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Rome's Most Beautiful Gardens

Secreted away in the heart of the city or sprawled across hilltops outside of town, Rome’s gardens are fragrant oases with ancient statuary, cool pools and fountains, and all shades of green.

By Charles Maclean

High above the spanish steps in the wooded, statue-filled pleasure grounds of the Villa Medici, I find myself puffing heavenward up Pincio Hill, whose mini belvedere offers a 360-degree panorama of the Eternal City.

Lost in the astonishing view, I’m only half listening when our guide remarks that in the first century B.C. this same 17-acre site was covered by the Gardens of Lucullus. What she says next gets my full attention. The fabled gardens, created by a retired Roman general around his villa—somewhere under our feet—would become a model for other gardens in the city and later be recognized as one of the first attempts in the West to tame nature through landscape gardening.

This is where it all began. Right here.

In the company of friends who have come to look at villas and gardens in and around the city, I set off each day from the Hotel d’Inghilterra on sorties of enlightenment and varied delight. It’s early May, the ideal time to be in Rome (fewer people; less traffic; the temperature in the balmy mid seventies) and to make excursions into its newly greened-up countryside. Fields of scarlet poppy and yellow mustard plants line the road to Bomarzo, a good hour north of the city by car and the first and most extraordinary of the gardens we visit.

More sculpture park than garden, Bomarzo’s Sacro Bosco occupies a lush area on the grounds of the Villa Orsini. A web of looping trails leads though open glades, past rocky outcrops, and down steep ravines inhabited by giant, often grotesque statues of gods, mythical beasts, and other marvels. At every turn there’s an encounter with some unexpected and eccentric work of art. An elephant with a tower on its back; a huge turtle bearing the statue of a goddess; a leaning stone fun house. Some of the moss-covered figures are badly worn and their symbolism long lost, but there’s no mistaking the ogre whose gaping cave of a mouth (big enough to walk into without stooping) represents the entrance to the underworld.

If there’s something melancholy about nature having reclaimed much of the “Parco dei Monstri,” as it’s known locally, it fits the spirit of the place and the story of its creator. In 1552, Prince Vicino Orsini started work on a Villa of Wonders for his beloved wife, who died tragically young, which caused the project to be shelved; it was later completed as a monument to her memory. On the morning of our visit, though, the woods are loud with birdsong and the sound of delighted laughter as groups of schoolchildren race around this Renaissance Disneyland, clambering over the monsters and being yelled at by exasperated teachers.

In Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), Edith Wharton points out that villa in Italian refers both to the house and its garden or pleasure grounds. At the Villa Lante, built for Cardinal Gambara in the 1560’s on a hillside above the medieval town of Bagnaia and considered by many to be the finest Renaissance garden in Italy, the twin pavilions, or palazzine, play such a minor part in architect Giacomo Vignola’s overall design they might as well be garden ornaments. In contrast to the fanciful exuberance of Bomarzo, only a few miles away, Villa Lante is all about order and proportion, if not restraint.

Its main terraces are subdivided by paths and box hedges into geometrical patterns; they’re linked by steps and a central stream that falls from a grotto at the top of the garden through a sequence of magnificent fountains and cascades (adorned with shrimp tails, dolphins, and river gods) to the great water parterre that overhangs the ocher-roofed town below. As you look down on the garden from above, the beauty of these symmetrical arrangements becomes apparent—the sparkling play of sunlight on water; the inviting cool of ilex-shaded bowers—adding to the harmonious effect of the whole. Flowers, rarely a key feature of Italian gardens, would be a distraction.

However remote from the modern concept of a garden—nothing much has changed since the French essayist Montaigne, strolling the paths here in 1581, admired the fountains for their beauty and grace and saw rainbow effects in the misty spray—you can still appreciate how Villa Lante achieves through its inspired design a bucolic sense of peace, which goes back to the classical ideal of balancing art and nature in country living.

After a simple yet delicious lunch at Il Borgo, a café-restaurant with tables on the main square in Bagnaia (the local mozzarella and house-made licorice-dark chocolate ice cream are memorable), we set off on a 20-minute drive to the last garden of the day, in Caprarola. The only way to see what gardening authority Penelope Hobhouse called “one of the great masterpieces of Italian garden art” is by first taking the official tour of the Villa Farnese, a formidable pentagonal fortress that sits above the town looking out toward Rome. We troop through one magnificent empty salon after another (including a map-of-the-world room painted around 1570), and get a feel for how uncomfortable life must have been in those days, even for the rich and powerful.

It’s a relief to emerge into the sunlit grounds behind the palace and wander uphill through mature woods of ilex, chestnut, and pine to the Casino del Piacere (House of Pleasure), a perfectly proportioned lodge also built by Vignola. The final approach to the casino is by way of a dramatic arrangement of steps and fountains leading to a terraced garden of stone pillars, 28 male and female busts on tall pedestals that seem to have sprung from the ground along with the sentinel cypresses. The grandeur may be a little daunting, but Caprarola illustrates the importance the late-Renaissance builders and their masters set on the relationship between villa, garden (with all its sculptural forms), and the surrounding landscape.

The next morning, taking the old Appian Way out of Rome, we drive south for an hour toward Naples and stop, as travelers have been doing since Roman times, at Ninfa—a lush oasis in the desolate, once brigand-haunted Pontine Marshes. Here, tucked under the arid Lepini Hills, the ruins of a medieval town (razed by civil war in 1382) were gradually transformed over the course of the 20th century by the aristocratic, now died-out Caetani family into what some consider the most beautiful garden on earth.

There was never a formal plan. Three generations of Caetani wives helped Ninfa grow back over the skeleton of the abandoned town, its streets and buildings (tower, town hall, several churches) providing the framework for the garden. It still has a feeling of being inhabited not by ghosts but by the flora and fauna that have taken over the place, creating a dreamlike world of color, fragrance, and serenity.

You walk along a cypress avenue (once the main street), then follow grass paths (originally cobblestoned alleys) bordered with lavender and rosemary hedges that meander between the ruins. The crumbling stonework supports a profusion of climbing roses, clematis, honeysuckle, and jasmine. Vacant gateways and windows frame views of wildflower meadows, flowering shrubs, rare magnolias, pomegranate groves, and a cluster of giant timber bamboos. In the midday heat, the silence is broken only by the song of a nightingale and the sound of rushing water from the crystal-clear stream that runs through the middle of Ninfa.

It has the romantic appeal of an island, out of time and place. The sense of a natural equilibrium restored is as satisfying as it is humbling, but it’s a reminder too of the vision and hard work behind the scenes that made and now preserve this heavenly spot.

One of its chief creators, Princess Marguerite Caetani, was American and a distant cousin of T. S. Eliot. Besides importing and nurturing many exotic plant species, she founded the international literary magazine Botteghe Oscure, which flourished in the 1940’s and 50’s, and brought a succession of writers and artists to Ninfa. Her contributors make up a roll call of the giants—Lampedusa, Moravia, Calvino, Bertolt Brecht, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Camus, and Malraux, to name a few. In my wanderings, I find the corner by the river where Giorgio Bassani wrote parts of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which he maintained was inspired by Ninfa and the Caetani family.

Leaving paradise, we drive up to the hilltop Caetani village of Sermoneta. Its great castle, once the seat of the Borgias, dominates the countryside. You can see clearly the oasis of Ninfa, an uneven patch of brilliant green among the browns and ochers of the surrounding fields, and the Pontine Marshes stretching to the hazy shores of the Mediterranean on one side and Rome on the other.