Then & Now | Italian Cultural Garden

The Italian Cultural Garden was officially dedicated on October 12, 1930 with over 3,000 in attendance.  It was created to share Italy’s great cultural arts with the general public and serve as a symbol of the contribution of Italian culture to American democracy.

Phillip Garbo, an immigrant from Cefalu, Sicily, spearheaded the two-level Italian Cultural Garden in the Renaissance style.  Garbo was a master of the decorative arts and owner of the Italian Fresco and Decorating Company.  He created the interiors of a number of churches, residences, and theatres, including that of the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square.

A large Renaissance fountain, modeled after the one in Villa Medici in Rome, is the centerpiece of the upper level of the Italian Cultural Garden.  A statue of Dante Alighieri and a bust of the Roman poet Virgil are found to the left and right of the main entrance.  Two large winding staircases lead to the lower level amphitheater which contains another Renaissance fountain showcasing images of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vince, Giuseppe Verdi, Marconi, Petrarch and Giotto.

In 1990, Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation President Alfonso D’Emilia in conjunction with Gino Colage, president of the Italian Cultural Garden Association, began regular maintenance of the garden. They successfully solicited the City of Cleveland to repair the retaining wall, balustrade, and sections of the pavement.

Since 2007, the Italian Cultural Garden has been undergoing a $1.5 million restoration, spearheaded by executive director Joyce Mariani.  Besides foundation and repair work, Joyce has been working to enhance the garden as well as complete its original unfinished plans from 1930.  The addition of the statue of Dante Aligheri in 2012 was one unfinished component of the original plans.  Most recently, black granite medallions were installed around the upper level fountain highlighting various Italian cultural figures.  The final completion of the original plans will be a Pantheon structure on the upper level honoring 150 Italian cultural greats.

An annual event in the Italian Cultural Garden that has become popular over the years is “Opera in the Italian Garden.”  After the garden was built in 1930, opera was a regular feature there in the summer months.  Over time, the performances stopped but were revived in 2010.  Opera in the Garden attracts over 3,000 people each July highlighting the Cleveland Opera and the Cleveland ballet.