of the “Secret Gardens of Sicily.”

— I.Y.