Villa Cicogna at Bisuschio--The Lower Terrace is one of twenty six paintings that Maxfield Parrish produced to illustrate Edith Wharton's Italian Villas and Their Gardens of 1904, a commission from The Century Company. Between March and July of 1903, Parrish and his wife travelled through Italy on a course that was always a step or two behind the noted author. Gathering information and material to prepare her text, Wharton left notes on the villas and gardens at each hotel expecting the artist and his wife. Despite Wharton's attempt to lay out her intended prose and subjects for discussion, Parrish produced pictures that were quite independent of her thinking and more suited to his unique perspective and creative imagination.
Included in Wharton's section on Lombard villas, Villa Cicogna is located in the "lovely but little-known hill-country (Bisuschio) between the Lake of Varese and the southern end of Lugano." (E. Wharton, p. 214) The villa dates to the early Renaissance and "with a touch of Tuscan austerity in its design, "the author speculates whether it was built by a "Tuscan hand" or whether its "mid-Italian style was at that time also prevalent in Lombardy." (E. Wharton, p. 217) Although the history of the villa was unknown at the time of Wharton's visit, it is now understood that the villa was originally built by the scholar and poet Ascanio Mozzoni as a hunting lodge in the mid-1400s. The Mozzoni family line ended with Angela Mozzoni who married Count Gian Pietro Cicogna whose descendants own the property today. (J. Chatfield, A Tour of Italian Gardens, New York, 1988, pp. 35-37)
Enclosing an arcaded courtyard on three sides, the villa is surrounded on seven levels by narrow gardens complete with marble statuary, fish ponds, fountains and a large array of plants and trees. To the rear of the house is a long narrow terrace (depicted in this picture) "bounded by a high retaining-wall, which is tunneled down its whole length to form a shady arcaded walk lined with ferns and dripping with runnels of water." (E. Wharton, p. 217)
Having previously studied architecture at Haverford College in the late 1880s, Maxfield Parrish was perfectly suited for this commission. Exploring the villas and gardens of Italy's oldest and most prominent families, Parrish embraced the infinite variety of architectural and botanical features as new subjects. Villa Cicogna at Bisuschio--The Lower Terrace contains many of the hallmarks of Parrish's work--brilliant color, wonderful atmospheric effects, bold contrasts between light and dark, an adherence to compositional symmetry as well as a suggestion of subtle mystery or comedy. Here, Parrish has created a rigid and almost eery silence by filling the immediate foreground with an austere, still fountain. This unusual approach to composition and selection of the subject elevate Parrish's illustrations far above the typical and all-too-familiar tourist sites and views.
Although the project overall was very well received, a lack of collaboration was evident and most agreed that it was Parrish's illustrations that were the more successful of the two. An unknown critic of 1905 supported this view: "Mr. Parrish has performed his part of the task in a delightful and satisfactory way. He has put the best of his art into the subject, and he has succeeded in depicting the beauties of the Italian gardens as they have never been depicted before." The critic continues: "If, however, the text and the illustration of this book have been prepared from different points of view, there can be no doubt that Mr. Parrish's point of view is the more appropriate." ("Pen and Pencil in Italy," The Critic, XLVI, 2, February 1905, pp. 166-168)