Franceschi and Eaton Landscape Montecito

“At the time that we first knew Dr. Franceschi, I hardly think we realized his standing, and he was so modest that we probably never would have learned it from him,” wrote Elizabeth Eaton Burton in her memoirs.

Emanuele Orazio Fenzi, who arrived in the United States in 1891 as Francesco Franceschi, graced Santa Barbara with his horticultural expertise for 20 years. During that time he introduced nearly 200 new species to California and 900 new species to Santa Barbara.

Franceschi first entered the Santa Barbara scene in December 1893, when he partnered with Montecito estate owner, artist and landscaper, Charles Frederick Eaton, to establish the Southern California Acclimatizing Association on Eaton’s famous Riso Rivo estate (today’s El Mirador).

Horticultural historian Susan Chamberlin says, “He soon became a significant American horticulturist, contributing to the botanical literature and altering California’s landscape through his numerous plant introductions.”

F.W. Popenoe, who was an expert on fruits introduced into the United States, said of Franceschi, “His introductions are more numerous than any one man and many of them are now widely grown in the land of their adoption.”

Elizabeth Eaton Burton credits Franceschi with the development of her family’s estate. “It would not do,” she says, “in the telling of the making of Riso-Rivo (“Laughing Riverlet”), which we had familiarly come to call The Place, to omit mention of Dr. Franceschi. Straight from Italy he appeared with his wife and many children. There was something unusual about him which made him an interesting figure, something a little mysterious.”

Part of the mystery of this quiet, unassuming man was his background. Franceschi was a child of privilege and had been raised by his paternal grandfather at the Palazzo Fenzi in Florence. He received a degree in law from the University of Pisa, but although he participated in the family business of banking and railroad development, his first love was horticulture, which he pursued with great enthusiasm. He introduced many exotic plants such as Indian bamboo and bridal veil broom to Italy, developed arboretums, and established gardens. Franceschi spoke six languages and wrote copiously about his botanical findings in both Italian and English journals. For a time, he served as president of the Royal Tuscan Society of Horticulture and was active in many other horticultural organizations as well.

Elizabeth Eaton Burton says, “It seems that he was considered one of the greatest horticulturists in the world. In Florence, where he had established the Botanical Garden, he was honored and loved by the people, yet for political reasons he was exiled from his native country.”

Actually, most researchers believe it was shame over the bank failure during an economic crisis in 1889-90 and the loss of the family businesses and estates that caused Emanuele Orazio Fenzi to take another family name and, at age 50, move to the United States.

Charles Frederick Eaton

Charles Frederick Eaton, the scion of a prominent Rhode Island family, trained as a painter in Paris. Though he had a painting accepted at the Salon, he had to give it up when chronic arm cramps made painting impossible. His wife’s health being precarious, he moved his family to Nice where he took up restoring antique furniture and gardening.

Gardening was not new to him; his father was an amateur horticulturist and his brother, Amasa Brown Eaton, was president of the Rhode Island Horticultural Society. At age 12, young Charles became the owner of a garden and developed his skills by constantly rearranging his plot according to his original designs. Later, extensive travels took him through the magnificent formal gardens of Europe.

In 1886, he moved his family to Montecito where his artistic impulses found an outlet in landscape design. Elizabeth recalls that her “artist father was carving out his pictures in living green substance, or in age old rock. He was observing nature’s harmonies in line and rhythm, and the contours of the land, so as to produce a perfect whole in miniature.”

On his estate he created a magical lotus pond complete with a floating tea room that attracted the attention of architects and craftsmen throughout the United States. Early on, Eaton became involved in the agricultural life of the community. In July 1891, he was a delegate from Santa Barbara County to a Los Angeles convention that arranged to send an exhibit of oranges to the Chicago Exposition. Also in 1891, he was responsible for the institution of the annual Santa Barbara Floral Festival, which included a horticultural show and contest. In March 1892, at the All Citrus Fair in Los Angeles, he exhibited bananas from Riso Rivo and won second place for best exhibit of limes. In 1893, he was hired to plant 28,000 lemon trees from R. Kinton’s nursery for Las Fuentes Ranch (today’s Birnam Wood and Valley Club golf courses). That April, Eaton’s strawberry guavas and passiflora edulis won awards at the Floral Festival.

Praised by Gustav Stickley

Eaton’s landscape efforts were praised in 1904 by Gustav Stickley, grand adjudicator of the Arts and Crafts movement, who said of Eaton’s style, “He revolted against the formality, the severe training and repression of Nature which constitute the first principles of the French and Italian systems of landscape gardening.” Eaton told Stickley that he was resolved to control Nature, but never to resist her.

Eaton said the regularity of live oak trees “becomes monotonous, and must be changed, in order to give the tree what I may call personality.” He did this by accentuating the limb system through careful pruning. Showing Stickley a long stretch of live oaks, Eaton enthused, “That is my cathedral view! Nothing is wanting: the columns, the collar beams, the vaults! I learn to build from them.”

Eaton also believed in planting “sky-trees” like palms, cypresses and oranges to alleviate the monotony of unbroken parallel views of shore, ocean, island and sky.

Stickley was amazed at the great number of rare and strange species represented at Riso Rivo. Besides dozens of different palms, there were bamboo and camphor trees, Madagascarensis, Abyssinian banana, a Chinese paper plant, flame-trees, an alligator pear, a cinnamon and a candlenut tree. “Enough,” wrote Stickley, “to have served as the original of the collection described in Hawthorne’s tale of Rappaccini’s Garden.”

Eaton explained that Francesco Franceschi and he had begun the Southern California Acclimatizing Society at Riso Rivo, hence the variety of botanical rarities.

Many Montecito estates benefited from Eaton’s landscape artistry and Franceschi’s horticultural expertise and experimentation.

Eaton also grew citrus trees such as mandarin and lemon trees that he sold as saplings to various citrus companies in Montecito. He was a tireless promoter of civic improvement projects such as planting street trees and sponsoring horticultural events.

Elizabeth wrote, “My father delighted in introducing certain vegetables and fruits in California, but he had always done the reverse in France, where every summer my parents rented a peasant’s small bit of land. With seeds sent over from the United States, he proceeded to make a vegetable garden where he grew American plants, such as sweet corn and lima beans, always much appreciated by our family and American friends.”

With so many interests in common, it is no wonder that Eaton, the landed landscaper, and Franceschi, the landless botanist, would form a partnership that would secure Santa Barbara a prominent place in the world of horticulture.

(Sources: Susan Chamberlin, Elizabeth Eaton Burton’s “My Santa Barbara Scrapbook,” Will Beittel’s “Dr. F. Franceschi: Pioneer Plantsman,” contemporary news articles.)