Advantages Some magnificent gardens, with dramatic locations and intriguing history
Disadvantages Some poor standards of upkeep and welcome; some odd opening hours
|Is it worth visiting?|
In contrast to the city itself the region around Rome, Lazio as it is known, tends to attract few foreign tourists. To be honest, it might not have featured much in my travel plans had it not been for my wife’s keen interest in horticulture. Whilst we keep a joint list of places to see before we die, she keeps her own parallel list of gardens, and earlier this year she drew my attention to how many of the most appealing were clustered in Lazio.Never loath to visit Italy, I investigated what else might be worth seeing in the region, and it soon became clear that there was plenty, so plans were made. Our first instinct was to stay in Rome and go out to see the gardens in a series of day-trips, but investigation showed that this wasn’t an efficient approach. So, instead, we devised a circular itinerary to take in the main gardens and other attractions of interest.
In describing the gardens here, I shall follow the sequence of that itinerary. There may well, of course, be other ways of achieving the same objective, but this one was devised to take account of the gardens’ opening times, which are often very restrictive. For example, Ninfa – which my wife adjudged to be the most beautiful garden she has ever seen – is only open to the public on selected weekends (see details below). You might, therefore, if you were considering a tour of the gardens of Lazio, want to follow our example: arriving just prior to the relevant weekend, renting a car at the airport, and driving round Rome in an anti-clockwise direction, taking about a week in total, so as to conclude with Ruspoli, which is only open on Sundays, during the following weekend. Equally, if your inclinations lean towards the clockwise, you could set out a week earlier and do the circuit in the opposite direction. Or elaborate on it to take in further places of interest to you on the way. In any case, these were the gardens we visited:
Just inland from the coast road at Tor San Lorenzo, about an hour’s drive south of Rome’s Fiumicino airport, Landriana promised to be an ideal place at which to begin our tour. Situated on the side of a valley, it has 10 hectares (25 acres), but about half of this seems to consist of lawns occasionally used for exhibitions. The gardens themselves are divided into “rooms”, some arranged with classic Italianate formality, some like French parterres with geometrically-trimmed box hedges, and some in a more floral English fashion. There is even a ‘Spanish Pool Garden’, and some informal woodland around two lakes at the bottom of the slope.In the event, we thought the promise unfulfilled. Partly, I suggested to my wife, this might have been because at the time of our visit the Spring flowers were mainly over whilst the Summer ones were yet to appear, but she was dismissive: better succession planning would have eased the transition, I was assured, as indeed proved to be the case in some of the other gardens. She was also critical of a heavy-handed reliance on a limited range of varieties, and an overall lack of vivacity or charm in the planting. I would be more critical of the lack of vivacity or charm in the lady who conducted us round (only guided visits, in groups, are allowed); to me, she seemed very much to be going through the motions.
Maybe we struck Landriana on a bad day. Nor would I want to be overly critical; if you’re interested in gardens and passing by it is worth a stop. It’s open weekends and bank hols, morning and afternoon (closed for lunch); entry is 8€ for adults, 5€ for students. There’s a café at the site, but if you have to wait for your guided tour to begin, as you probably will, don’t let them sell you their nasty cappuccino for 2€ per tiny plastic cupful, which we felt was at least 2€ too much.Torr’s score: 4/10, which is perhaps ungenerous, but this place doesn’t make one feel generous.
Now this is the one you will really have been heading south from Rome to see. Ninfa enjoys a dramatic location at the base of an almost-sheer escarpment of the Lepini mountains – what my wife terms “a borrowed landscape”, although I don’t suppose the garden has any intention of giving it back. Its history is intertwined with that of the local nobility, the Caetani family. This dynasty suffered a temporary setback in papal politics as recently as 1382, which resulted in their possessions at Ninfa, including the village that housed their peasantry, being demolished. But they survived and centuries later the last generations reclaimed the estate and laid out the garden amid newly-planted cypresses, umbrella pines and plane trees, beside the lake and the river that runs through the mediaeval ruins. It really is a lovely spot.
Giardino di Ninfa
The last of the Caetanis intermarried with British and Americans, who brought a non-Italian informality to the design. There is very little here in the way of stone-lined ponds, fountains and statuary, pergolas and loggias – more a sinuous series of flower-beds and shrubberies, pools and cascades, as one follows a trail through the grounds. There is a sense of wildness about the place, but it is a cunningly contrived illusion, with the gardeners very much in discreet control. With so many crumbling walls and towers to garland, climbing plants are much in evidence, entwined round pillars or spilling out of empty window-frames. The family were great collectors, and the gardens contain over 10,000 species from all over the world. Moreover – in contrast to Landriana – many were in bloom when we were there, from scented citrus trees and late-blossoming magnolias to early clematis and rambling roses. Wisteria and viburnum too. And many, many others.There is a drawback to all this loveliness, which is that access is in short supply and high demand. The Caetani family has now died out, and Ninfa is maintained by a foundation that seems to regard visitors as an inconvenience to be tolerated for the income they bring, rather than to be welcomed. The gardens are open only on the first Saturday and Sunday of each month from April to October, plus the third Sunday in April, May and June, and you need to arrive early. We turned up not long after they opened at 9.00 in the morning and queued for about forty-five minutes before being admitted for one of the guided tours. By the time we emerged at 11.15, the queue was about three times as long, suggesting a waiting time of around two hours. When the day’s allocation is sold out, people are simply turned away. Also, note that before joining the queue for entry on the left, you have to obtain your tickets from the booth beside the entrance that looks just like a souvenir stall; nowhere is this explained – you could easily assume the long queue is the one for tickets, only to discover that you must start again. Entrance is 10€, plus another 2€ if you want to see the adjacent orchard, which is well worth it at blossom time.
Torr’s score: 9/10. Mrs T would probably award it 10/10, but I feel a deduction is in order for lack of customer-friendliness. I suspect that the staff regard the plants rather than the visitors as their customers.
Many of Lazio’s great gardens were laid out not so much for horticultural enjoyment as to enhance the grandeur of the palaces of powerful families. The region was at the heartland of the Papal States, ruled directly by the Catholic Church. Advancement in the Catholic hierarchy was the key to earthly power, and to material rewards on earth at least as munificent as the spiritual ones to be expected, rightly or wrongly, in heaven. Conversely, earthly power could be the key to clerical advancement, and if you became, say, a cardinal it paid to reinvest some of the proceeds of your position in a show of prestige that might help propel you onwards, perhaps even to the papacy itself.Pietro Aldobrandini was just such a cardinal at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Villa Aldobrandini which sits proudly on a steep hillside above the town of Frascati to the south-east of Rome is his memorial. The first impression on the visitor is probably just as he would have wished, imposing to the point of being intimidatory: ceremonial gates front onto the town’s main square, behind which a long deferential avenue of ilex can be seen leading to up to the handsome baroque edifice. But the gates are rusty and the ilex overgrown. Our out-of-date guidebook advised us to buy tickets at a tourist office address in town, but that was shut up, seemingly permanently, and instead we found our way up the hill to a side-entrance to the estate. Here we found a ground-keeper and asked him about tickets and entry times; he shrugged and gestured as if to indicate that we could wander round at will, which we duly did.
There are still some magnificent monuments at the Aldobrandini, including the villa itself and the “water theatre” behind it. The latter is a vast and extraordinarily ornate array of statues and fountains of set into the hillside. Some work is in progress to restore it, but most of the fountains were not working and the series of water-courses that is intended to feed them from above was in disrepair. To either side, the gardens are untended, bushes entangled and unkempt, floral decoration notable by its absence. If one climbs to the top of the hill, there is a pleasant enough walk to be had back down to the villa, but it is a walk through the woods, not through what one would understand as a garden.Torr’s score: 4/10 at best for the gardens, given the state they’re in, perhaps more for the experience. Anyway, the score could easily be doubled if someone invested the time and trouble in a thorough restoration.
Built as another exercise in hillside-dominating prestige from another of the 16th century clans jostling for papal power, the Villa d’Este and its gardens are in much better repair than those of Aldobrandini. The visitor isn’t quite as overawed on arrival, though, because entry is now through the back of the Villa in the middle of the town of Tivoli, rather than, as was originally intended, via an ascent to it through the gardens from the bottom of the hill. Only when you are emerge from the Villa – which contains some fine rooms decorated with excellent frescos on moulded stucco – and out onto the terraces behind do you appreciate the true scale of the place.
The Villa d’Este has, I think, the most purely Italian of the gardens that we saw. Here little is left to nature, and human decoration predominates throughout, particularly in the shape of fountains, formal ponds, stonework and statuary. On the whole I prefer informal greenery, but there’s no denying the decoration is awe-inspiring, and inspirational. One terrace over a hundred metres long is lined with a series of waterspouts on three levels, each spurting from the mouth of an individually carved face. Elaborate set-piece fountains tower above the visitor, each hollowed behind with grottoes and crowded in front with sculptures. One such set-piece opens to play an organ on the hour, like a hydraulic glockenspiel. Elsewhere, water cascades down the channels carved in the banister-style stonework that flank the steps that lead one from terrace to terrace and feature to feature.To the expert eye, most of the statuary and detail is symbolic, drawing on classical legend, local custom or heraldic emblems to convey a message about the ancestry and importance of the founding family. There are books of reference available that decode all the subtexts and imagery, if you are interested. Personally, I found all that detail too much to absorb, and in a curious way a distraction from enjoying the gardens for their own sake. If you’re focussed on interpreting the symbolism, you might just fail to take in the full magnificence of the site, with its great vistas west towards the hills of Rome, or to notice that the planted parts of the garden stand up to scrutiny in their own right, and are not just there to fill in between the water features. Or so my wife assured me. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, incidentally, open daily except Mondays, and admittance is well worth the 13€ for adults or 6.50€ for students. It’s especially worth it for those over 65, who enter free, so take your passport along as proof if you qualify.
Torr’s score: 8/10, but if fountains are your thing you might well make that nine, only withholding the final point either because a few are currently under repair, or because they tend to be surrounded by parties of noisy schoolchildren.
One could in time, I suppose, tire of palatial villas on hillsides bossing it over subservient communities, but I don’t think this would happen at the Villa Farnese. The building itself is extraordinary, a towering ornate Renaissance mansion built to a pentagonal plan around a circular central courtyard. It fills the horizon ahead as one drives towards it up the steep narrow high street of the gloomy town of Caprarola, near Viterbo, north of Rome. Immediately in front of it is a wide open piazza, roughly bricked over for use as a car park and without any horticultural features. From here one mounts a stately staircase to the house.Entering, we were greeted with two pieces of good news and one bad: there was a guided tour due in a few minutes (good); they didn’t seem to want any money (good, but a sad reflection on our advanced years); and that only a small section of the grounds was open, the main area to the rear of the building being “pericoloso” – dangerous in what way it was impossible to ascertain. When you haven’t paid anything it’s hard to be too pushy, especially in a foreign language. Since we were primarily there to see the gardens, though, it was a bit of a blow to be excluded from have most of them, but to me at least the interior of the villa more than made up for it, especially as we were the only visitors on the guided tour. Luigi, who took us round, spoke only Italian, which made it difficult to understand all the architectural detail, but it is so magnificent that verbal description was superfluous. The main spiral staircase, especially designed so that horses as well as humans can ascend, is lined with alcoves filled with exquisite statuettes. From it one passes through room after room rich in carvings, mouldings and frescos as good as any at the Villa d’Este. Baroque ornamentation is everywhere.
After that, the brief visit we were allowed to a box-hedged parterre to the side of the villa was a bit of an anti-climax, though pleasant enough in itself with a pretty wisteria in bloom. My wife was particularly disappointed not to be able to see the famous secret garden, reached by a winding walk through chestnut woods and noted for its loggias designed for al fresco dining amid cascading water features. Perhaps another time it will not be so dangerous. The villa and gardens are open – in so far as they are open at all – every day except Mondays and public holidays (convenient, that). I wish I could tell you the entry cost if you are still in the prime of life, but I can’t find that listed anywhere.Torr’s score: a generous 3/10 (my wife says mean; she would give it 4 or 5) for the small section of garden we saw, but I suspect that my score would at least double if we’d seen them all. The villa itself was worth the visit, anyhow.
And now for something a little bit different: a 16th century theme park. The Sacro Bosco (“Sacred Grove”) at Bomarzo is also informally known as the Bosco dei Mostri (“Monster’s Grove”) after the many statues of mythical monsters, animals and human and semi-human figures that populate its wooded site. It was created in deliberate contrast to the regimented power-statement gardens that were in vogue among the privileged theocrats at the time by one Vicino Orsini, a soldier rather than a churchman and therefore a rung or two down the Papal State pecking order.
Whether you’d like Sacro Bosco depends essentially on what you look for when you visit a garden. If you are a horticulturalist looking for rare species cunningly juxtaposed to exquisite effect, you’ll be disappointed. The planting is mostly everyday trees and shrubs, lush enough to be conducive to the atmosphere, but in themselves unexceptional. If you seek ornamental fountains, colonnades and pergolas in the classic Italian tradition, you will be likewise unimpressed. There are statues and figures aplenty, many larger than life, but they are arranged seemingly at random through the grove, to surprise rather than to impress. There is, in fact, order behind the seeming chaos, because this too is a garden full of figurative meaning, if of a different kind from that to be found at places like the Villa d’Este. Orsini’s theme, or so I have read somewhere, was “man’s journey through the pitfalls and passions of the world to an understanding of divine love”; I have to confess that this evaded me.This is a garden that those well versed in such interpretations will find fascinating, and that children will find fantastic fun. Since my own understanding is nearer that of a child, I too found it fun, but not a lot more than that. Worth a visit, though, simply because it’s so different from others in the region. Sacro Bosco “opens every day from 8.00 a.m. to sun” accordingly to its publicity leaflet; this seems to mean sunset rather than sunrise. A pity in a way; the grove might be at its ghostly best just after dusk. If you’re there at lunchtime, the café has a pleasant terrace and good food (and mendicant cats). Entry costs 9€ with, alas, no reductions.
Torr’s score: 7/10 for originality and atmosphere, but probably a few points lower judged strictly as a garden rather than as an entertaining oddity.
The gardens of the Villa Lante, at Bagnaia on the outskirts of Viterbo, are less extensive than some of the other Renaissance classics in the region, but have their devotees for the elegance and charm of their design. They have all the by-now familiar features: a hillside location with views over the town; a symmetrical parterre de broderie arranged around an ornate fountain and be-statued pools; pavilions with interior frescos; stone steps rising to the higher levels, down through which a central “water staircase” provides a unifying decorative focus, and shady paths running off into the shrubbery to either side. On one level there is a very practical variation on this theme; a carved stone table for open-air dining, with the water-course running through its middle to keep the bottles chilled. Even a horticultual philistine can relate to that.Full as it is of decorative fountains, the Villa Lante is much less grandiose than the Villa d’Este (it would be hard to be more grandiose than the Villa d’Este), but is none the worse for that, nor for its smaller scale. We liked it, and liked too the woodland walks through the informal section of the grounds, in the midst of which one would happen upon unheralded pools and statues – a very tranquil place. There is also, separately situated just by the entrance to the grounds, a further water feature, a oval basin surrounded by statues and balustrades, but dominated by the figure of Pegasus at its centre. This probably symbolises something, but can be enjoyed simply for its own magnificence.
Torr’s score: 8/10, plus a bonus point for the four-leaved clover that my wife found in the grounds. Thank you, lucky Lante.
The Castello Ruspoli is to be found – as with so many of its kind – at the hilltop centre of a town, the town in question being Vignanello, to the east of Viterbo. It is now more a palace than a castle, having been converted to peaceful purposes late in the 16th century. To reach the gardens one must pass through the the richly furnished hall (a full guided tour of the interior is available) and out by the bridge across the moat on the far side.This brings you to the upper parterre that it the main feature of the garden. As parterres go it’s a big one, with neatly trimmed box and laurestinus, a central fountain – elegant enough in design but small and plain by the standards of the Villas d’Este or even Lante – and roses and potted citrus trees for decoration. A smaller, narrower parterre on a lower level, the beds lent more colour by clumps of irises and rambling roses up the wall, is reached by steps. Here we also found two resident dogs and – when we foolishly left the gate unlatched on ascending again to the higher level – one of these took it upon himself to show us round the rest of the garden, which consists of an extended avenue, and a parallel narrow meadow full of wild flowers, running along a spur of the hill behind the formal bit. On our return, we contrived to lure him back into the lower parterre and, for safety, secure the latch, with only his reproachful yelping to pursue us as we fled out to the town.
The garden is appealing enough, and affords fine views from its higher terraces, but for decoration, both floral and man-made, is less magnificent than some of the others around Lazio. It is open only on Sunday mornings – when you will have to compete for limited parking space with those attending services at the Church opposite its entrance. Entry (garden only) costs 6€, with no concessions, and you are free to wander about in your own time unguided, unless you count the dog.
Torr’s score: 7/10. Not the most impressive of those we visited, but well worth seeing if you can be in the area during its short opening hours, and a pleasant place at which to round off the tour.
There you have it then: a brief circuit of some of Lazio’s more notable garden treasures. And very notable some of them are, indeed majestic. The majority that date from the Renaissance period also provide a fascinating commentary on the history of that era and on the corruption and intrigue of ecclesiastical politics, with power and influence being gained by such services as in times gone by cardinals rendered popes. I suppose we should be thankful that the families that schemed, fawned, bullied and murdered their way to power – much like the mafia families of another place and time – sought to consolidate their position by building palatial villas and surrounding them with elaborate, vainglorious gardens. For many of the gardens remain glorious today, when the vanity is not a hindrance to their enjoyment. Supplemented with more modern creations, they provide the framework for a most rewarding tour – rewarding not only for horticultural enthusiasts, but for anyone with an eye for landscape and atmosphere, architecture and history.
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