Eighty-seven pictures of medallions, set in stone, hammered in metal, or painted in fresco.
It didn’t matter if they were on the streets of Florence, or set in the ancient Roman bathhouse at Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, or in the grand, Moor-influenced cathedral at Monreale. None were spared my indiscriminate camera lens, so long as they met one criterion: That replicating the medallion in Georgia clay brick was feasible.
What I was after was a sort of in-ground finial treatment for our side yard. There’s a brick path that wends its way down the 45-foot trellis for grapes we built for the lone spate of squandered yard on the wee homestead — the dreaded shady north side of the house, skinny and shady and packed with red-orange mud. If you’d called us either brave or foolhardy when we first envisioned the project last summer, we wouldn’t have minded. Odds are you were right.
Still, we wanted a little dalliance from our winter Italian adventure represented on this most unlikely construction project. This casual-formal trellis outside our craftsman cottage was where we envisioned tall stalks of grapevines — real grapes, not muscadines, mind you — spreading over to make us a little hidden garden and just maybe give us enough fruit to upgrade our peapod wine to stuff made with grapes.
But as I surfed through the pictures on our return to the States, nothing seemed right.
Which is to say, nothing seemed terribly do-able with whole bricks, and I had no interest in trying to create little triangles or complex shapes with just a hammer and a masonry chisel.
Arbor eat ’em
Otherwise work on the little vineyard, which I’ve taken to calling in the Jenn-yard, has gone smashingly.
The work started off with some rock terracing in the back yard. This would do three things:
- Help staunch water runoff, which, in the past, has carved channels in the backyard akin to the dry washes we saw in our trip through Utah and Colorado (or closer by, at Providence Canyon).
- Give us a nice, level surface at the base of our garden shed to lay a little brick landing.
- Add just a smidgen of formality to the approach of the Jenn-yard
That all took a couple of weekends, which we survived unscathed, excepting a fingernail on the middle finger of my left hand. (Pro-tip: Using a giant rock’s own weight to settle it in good and snug, next to another giant rock is a great idea, so long as your finger isn’t between the rocks when you thud the second one down.) A scant three months later and the new fingernail is safely in place, thank you.
The structure of the arbor went up amazingly fast, especially considering I had to dig six new post holes and deepen six others for the 10-foot 4x4s. I also had to notch a crap-ton of crosspieces, but otherwise the assembly was straight cuts and deck screws followed by a day of staining. This most imposing part of the project was done in two weekends.
I installed small planters around the house’s brick piers, the idea being to both stave off any further erosion around them and give us yet another spot to plant some shade-favoring greenery. I cut the planter walls with secondhand landscape timbers and secured them in place by driving rebar through them into the clay.
On to the greenery.
For the grapes, we’d narrowed our choices to two varieties: black Spanish or conquistador, both of which were well suited to our dank, humid summers. We found an orchard in central Georgia growing black Spanish, placed an order for three-year-old vines, and had them in the ground last November, in time to get them established and without need of any attention for the two weeks we were gone in December and January.
(It’s always tough to take snippers to a plant you’ve just put in the ground, but that’s what the pros like Stark Bro’s say to do with a new fruit plant. It worked out fine for our espalier pear trees last year, so, deep breath, snip-snip, and done. They’ve rewarded our bravery, as the tallest two vines have grown seven feet, to date, and are now flirting with the top of the arbor.)
The rolling brick path was easy to lay, since the ground was all lower than we wanted there anyway. There was almost no digging. Just lay the bricks on the ground, create the gentle curves we’re after, pound them tight with a rubber mallet, and sweep sand into the joints.1
And at that point all that was left was to lay in river rock over the clay around the path. That, and to figure out what to do for the damn end of the path.
Originally we’d thought about have another small brick patio at the end, with a bench set into the back of the fence. But there’s the matter of the nearby gas meter and it’s little noxious poofs that make hanging out there long term, um, less than desirable.
But a quiet place to hang out for five minutes? A little contemplative space, akin to those trendy Methodist labyrinths?2 You betcha.
When I was bemoaning our plight to our friend Kristen — who, with her husband, was our travel mate in Italy — she said, “I need to loan you my book. It’s nothing but patterns from the stonework throughout Italy.”
Indeed it was.3 Pages and pages of color plates from monasteries, churches, cathedrals, public squares and more. But the problem persisted; Every pattern was too complicated, or called for too many colors, or was based on squares instead of rectangles.
Everything except for one pattern.
It was from the floor in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, laid down about 800 years ago. And it was perfect.
Well, nearly so. It had some triangle adornments here and there. But one could omit those and the heart of the pattern would remain intact. So without telling Jenn what was up, I began laying out the pattern when she left for a shopping spree at the boutique. I was done when she got home.
I had to break the pattern, in places, to work around that gas meter and to leave enough of a planting bed around the final grapevine. So it’s imperfect, which, in our neighborhood and around our home, where there’s nary a level nor plumb line, is perfect.
I guess there’s some irony in the fact that we flew 5,325 miles to Italy and snapped 87 photos of stonework, only to find the solution was in a book on our friend’s bookshelf the whole time.
But if that’s the journey we had to take to get to this destination, well, so be it.
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1 Some will say to use mortar in the joints, but I prefer just sand, which is much friendlier during rains to the movement of groundwater, both across the path and into the ground.
2 When I heard, some years ago, that labyrinths were becoming trendy, I had visions of caves and Minotaurs and was all, “Cool!” Then I saw one of these meditation labyrinths, with its wall-less paths of mental healing. I was disappointed, at first. But now I’m all, “Cool!” You can learn more about them, if you, too, think they’re cool. You can also watch this, if you’re prepared to enter a dazzling world of fantasy and adventure:
3 The book? “Decorative Patterns from Italy” by Pepin Press.