The Villas and Gardens of Lazio

by Angela Stubbs

On May 14th, 2007, two Cornwall Gardens’ Trust members, Pam Dodds and Angela Stubbs, found themselves in Rome, preparing to join a group of twenty seven like-minded members from the Association of Gardens’ Trusts, who were soon discovered to have considerable expertise in related aspects of horticulture and architecture. The excuse for being in Rome was to spend a week visiting the gardens and villas of Lazio, enjoying a stimulating and busy programme ably devised and led by Polly Burns (Suffolk Gardens’ Trust).

We were based at the Park Hotel, Grottaferrata near Frascati, where the horticultural inspiration for the gardens was drawn somewhat tenuously from those of Imperial Rome, complete with copious fountains and dubious statuary. Our visit to the archaeological site of Hadrian’s Villa c118 AD near Tivoli provided us with the authentic model and, although the excavations are still continuing in this huge area set among ancient olive trees, we were able to imagine the sheer scale and opulence of the gardens. These would have been enclosed by high walls, thus conserving their privacy and exclusivity.  They featured pools and canals once richly decorated with columns and arcades, their schema inspired by Greek culture and frequently indicating personal triumphs or preoccupations, all of which reflected glory on the emperor. We were to recognize these two concepts of privilege and self-reference within the sixteenth-century villas and gardens we visited in Lazio.  Furthermore, we were to discover in them the sheer scale of the building activity stemming from the optimism that had been generated by the return of the papacy to Rome in 1420.


The Canopus, Hadrian’s Villa

The Castelli Romani are situated on the wooded slopes of the Colline Romane and include the Villas Falconieri (1546) and Mondragone (1567), both adjuncts of the University of Rome, and the Villas Tuscolana and Grazioli (1580), now elegant hotels. These properties were among the first to be visited.  They created a template from which to judge other villas and, in fact, have probably acted as models for Italianate gardens the world over. It is here, in their large formal gardens with stone parterres and neat hedges, that Art and Nature are seen to be in close harmony, following the dictates of early landscape design. This collection of country houses around Frascati was mostly built by the princes of the Church, and occupied the sites of earlier classical villas.  By imitating their predecessors, they promulgated the concept of the villeggiatura; that is the temporary desertion of the intemperate climes of the city for the simplicity and refreshment of the countryside. Their gardens are in varying states of conservation but all are aligned with St. Peter’s Basilica, usually visible in the far distance; in much the same way as their earlier prototypes would have emphasised their topographical and cultural associations with the glories of Ancient Rome.

It is the spectacular Villa d’Este, Tivoli (1560-75) that superbly marries the Roman ideal of exclusive pleasure gardens; and their complex if now somewhat arcane allusions enhancing the prestige of the family; with the sheer inventiveness and seemingly limitless financial resources of its creator, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, son of Lucrezia Borgia. The variety of its numerous fountains and the witty contrivances of the automata; singing birds and a sounding organ, no less; and unexpected jets of water, the giocchi d’acqua; are justly famous.  Equally impressive were the pleasing array of trees and shrubs, and the abundant roses, many of which could be loyally described as of English provenance. We were encouraged to start at the bottom of the garden and to walk our way up, approaching the villa through the sequence of perspectives and set pieces; even a stylised replica of early Rome, the Rometta; all devised for the cardinal by Pirro Ligorio in order to create a compelling ‘history’ glorifying the Este family.

The difficulties of following a narrative imposed on a garden several  centuries ago is to be experienced at Bomarzo, Viterbo, in the extraordinary so-called Sacro Bosco contrived in 1552 by Prince Vicino Orsini. Here huge statues hewn from living rock are to be encountered along a winding woodland path in some sort of abstruse allegorical code. These ‘monsters’, as they are locally known, range from Pegasus, Venus and Ceres to a wide-mouthed ogre with seating inside its maw, giants, Harpies and an array of grotesque animals such as lions, dragons and an impressive war elephant complete with a tower on its back and a legionary  caught in its trunk. This idea of art as deceit is at its most disturbing in the Leaning House where visitors lose their equilibrium as they walk across the tilting floor. In fact, a telling inscription in the garden invites the visitor to decide whether the marvels within are made for deceit or art …another aspect of the Renaissance debate of Art versus Nature. Here amidst the contorted and disturbing figures, Nature seems to have lost out! But that, too, is a mere deceit as Nature is omni-present in the somewhat sinister woodland setting in which this bizarre fantasy is staged and where the normal idiom of a conventionally controlled and tended garden is subverted.

It is the earlier Villa Lante at Bagnaia near Viterbo, built by Cardinal Gambara c1573 and designed by Giacomo da Vignola, that provided the model from which Bomarzo could diversify and where in these elaborate gardens the absolute distinction between Nature and Art, and its resolution, can be experienced.  Here one side of the former hunting forest, the barco, is left as uncultivated woodland whilst the lower portion of the other half is enclosed and transformed into an elegant space with formally clipped box hedges defining an intricate pattern within the parterres. The focal point of this design is a large fountain set within a square and accessed by four monumental walkways between stone obelisks. There is no one dominating villa here but rather two casini or small pavilions that emphasise the formality yet harmonize with the landscape, even to the extent of being painted within with frescoes of gardens. The higher area stages a more classically Arcadian scheme with its tempietti and loggias cooled by fountains, rills and pools fed in turn by cascades running down the high natural slope between colonnades and over balustrades. The striking contrast between the formal lower garden and the mysterious bosco is maintained but it is the sylvan slopes of the upper garden, its terraces presided over by moss-covered gods and goddesses, which create an idealised interchange between Art and Nature.


Ogre at Sacro Bosco, Bomarzo

Unlike the decorum maintained within the vast spaces of the palace, it was dedicated to pleasure: feasting, dancing and music. In fact, it is used to this very day by the President of Italy as a summer residence. Indeed, the concept of privacy is maintained within the clipped hedges of its giardino segreto, a frequent component of these gardens, and one which continued the ideal of privileged exclusiveness.


Villa Aldobrandini

Theatricality and illusion as elements of garden design are spectacularly displayed at the imposing Villa Aldobrandini c1598 which dominates the town of Frascati. Here water cascades down a high slope between tall trees – the untamed bosco- its flow manipulated by channels, fountains and pools, its course reflecting in true Mannerist style the absolute control of Nature by Man, until it ultimately streams into a huge semi-circular nymphaeum, complete with statuary and inscribed entablature, dominated by the figure of Hercules holding the globe as its unequivocal focal point. And all of this is located at the back, or north side, of the villa, its subtleties and even its mathematical complexities to be appreciated and understood only by initiated guests as they stood admiringly on the loggia.

Practical issues arising from the need to create a garden were dramatically brought to our attention at the ancient Castello di Fumone built high on a rocky crag. In c1600 loads of soil were hauled up the hill to form the terraces and pathways of a giardino pensile, or hanging garden, and as we wandered around the terraces with their somewhat shaggy vegetation we could comment on the creators’ ingenuity and admire the magnificent view.

But it was at the lush gardens of Ninfa that expertise and inspiration were to be combined. These beautiful gardens formed among the streams and abandoned buildings of the ancient town of Ninfa were initiated c1882 by Ada Wilbraham, the English wife of Duke Onorato Caetani, through the simple expedient of stuffing rose cutting into the ruins and waiting for them to thrive – and they certainly have in this area’s exceptional microclimate. Successive members of the Caetani family, particularly Leila Caetani, have continued to embellish and add to the gardens so that it is now an exotic panoply of roses – annually pruned by Peter Beales no less – tumbling down ancient churches, of arum lilies lining the margins of mossy streams, and of festoons of wisteria hanging from branches and walls while bamboo and cherries take their place among the magnificent beeches and cypresses. The gardens are not ossified since, funded by a trust, new areas are being planted such as a rockery which has a pleasing collection of ‘English’ herbaceous plants. Indeed, while we were on our guided tour, gardeners were lining the pathways with small lavender bushes, a refinement which hinted at earlier Italian formality rather than the glorious yet artful random envisaged by the creators of Ninfa.

Our visit to the villas and gardens of Lazio was not, however, all academic rigour as we frequently enjoyed delicious lunches and refreshments on our way. In fact, at noon on our last day we were to be found on a shady terrace adjoining the turrets and box hedges of arguably one of the oldest surviving parterres in Italy sipping prosecco and munching morsels of parmegiano and salami. These delicacies were just the prelude to an alfresco lunch as we were the lunch guests of the Principessa Ruspoli – a descendant of one of Chalemagne’s Scottish mercenaries – at the ancient Castello Ruspoli, Vignanello. Our intellectual diligence was well rewarded by this very pleasant occasion and that evening we said farewell to each other and thanked Polly, our guide and Paolo, our skilful driver, for a most enjoyable and interesting trip. All that is left for us to do is to remind the Italian cultural authorities that they have real architectural and horticultural treasures within their country, some of which are under-funded and several of which could be more assiduously cared for.  There is sadly no equivalent of the National Trust nor of the AGT. A lasting memory of the latter and indeed of the whole trip was of an AGT member diligently removing weeds from one of the Villa Lante’s many overgrown water courses!


Castello Ruspoli