by Charles Quest-Ritson

Publisher: Frances Lincoln (October 2009
ISBN 978-0711230477

Hardback £25

I had always wanted to visit these gardens; although I never managed it, this book has provided so much pleasure that I now have mixed feelings. The marvellous photographs, many taken by the author at all seasons of the year, show far more than may be seen in a single visit, as well as revealing aspects of the garden that those on a tour cannot see. On the other hand, the book creates a great desire to experience the garden for oneself.

Ninfa is a ruined village that occupies a unique position at the edge of the Pontine Marshes. It came into being in about 700AD and by 1300 had become the property of Pietro Caetani; it had remained a part of the great estate of the Caetani family until the death of the last member of that family, Leila, in 1977. It had been a thriving medieval village, prosperous because of the four mills running off the fast-flowing streams, but was abandoned in 1381 following the slaughter of its inhabitants in factional fighting. The village was never repopulated but remained deserted, becoming overgrown with weeds and ivy, only being rediscovered by a Prussian historian in 1856. His descriptions of Ninfa as flower-covered romantic ruins inspired a great rush of tourism in that Romantic period, and also stimulated renewed interest by the Caetani family in their property at Ninfa.

Ninfa has been called one of great English gardens and yet it is sited in Italy; this book does much to explain this paradox. Quest-Ritson devotes more than half the book to discussion of the history of this fascinating place, with separate chapters devoted to each of the remarkable English plantswomen who so influenced its development; Ada Bootle-Wilbraham, wife of the 14th Duke, planted hundreds of roses at Ninfa, many of which still sprawl over the ruins; her son began the restoration of the structure of the garden, clearing the debris of five centuries of neglect and planting many trees, some of which dominate the garden today. After his death, the garden was run by his brother Roffredo, with much imaginative planting carried out by his wife Marguerite. It was however their daughter Leila, married to an Englishman, who was to change Ninfa into the glorious garden that exists today. Leila was an artist as well as great plantswoman; she frequently painted views as she would like them to appear and then planted the area to achieve that effect; the book juxtaposes her paintings with the consequent views, for comparison. Since Leila Howard’s death, ownership of the garden has been taken over by the Roffredo Caetani Foundation, and it was managed, until his death, by her husband Hubert Howard, and subsequently by the man who was the Howards’ gardener and confidant Lauro Marchetti. It is now much visited by tour parties, but the book concludes with a somewhat pessimistic view of the garden’s future.

Alison A. Newton