When Ignorance is Bliss – Villa Cetinale

Entering the gardens of Villa Cetinale

Entrance to the gardens of Villa Cetinale.  The villa, clock tower, and beyond the potted lemons, the limonaia and chapel.

I had only been back in Toronto a few weeks when a headline in the New York Times (Toronto Star Sunday supplement, June 22, 2013) caught my eye.  “Estate Laws Rankle Daughters of Nobles”.  The article was about the tradition of transferring titles and estates to the first-born – the first male-born child.  It’s called promogeniture and female members of Britain’s aristocracy were contesting it, no doubt encouraged by a law, recently passed, which, for the first time ever, made the line-up for the monarchy gender-neutral – meaning that William and Kate’s baby – boy or girl – would be third in line.  As we know now it was a boy, so the new law is still largely symbolic.

One of these clipped boxes is meant to represent a pavone (peacock).  The one on the left maybe?

One of these clipped boxes is meant to represent a peacock. The one on the left maybe?

One of the names in the article rang a bell – Lord Lambton.   He had died in 2006, leaving his entire estate to his only male offspring, Ned, whose birth had followed those of five daughters.  (There were no more children after Ned…)  Three of the five daughters had launched a lawsuit for a share of the multi-million dollar estate, claiming that since their father, having fled England in the 1970‘s under the cloud of a scandal that rivalled that of Profumo, had spent the last third of his life in Tuscany, the laws of Italy – which does not have primogeniture – should apply.

Going around the left side of the villa the first garden we come to is the so-called “English Rose Garden

Going around the left side of the villa the first garden we come to is the “English Rose Garden”.

Since I don’t follow the comings and goings of Britain’s aristocracy, the name had to have something to do with the gardens of Tuscany.  The hills overlooking Florence are covered with villas and gardens owned by wealthy British ex-pats.  Maybe it was one of the gardens near Fiesole that I had to pass up on visiting because of all the time lost to the rain.  I started googling “Lambton” when up popped “Lambton, Tuscany”.  The garden was in the hills,  but instead of the hills overlooking Florence, it was in the hills just a few kilometers south-west of Siena.  Villa Cetinale (chay-tee-nah-lay).


As I got closer to the entrance to the “Italian Garden” I could see that someone had taped a notice to the gate.  Apparently the istrice, the much-beloved symbol of one of the 17 contrade of Siena (more on that in a later blog) was not welcome in the garden.  By the way, in the Italian version the porcupine is not simply eating all the bulbs, it is ruining the entire garden! 

As in the 16 other con trade, symbols of the porcupine, are proudly displayed throughout the Contrada dell'istrice.

Instead of corporate logos, symbols of the contrade are proudly
displayed on buildings throughout the centro storico of Siena.

If I had known about its recent history, would I have found the gardens as beautiful?  Enjoyed my visit as much?  Is it possible to like a work of art, while disliking the artist who created it, or what the artist represents?

Cypresses, clipped boxwood in a monochrome palette of green.

Cypresses, clipped boxwood in a monochrome palette of green.

I have always preferred visiting a garden – especially the first time – knowing as little as possible beforehand.  A seemingly contradictory position, since I also believe that knowing something about the historical context and individuals behind the creation and design of a garden leads us to a deeper understanding and appreciation.  But I like to do most of the research afterwards.


In any event, what with the white knuckle drive out of Siena and the usual challenges of finding these gardens, by the time I reached Cetinale I had forgotten almost everything I had ever known about the place.


Once again, because of the brutto tempo (“ugly” weather), it was just me and the gardeners
who had clearly been giving their trimmers a workout in the Italian Garden.


In the distance the Romitorio (Hermitage)

Tall, brooding, black green cypresses.  Geometrically trimmed box and yew.  All colours beyond green banished.  This garden came closest to the image many people have of an “Italian Garden”.


The Italian Garden takes us around to the back of the villa.  This is where the “Green Avenue” that leads to the Romitorio (Hermitage) begins.



Halfway there.

The Romitorio was inhabited by monks until the end of the 19th century.  Presumably by the time you had climbed the 200 steps to the entrance you would be in a suitably humble frame of mind.  I wasn’t really forward to that climb, but since it wasn’t raining and it was still early in the day, it was difficult to rationalize not checking out such an important monument.



The beginning of the Santa Scala (Holy Stairway).

As I got closer I almost caught myself wishing for a sudden downpour.  There was nothing in the map I had been given to suggest that one should proceed with caution up the steps, let alone forego the pilgrimage altogether.   It certainly didn’t look as if anyone, saint or otherwise, had been up those steps in a very long time.


There was no-one else around.  What if I tripped and sprained something.  Or worse, what if my camera got smashed?  Pathetic or not, I very gingerly climbed a few of what was left of the steps, took a photo and then headed down to safer ground.



I had barely gone a hundred yards when I came across this sign. Vindicated!  I wondered why the fact that there had recently been an accident on the stairs was left out in the English version.   And as to why the sign is here, rather than a bit closer to the staircase…


Opposite the notice was a charming, wisteria-covered building.  In the top left corner, a trompe l’oeil (“trick the eye”) window.

IMG_1443 - Version 2

It was the first I’d seen since a trip a few years ago to the Cinque Terre, along the Ligurian coast near Genoa.  Santa Margherita di Ligure, a coastal town nearby, was filled with them.

Many of the buildings in Santa Margherita di Ligure, a coastal town just a few kilometers to the west of the “Five Villages”, are decorated with these surprisingly realistic faux windows.

Some of them are so cleverly done you have to take a really good look to tell the real ones from the pretenders.


On the side wall of the villa the papal crest. Pope Alessandro VII spent much of his youth at Cetinale.

The bosco (forest) was an essential feature of gardens of the era.  The bosco at Cetinale was not however, your run of the mill forest.  It was called the Tebaide (Holy Forest) in memory of a region inhabited by Christian hermits during the Middle Ages.  Here, along the winding  “pathway of penitence”, the 17th century pope, Alessandro VII, could retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life and contemplate issues of a higher order.

Beyond, an essential element of important gardens of the era, is the bosco (forest).

But before the spiritual forces of the bosco could work their magic on me, I was distracted by more earthly concerns.  One of the most important Sienese traditions – and many would say it is by far THE most important – is the Palio – a horse race in which each of the 17 contrade (neighbourhoods) competes.  ‘Competes’ is a rather benign word for the reality of this violent race which, for centuries has been held twice yearly in Siena’s Piazza del Campo.  

What does the Holy Forest at Cetinale have to do with a mad race that is virtually incomprehensible to all but the locals?  The only times in all those centuries when the race was not held in Piazza del Campo were during the two World Wars when it was cancelled and several years in the late 1600‘s when, because of the ongoing war between Siena and Florence, it was held in the “Holy Forest”.  The receptionist had told me to keep an eye out for stone contrada symbols from those days.

She had mentioned a tartaruga (turtle).

She had mentioned a tartaruga (turtle).

And a winged dragon.

And a winged dragon.

Hard to tell.  Could the side bits be what's left of the wings?

Hard to tell. Could the side bits be what’s left of the wings?

Further along statues of saints and hermits lined the paths.  Although they were not a source of contemplation for me, nor did I feel inspired to pray to them, I would soon be glad of their presence.


Votive chapels represent the "Seven Sorrows of the Virgin".

Votive chapels represent the “Seven Sorrows of the Virgin”.



As I went deeper into the forest I kept seeing bits of pink along the path.  Perhaps a wedding party had passed by recently?  Finally I took a really good look.

Wild cyclamen.

Wild cyclamen.


It was all quite lovely and peaceful. Absolutely conducive to meditation.  But after a while I began to feel uneasy.  It wasn’t just the dark clouds.  I had been following the path for quite a while.  Much longer than it should have taken.  I must have been going round and round in circles.  I could make no sense of the map I had been given.  I  could see the top of the clock tower, so technically speaking, I wasn’t lost.  I just couldn’t find the way out of the forest.   I may not be the world’s best map reader, but I do have a pretty good sense of direction and don’t get disoriented that often.  I use the sun a lot.  But there was no sun today.  Finally I recognized the first saint I’d come across.   Instead of turning right at this point as I had been doing, I had to turn LEFT.


When I had passed by the amphitheatre on my way to the Santa Scala earlier, it hadn’t made nearly as much of an impression as it did when I caught my first glimpse of it from the edge of the forest.


I hurried back along the “Green Avenue”, which of course seemed even longer than before, took a few more photos near the villa …



And then made a mad dash for the car as the heavens opened.