You are here

A new garden for the Monash Prato Centre

Palazzo Vai Garden inauguration
The recently restored Palazzo Vaj Garden embraces culture, history and community

The newly launched Monash Prato Centre garden in Italy is not simply a serene space for students to study and absorb the rich culture of their surroundings. The garden’s elegant, yet simplistic design respectfully and creatively pays tribute to the area’s history. 

A generous donation of EUR 50,000 by Prato Centre Patron Carla Zampatti enabled this beautiful garden to be recreated by one of Australia’s most renowned landscape designers, Paul Bangay.

History had forgotten the garden at Palazzo Vaj. Six hundred years ago it conformed to the strict yet serene ideal of classical Italian plantings. In World War II it was given over to practical, rather than aesthetic purposes, and cultivated for food. And by the time Monash University took up residence in the palazzo and its 18th-century extension for its European base, the garden had been replaced by a gravel carpark.

An echo of the old garden remained, however. The discovery in the 1960s of 15th-century wall frescos – graffiti of court life and cavorting May Day revelers, now held in Prato’s San Domenico Museo di Pittura Murale - sparked the imagination of Prato Centre director Cecilia Hewlett. She suggested reinstating the garden’s tranquil beauty to visiting Patron of the Prato Centre, Carla Zampatti, who was immediately enthusiastic.

The confluence of like minds extended further. Not only did Dr Zampatti’s generous donation make the project possible; so too did Australia’s most celebrated landscape designer Paul Bangay. Noted for his restrained, ordered gardens grounded in a palpable love of classical principles, Bangay was the obvious person to approach. 

“They came and said, would you like to help us? Of course I jumped at it,” says Bangay, who eagerly donated his time and expertise.

Of the 21st century Prato garden, a sizeable 657 square metres, he says, “It’s an Italian style garden with an Australian slant. It’s not a pastiche version of an Italian garden.”

His design finds the beauty and elegance in simplicity. A limited palette includes Magnolia grandiflora  clipped into a traditional cone shape standing sentry around the edges, while box hedges, star jasmine and pots of citrus pay symmetrical homage to a central fountain.  

As the famous native of nearby Florence, Dante Alighieri was well aware, taming nature into ordered beauty can evoke intimations of the divine – or, for those not of a religious bent, the nobility and resilience of the human spirit. Whether in Italy or Australia, the 15th century or the modern age, a well-tended garden is a place of respite, solace and joy.

The garden will be a space at the heart – both literally and figuratively – of the Prato Centre’s life. Not only will it be an eminently useful space for students to relax and study, it will be used by researchers, conference delegates and other visitors.

The Italians call them the polmone verde della città: the green lungs of the city. Perhaps most importantly of all, the garden will be open to the citizens of Prato to enjoy on special occasions.

“It goes to our ability to engage with the city,” says Dr Hewlett. “Traditionally these towns have little in terms of green space. The garden is a way of giving back to the city that has been so welcoming of Monash.”

Ms Zampatti concurs. “Prato has been so accommodating to Monash and made the students feel so welcome. It’s a wonderful gift for the citizens of Prato.”

The Monash University Prato Centre is a site for international teaching programs and research collaborations. It is the European base for Monash University.

For more information contact 
Monash Media & Communications + 61 3 9903 4840 or
Dr Cecilia Hewlett, Director, Monash University Prato Centre. Tel. +39 0574 43691