An Emperor’s Country Retreat

From Ninfa, it’s an easy hour drive to Rome, even for an unabashedly cautious Canadian driver.  I had been to Rome a few times before, but having spent my formative years, as far as all things Italian go, in Tuscany, among Tuscans whose attitudes towards Rome are best left undescribed, Rome was a hard sell for me.  The traffic.  The noise.  The Romans.

Poppies and cypresses along the country lane to the villa entrance.

If you come by bus, as I did after driving there once, it’s a short walk to the villa entrance along a lovely country road.

This time, in the hopes of seeing the Città Eterna in a new light, instead of the onslaught to the senses of sudden immersion, I was going to take the inching-into-the-water, one-toe at-a-time approach.  I would acclimatize myself in the countryside north of the city, with a visit to the ruins of one of the most extravagant, grandiose Imperial Residences of the Roman Empire.

This may not seem like the obvious first choice for someone looking to ease her way into the Eternal City, but keep in mind that these ruins were the inspiration for one of the most important movements in the history of western civilization, and one that is very dear to all lovers of Tuscany (which is not the same thing, I would like to point out, as ‘Tuscan lovers’) – the Renaissance.

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The long, cypress-lined avenue at the entrance would become a standard element of the Classic Renaissance Garden.

In the 2nd century AD, around the same time he was building a wall across what is now northern England, Emperor Hadrian decided he needed a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of Rome.  He commissioned a retreat in the countryside about 20 kilometres  north-east of the capital city.

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I visited Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este nearby in one day.  From the comfort of home, it had seemed like a good idea.  It is not.  Hadrian’s Villa is enormous – 120 hectares. That’s about 250 acres.  And despite having been subjected to centuries of sacking, plundering and neglect, there is still an astounding amount of stuff to see.

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After the fall of the Roman Empire the villa was abandoned and essentially forgotten for a thousand years – throughout the ‘Dark Ages’ as the period was called during my High School days.  Erroneously, as we now know, but that’s another matter.  What was, however, truly dark was that it was not just the villa that was forgotten, but so were all the formulas, practical engineering skills and expertise that had enabled the ancients to build their spectacular monuments and buildings.

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When the ruins were discovered at the beginning of the 1500’s, the leading scholars, artists and architects of the time – the likes of Michelangelo, Raffaello, da Vinci, Andrea Palladio – flocked to the site, hoping to uncover the long-lost secrets of the ancient Romans.

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Piazza d’Oro.  The Golden Piazza.

Armed with this knowledge, their goal was not just to copy the architectural wonders of the ancient world, but with the enormous self-confidence that characterized the Renaissance spirit, surpass them.

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And what, you may well be wondering, does any of this have to do with gardens?  Well, as those scholars and artists explored the ruins, looking for engineering formulas and practical skills, they stumbled across a great deal of information about daily life in Hadrian’s time.  And when the rich and powerful of the 16th century learned that their rich and powerful predecessors had considered luxurious villas and magnificent gardens essential to the pursuit of the ideal life, they immediately set about commissioning villas and gardens modelled on what they found at Hadrian’s Villa.

Water, a symbol of power and wealth – it may have been a country retreat, but it was still the country retreat of an Emperor – was used on a grand scale at Villa Adriana.   Although not the largest water feature, for me the Teatro Marittimo (Maritime Theatre) was the most striking.  High circular walls enclose a pool, a perfect circle, and in the middle of the pool is an island, another circle.  On the island was a luxurious, miniature Roman villa, complete with atrium, library, dining room and small bath.  This was Hadrian’s ultimate retreat.

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Access to the island was across a wooden bridge that could be pulled up, so that no-one could intrude on the emperor’s privacy.

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A hypothetical reconstruction of Hadrian’s island villa.

Centuries later, from the Isolotto in the Boboli Gardens to the little islet at Villa Gamberaia, the island theme would be replicated in gardens throughout Italy and beyond.

I knew there was no way I would have the time, or energy, to explore the whole site, so I decided to focus on water.  On my way to another water feature,  I came across a  museum. Very small, but fascinating.  And very frustrating.  Because of the sign posted at the entrance.

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But it did make me laugh.  In the Italian version, the use of cameras and videos is severely prohibited, both professional and amateur (amatoriale).  But in English, it’s OK as long as your photos stink?  I had a little chat with the custode.  She was very friendly and I eventually decided to mention the glitch in the translation.  She still wouldn’t let me take any ‘unprofessional’ photos.

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As military commander of the Roman Empire, Hadrian travelled extensively.  And when he was back home, he wanted to have momentos in the gardens surrounding his country retreat that reminded him of the places he had visited.  Just like us.

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The Canopus recreates Hadrians’s favourite part of the Nile.

 

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Hadrian had seen Caryatids, columns sculpted into female figures, at the Acropolis.

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Quite a few have been spirited away since Hadrian’s time.

To make sure visitors got the point.

Along one side of the Canopus.  Just to make sure visitors got the point.

At one end of the enormous pool, in an elevated alcove, Hadrian would dine, in splendid isolation, bathed in the golden candle light reflected off the marble-covered walls, like a god on Mt. Olympus, overlooking his guests.

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Dining al fresco became a must-have feature of the 16th century garden.  Except that unlike Hadrian, the 16th hosts sat together with their guests.

Obviously, although there is still an over-abundance of things to see, a lot has gone missing over the centuries.  The period following the discovery of the ruins was particularly grim.  Those 16th century Romans didn’t just take ideas from the ruins.   Unencumbered by any of our notions of archeology or site preservation, they – along, it must be said, with other visitors from further afield – also helped themselves to things, things which were spirited away to museums, art galleries and private estates across Europe.  It’s a wonder there is anything left.

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However, looking on the bright side, a lot of those things ended up conveniently close by, in the next garden I was going to visit – Villa d’Este.

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Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village

There are many things to love about travelling around Italy.  Moltissime. (moal-tees-see-may)  One of them is the way you can get in the car and, in the wink of an eye by Canadian standards, find yourself in a totally different landscape.

About two hours north of Caserta (‘The Queen’s Garden’, last week’s post) is a garden that many consider the most romantic not just in Italy, but in the world.

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The garden is set in the valley surrounded by the Lepini Mountains.

You many be wondering what kind of garden there could possibly be in such a barren, desolate landscape.  After what seemed hours of white knuckle driving along narrow, twisting roads, I was asking myself that very question. There are two routes to the garden. I took the shorter, ‘scenic’ route through the mountains.  I learned later that nobody, except for the locals, takes that route.

I had left early, in plenty of time to make my 11 a.m. appointment.  But after a while, I started to get a very bad feeling.  It wasn’t that I was lost.  Whenever I stopped to ask, people would just nod their heads and point down the road.  “Avanti, Signora, avanti.”

Of all the gardens in Italy I’ve visited, this had been by far the most difficult to arrange.  I had  designed my entire itinerary around it.  It is a private garden and if, like me, you are not with the BBC or some similarly august organization, but simply a lowly member of the ‘public’, you can only visit the garden by guided tour.  Nothing untoward there.  The restricted access is based on the concern – totally legitimate in my opinion – that the garden is too fragile to handle hordes of visitors tramping around it willy nilly.  The logistical nightmare stems from the fact that those tours are held only when the garden is at its most beautiful. Another totally reasonable idea, except for the fact that apparently the garden is at its most beautiful for a very short period, which means that tours are offered only on the 1st and 3rd Saturday and Sunday of April and May, the 1st and 3rd Sunday in June, nothing in July or August and a few days in September.  And now, after all that planning, changing hotel reservations, shuffling things around on my itinerary, the possibility that I might be late, might actually miss seeing the most romantic garden in the world was becoming more possible with each hairpin turn of the decidedly unscenic mountain road.

Convinced that I had somehow missed the sign, maybe I’d whizzed by it on one of the few occasions when I’d managed to get out of second gear, I decided to stop again.  A fellow was sitting in his car by the side of the road.  “Buon giorno.  E’ del posto?”  (Good morning.  Are you from around here?)  When he replied that he was indeed del posto, I asked the way to the garden.  Now I may not have known exactly where the garden was, but I did know that in the grand scheme of things, it was a hair’s breath away.

Unless you’re a saint, I’m sure you would have been as contrariato as I was when this person del posto shrugged and said he wasn’t sure.  (In case you’re not sure, contrariato is not one of those faux amis; it means precisely what it looks like – ‘to be in a bad mood as a result of something which does not meet one’s expectations’.  My sentiments exactly!)  We were at a fork in the road.  He pointed half-heartedly to the left.  “Forse di là.” (Maybe that way.)   For some reason, I was not convinced.  As I stood there, getting more and more contrariata, a group of cyclists came by.  Sunday mornings, cyclists all over Italy take to the country roads.  Cyclists, I said to myself, will know the area.  They aren’t going to waste energy getting lost.  Time for the magic phrase.  I walked over to a few who had stopped to admire the view.  “Buon giorno.  Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma…”    Without a nanosecond’s hesitation one of them pointed.   A destra (to the right).   “Meno di due chilometri.” (Less than two km.) I promised never again to get upset if I got stuck behind a group of cyclists.

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Whether or not the garden lived up to its romantic reputation, its name was certainly enchanting.  It’s called the Giardino di Ninfa after the ninfa (nymph) whose tears for a lost lover turned into the stream that runs through the valley.

The real-life Ninfa was a prosperous little village along the banks of that stream.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, it became a popular resting spot for a steady stream of  pilgrims travelling along the Via Francigena between Rome and Naples.  All went well for over five hundred years.

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At the end of the 13th century, Ninfa’s good luck changed.  A fellow by the name of Caetani took a fancy to the village and bought up the whole thing.  What with all the shops and inns and villagers’ homes, not to mention seven churches that were crammed inside the village walls, space was in short supply.  Nevertheless, the first thing Caetani did was to build himself a grand castle.

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Remaining tower of Caetani’s castle.

Unfortunately for the village and its inhabitants, Caetani was not only wealthy, he was also the nephew of Pope Boniface VIII, which meant that his extended family consisted of a bunch of factions vying for power.  These feuding factions took turns attacking the strategically located village and less than a century after Caetani’s arrival, succeeded in razing the village to the ground.  Malaria took care of the few survivors.

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Water-loving plants, like these Japanese Iris, grow along the banks of the streams that flow through the garden.

The village lay forgotten and abandoned for hundreds of years, until the arrival of the first of three women who would transform the abandoned ruins into a lush garden.

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Ninfa’s new lease on life began at the end of the nineteenth century with the marriage of Ada, an English woman, to Count Caetani.   Ada was a real outdoorsy type.  She loved hunting, climbing, hiking.  One of her favourite outings was to take her children, and any unsuspecting guests who happened to be visiting, on rambles and picnics in the medieval village, planting rose cuttings along the base of the crumbling walls as they wandered among the ruins.

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In May, climbing yellow roses, perhaps one of Ada’s cuttings, smother a crumbling wall.

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Clematis and day lilies thrive on one side of this crumbling wall…

Over time what had begun as a kind of game developed into a real passion.  Perhaps fearing for his mother’s safety and, even in those less litigious times, possibly also that of her guests, her son, Gelasio, an engineer by training, started to clear the undergrowth and stabilize the walls.

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…while Abutilon (Flowering Maple) and coreopsis have taken over the other side.

It’s not just the contrast between the luxuriant, almost overgrown plants and the desolate, barren mountains I had driven through, that creates a sense of extraordinary lushness.  Those mountains protect the valley from harsh, winter winds.  Add to that the moderating effect of the Mediterranean, only a few kilometres to the west, and you end up with a kind of natural greenhouse in which the plants really do grow larger – and live longer – than they normally would this far north.

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An unlikely combo – Umbrella Pines and banana plants.

The second woman was Marguerite, an Anglo American who married Gelasio’s brother. Her goal was to create a ‘wild, unkempt landscape’.  We all know how much time, effort and money it takes to create that effect.  Records have been found of some of the plant orders she placed.  One from the early 1930’s included over one hundred different species of roses from a nursery in England.  Another, dated June 1940, just as Italy was about to enter World War II, was for 1,000 Russell lupins and half as many Dianthus.

It might be tempting to dismiss her garden, no matter how beautiful, as the frivolous plaything of a woman of privilege, insulated by her family’s extreme wealth from the events taking place around her.  That was not the case.  During the same period, gardens throughout Italy were being ‘restored’ by order of Mussolini to his vision of the classic Italian garden.  Marguerite’s wild, untamed garden was an unambiguous rejection of Mussolini’s campaign to promote the patria and of the Fascist movement he led.

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Marguerite’s “wild, unkempt landscape.”

The third woman was Marguerite’s daughter, Lelia.  Lelia took her mother’s vision one step further.  Hers was to be a garden ‘on the verge of collapse’, at that moment when Nature is about to gain the upper hand.  Perhaps she was aware of the ‘Third Nature’ Renaissance garden designers had aspired to. (‘Boboli Gardens, Part II’, Nov. 24, 2013).

Bamboo, the artistocrat's fence.

Bamboo, the artistocrat’s fence.

Lelia’s lasting contribution to the garden was the foundation she set up with her husband.  This was a relatively unknown concept in Italy at the time, but as the son of a British diplomat, her husband would have no doubt been familiar with the National Trust system in England.  After the Fondazione Caetani had been set up, the garden received an important – and unexpected – boost to its survival when the Italian government declared 1800 hectares surrounding the garden a wildlife oasis, thereby protecting the nymph’s stream, the lifeblood of the garden, from pollution.

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When we got to this part of the tour, I felt a bit sorry for our guide.  She had done an excellent job, I thought.  Apart from myself and two older Dutch women, who spoke excellent English but no Italian, our group consisted of a motley group of Italians – couples, friends, three generations of families on a Sunday outing.  Her well-rehearsed script was a bit heavy on the history of the garden – lots of dates and names of popes and cardinals – but the group was extremely attentive and there wasn’t a lot of dawdling or stepping where we weren’t supposed to.

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Until we came to where the stream widens.  And then there was a chorus of ‘Che bello!’ this and ‘Che bello!’ that.  And ‘Vieni qua.’ (Come here.)  Guarda questo! (Look at this.)  I was with the Italians on this one.  Being a courteous and respectful tour member and keeping up with the guide was one thing.  Rushing through this enchanting landscape was another. Usually I try very hard to respect local customs and expectations, so as not to fall into the ‘Ugly Tourist ‘category.  But I could not resist staying behind to get a few ‘tourist free’ shots.

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To ease my nagging conscience, I made sure I wasn’t the only one.  Besides, I could see her up ahead, like little Bo-Peep with her straggling sheep behind her.  The tour ended within the walls of Caetani’s palace.  To make amends for my lingering, I offered to take a photo of a threesome by the castle gate.  I had watched each of them take turns photographing the other two.  They were surprised, probably as much to find out that I spoke Italian as by my offer, but they were delighted.  There.  Good deed for the day.  Done.

The end of the tour.

At the base of Caetani’s tower, the end of the tour.

It had been quite a challenge getting here.  I’d had a few dark moments, thought a few uncharitable thoughts on the way.  But, as often happens, the whole experience, even getting there, turned out to be one of my favourites.

The Queen’s Garden

Still here, at the end of King Ferdinand’s garden.  Pondering.  It’s a 3 kilometre walk back to the Reggia.  Did I really want to trudge who knows how many more kilometres exploring another garden?

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But, as I’ve said before, you spend 8 hours breathing recycled air, jockeying for ‘your’ share of the arm rest, eating what is put in front of you and being glad of the diversion, then holding ‘it’ until you’re going to burst, because the two passengers between you and the aisle have fallen asleep  (if you’re lucky enough to get a window seat – only one arm rest to worry about) – all that just to cross the Atlantic, and now you’re thinking about not visiting a garden that you’re standing right in front of?!

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There was no map posted at the beginning of King Ferdinand’s garden.  Who needs a map when the beginning to the end is a straight line?  Here instead, is not only a map, but a rather detailed map.  Of an area interlaced with curves.  Barely a straight line in sight.

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And beyond the map and the entrance gate is a sight that makes all the extra trudging worth while.

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No matter which path you take – with all those curves and meandering paths, it’s easy to get lost – there is an amazing variety of fascinating and unusual – at least to this Canadian’s eye – plants and trees.

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This one I recognized from Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.

While this garden was created on Italian soil, or at least what was then the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which would eventually become Italian, it was called  Il Giardino Inglese (jar-dee-no in-glay-zay).  The English Garden.

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That’s because Queen Maria Carolina wanted a garden in the new style that was all the rage in Italy at the time – the so-called ‘Romantic English Garden’.  In contrast to the classic Renaissance Garden, which was designed to be an unequivocal demonstration of mankind’s domination over nature – and implicitly, one particular man’s domination over his subjects – the goal of the new style was to create a ‘naturalistic haven’.  But, given that the individuals who commissioned these gardens were, like their 15th century predecessors, powerful, wealthy people, not surprisingly, in amongst all that ‘Nature’, there was a still a great deal of hubris and artifice.

The Queen’s garden was no exception and the first thing that may strike you, if you are of a ‘Horticultural Purist’ bent, is that, plant-wise, there is very little of the ‘natural’ in this garden.  Native species, being common and therefore unimpressive, were shunned in favour of exotic plants and trees.  The Magnolia Grandiflora was one of my favourites.

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The grandest Magnolia Grandiflora I’ve ever seen.

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‘Old Beauty’ takes on new meaning when you’re talking about a tree dating back 20 million years.

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But 20 million years ago the bee had yet to make an appearance.  How then were the flowers pollinated?

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Those gorgeous, thick petals aren’t just for our visual pleasure. They evolved to support the weight of the beetle, which preceded the bee.  As the beetles crawled over the petals in search of nectar, they inadvertently pollinated the flower.

The making of this garden was of course a delightful way for the queen to pass the time while the king was off killing animals and creating his own version of Versailles.  But the queen also had another, much less enlightened reason for wanting to create this garden. Sibling rivalry.

Over at Versailles her sister, Marie Antoinette, had created the extraordinary Petit Trianon.  (‘The Garden Gardeners Love to Hate, June 29, 2014.)  Queen Carolina was determined to create a garden at least as grand.  Maybe even grander.

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“Ruins’ of a Doric Temple.

In addition to ‘unnatural’ plant material, fake ponds and lakes were hugely popular.  And when the buried city of Pompeii was discovered, ruins also became fashionable.  All the best gardens had to have one – the more ruined-looking, nicely ruined that is, the better.

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Even when you know it’s all fake – even the lake is man-made – it’s hard to resist.

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Flowing through the garden are delightful streams, along which all sorts of lush, tropical ferns and arums grow.  Naturally.

If you come here looking for flowers, you’re probably going to be disappointed.  But I think you’d have to be pretty curmudgeonly not to be taken with the beauty, however ‘natural’, of Queen Carolina’s garden.  And, for the sake of argument, if you do insist on maintaining a curmudgeonly stance, what about the remarkable difference between this garden and the one right next to it?  The king and queen’s gardens were subject to the same climate, same growing conditions, same amount of land, same soil, same access to water and same financial resources.  Yet their gardens are vastly different.

It reminded me of neighbourhood gardens back home and how different they can be.  All you have to do is drive through a neighbourhood to see that, inevitably, we end up revealing something of ourselves in our gardens.  I am always amazed at how this happens.  We buy our plants at the same stores, endure the same vagaries of climate, battle with the same pests, etc. and yet, when we have, on occasion, stepped back and compared the results of our efforts with those of our neighbours, how many times have we shaken our heads in wonder at how we could have ended up with spaces that are so different?  All of which, of course, makes the annual ‘Garden Tour’ one of the biggest fundraisers of our local garden societies.  And that’s something not even a curmudgeon can take issue with.

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If the designer was really skilled, he might even manage a waterfall.

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One path leads to an ‘ancient’ Roman cryptoporticus.

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The covered gallery opens on to a pond lined with tropical plants and trees.

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On the far side of the pond, away from prying eyes, Venus bathing.

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But there is a tunnel that leads to the other side of the pond…

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… and another view of the bathing goddess.

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Was the crack part of the artifice or was it real?

On my way back through the gallery I happened to look up and saw a very large crack in the ceiling.  It may have been a very clever bit of mischief on the part of the designer, but I had no desire to linger in there.

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It really is a wonderful garden, but in the end I didn’t explore the whole thing. Call it a case of ‘the mind is strong, but the body weak’ if you like, but frankly, 63 acres is nothing to sneeze at.  Besides, in the back of my mind was the thought that every step I took in this garden added to that 3 kilometre walk back to the castle.

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Someone was going to have to get that ball.

While I had been meandering around the English Garden, the locals had arrived.  There were VIETATO – (PROHIBITED)- ‘No entry’ signs at the base of the waterfall, but not one black-uniformed, whistle-blowing guard like those I’d seen all over the gardens of Versailles.

The view from the top was, I was sure, spectacular so, like the locals, I squeezed through the hole in the fence and started clambering up the rocks.  For a while I ignored the odd looks I was getting from the young, extremely athletic youths all around me.  But then those looks and the fear of ending up sprawled on the ground, combined with the unpleasant awareness that I had at least four decades on all of them, gave me pause. Perhaps this was one experience I might legitimately forego.

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There  were lots of people – of all ages – in the garden now.

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Hanging out by the fountains. And not just touching – something that would get you a sharp whistle from the guards at Versailles – but sitting on the low walls.

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And picnicking and playing ball on the grassy areas. It may be called ‘Italy’s Mini Versailles’, but this is definitely not Versailles.

Versailles ‘all’italiana’

About a half hour’s drive north of Naples is a garden I’ve been wanting to see for some time.  It was created for the Reggia di Caserta (rej-jee-uh dee cah-zair-tuh).  The Royal Palace of Caserta, which in 1991 was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its role as the ‘swan song of the spectacular art of the Baroque’.

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The Reggia di Caserta, about 20 km inland from Naples, lies hidden behind Mt. Vesuvius.

But how to get there?  There was no way I was going to get behind the wheel along the Amalfi Coast in this life again and, after hearing horror stories from tourists – and locals – about driving in Naples, I wasn’t going any where near that city.  In the end I did the ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ thing.  I came at it from the north.

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Sperlonga. Utterly charming, even on a cloudy day.

A popular weekend getaway for Romans is the seaside resort of Sperlonga.  It’s a two hour drive from Rome – more with heavy, weekend traffic.  About the same as the drive from Toronto to ‘cottage country’ and the lakes north of the city.

Sperlonga is also half way between Rome and Caserta – the perfect place to break up my trip.

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Although the two destinations could not be more different, the pleasures they offer city dwellers have a lot in common – relief from the smog and searing heat of summer in the city and lots of natural beauty.

But while the charms of Muskoka have been known for only a century or so, Sperlonga has been a summer destination of choice since the time of the ancient Romans.  Tiberius built a summer getaway – one of many – along the beach east of the village.

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View of the beach east of Sperlonga.  The entrance to Tiberius’ Grotto is at the far end of the beach.

Like most of those grand Imperial Residences, after the fall of the Roman Empire, this one lay abandoned and forgotten, apart from occasional squatters and pillagers, for centuries.  It was only discovered by chance in the late 1950’s during construction of the coastal road.

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It may be cold and rainy, but the beach chairs and umbrellas are still set out in astonishing precision.

After all those centuries of neglect and pillaging, there was little left of the villa, but a surprising number of statues were found.  They are now displayed, along with all sorts of artifacts and bits and pieces, in an extraordinary little museum you pass through on your way to the grotto.

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Circe, the beautiful witch goddess and three of Ulysee’s men she has transformed into pigs for the evening meal. Circa III-II B.C.

Almost all the statues depict scenes from the Odyssey, a favourite with the emperors of Ancient Rome.

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The Blinding of Polyphemus, the giant Cyclope who had imprisoned Ulysses and his men.

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There are lots of very informative panels – many of which are, as commentators on Trip Advisor have grumpily noted, in Italian only.  This one presents a possible reconstruction of the grotto.

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Entrance to the grotto. In the centre was an island where the Emperor and his guests would dine.

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The walls of the grotto, now covered with mosses and algae, once glittered with marble.

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From the grotto entrance, a view of Sperlonga.

A short drive further down the coast there is another monument from Ancient Rome.

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High above the seaside resort of Terracina, Il Tempio di Giove. Jupiter’s Temple. Circa 1st century B.C.

But before I went up there it was, happily, once again, l’ora di mangiare.

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The sun had come out and the beach at the bottom of the mountain was beautiful. At first I was surprised to see so few people on the beach and then I realized what was going on – they were all at the seaside restaurant nearby.

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A table overlooking the sea, spaghetti ai frutti di mare – spaghetti with the ‘fruits of the sea’ – and un quarto of the local white wine.  Perfetto!  

Eventually I roused myself and headed for the temple.  I was relieved to see the road continuing higher and higher up the mountain.  When it finally ended, it was only a short climb to the top.

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It was remarkable the way caper bushes and rock roses had taken root in the temple walls.

Like Tiberius’ Grotto, the walls of the temple had once been covered in marble.  Now Nature decorated these rough walls with caper bushes and rock roses

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View from the temple towards the countryside north of Naples and the Reggia di Caserta.

From Jupiter’s Temple it’s a few centuries and an hour and a half drive to the Royal Palace in Caserta.

In the 18th century the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples were united under the Spanish Bourbons.   By then Naples had grown into a magnificent city, and was the logical site for the Reggia, the Royal Palace.  But King Carlo, the first of those Bourbon rulers, had other plans.  Instead, he chose Caserta, a small, unremarkable village about 20 km inland from Naples, as the setting for the new royal residence.

This view of Sant'Agata dei Goti, the village I stayed in while visiting the Reggia, gives a sense of what Caserta would have been like at the time.

This view of Sant’Agata dei Goti, the village I stayed in while visiting the Reggia, gives a sense of what Caserta would have been like at the time.

Why Caserta?  Well, what the ambitious king had in mind wasn’t just a grand castle. He was going to create a magnificent new capital city, modelled on what Louis XIV had created at Versailles.  And for that he needed space.  A lot of space.

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The access to the garden is through the entrance ‘foyer’ of the castle.

And it just so happened that in Caserta there was an enormous piece of land owned by an anti-Bourbon activist who had recently had a huge chunk of his property confiscated by the Bourbons.  King Carlo figured it wouldn’t take much to convince him to sell, at a price very favourable to the king.

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In addition to price, another thing Caserta had in its favour was its location.  So far inland, the pirates and various foreign fleets that plagued Naples and the coastline, would not be a problem.

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If any of this looks familiar, the palace is a favourite with movie directors. Scenes from countless movies, including Star Wars, Mission Impossible and Angels & Demons, have been filmed here.

But work had barely begun when Carlo abdicated – perhaps in the hopes that ruling Spain would be preferable to dealing with two unwieldy kingdoms – leaving his son in charge of the construction of the palace.  Not surprisingly, by the time the 8 year old Ferdinand was finished, the castle was even more grandiose than anything Carlo had envisaged.

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Not for the first time I was amazed at the up-close and very hands-on approach many Italians take to their cultural heritage.

The Reggia may be Italy’s ‘Mini Versailles’ but it is still enormous, so if you want to visit the garden before the palace closes – and, maybe more importantly, before you run out of energy – you just have to put on the blinkers and march yourself right out of the palace.

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But which way?

When you do find your way out of the palace, you can head straight, or you can take a path – an unmarked path – to the left, which, according to an article I found in a local magazine, leads to an interesting area called the Bosco Vecchio.  The Old Forest.  Since the bosco was an essential feature of all the best Renaissance gardens of Tuscany, I was intrigued to see how it would be interpreted in the mostly Baroque south.

The author of the article warned that the paths were somewhat trascurati (neglected).

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Used as I am to paths in Canada, I didn’t find it at all neglected. What I did find was that it was alarmingly lacking in signage. With no-one in sight, I felt as if I could be in the Canadian wilds.

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That feeling did not last long.

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In my travels around Italy I have learned that it’s not a place to take the path less travelled.

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At the edge of the forest was a magnificent Magnolia Grandiflora.

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Not far from the magnolia was the Castelluccia (ratty, little castle), originally designed for mock battles and later transformed into a cozy – and not at all ratty – retreat.

Given the history of the Reggia and the grand ambitions of the Bourbons, you’d expect something grander than the first fountain you come to.  And apart from a few roses, there is a surprising lack of flowers.  In fact, the whole thing is beginning to feel more like a park than a garden.

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The very modest Fontana di Margherita.

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The best feature of Margherita’s Fountain were the statues of the Muses in the hedge that encircles the area.

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The second fountain was also rather modest.  That’s because of what happened at the next fountain.

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The rather modest Fontana dei Dolfini.

La Fontana di Eoli was to be the crowning glory of the garden.   There is, of course, a lot going on here, but the original plans called for twice as many statues, even more extravagant than these.  But the fountain was barely half finished, when it became undeniably clear that the Bourbon coffers were being drained at an unsustainable rate.

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In these power statement ‘gardens’ little is ever simply aesthetic. Here Aeolus, god of the winds, (the statues with the little wings) has ordered the winds to attack the Trojans and drive them away from the coast of Italy.

Money wasn’t the only problem.  The Bourbon flotillas were finding it harder and harder, especially after the French took control of the Algerian coastline, to capture the Muslim sailors/pirates that had provided the slave labour for the construction of the fountains.

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I loved the two little pigeons – or are they doves – in the alcove, safely out of reach of the howling winds.

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From the balustrade overlooking Aeolus’ winds, a view looking back to the palace. On the left, one of the statues depicting the slave labour used to construct the fountains.

It was a long, very long walk to the next fountain.  And, apart from the roses around the first fountain, not a flower in sight. I was beginning to wonder why it is called il Giardino della Reggia di Caserta?

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It was a long way, a very long way to the next fountain.

I have a feeling that whether something is called a garden or a park in Italy is one of those seemingly straightforward questions that takes on a slippery murkiness as soon as you scratch the surface.  I’ve visited giardini, like this one, that I thought were parks and I’ve visited others that I thought were parks, with areas of gardens, like Il Giardino di Boboli in Florence.  I’ve been to un parco that I thought really was a park, although a very strange one – Il Parco dei Mostri (Park of Monsters) aka Sacro Bosco in Bomarzo, but I don’t recall ever visiting un parco that I would have called un giardino.

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By the time I reached the Fountain of Ceres I was wishing I was on a bicycle – you can rent them – like the fellow on the other side of the channel.

In ogni caso, (‘in any event’, for newcomers to my blog) King Ferdinando couldn’t have cared less whether visitors thought it was a park or a garden.  Like Louis XIV, his goal was to create a statement of power.  Absolute power.  And what better way to symbolize that power than a broad, perfectly straight avenue that ripped its way through the countryside, obliterating everything in its path?

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The Fountain of Venus and Adonis.

Almost there.  Even if you’re feeling somewhat annoyed by this point at having come all this way and seen nothing remotely like the garden you expected to find, it’s hard not to see that this is a fascinating, if not beautiful group of statues.  Even if you’re not a fan of the Baroque period.

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Hunting was the king’s favourite activity.  He went hunting every day.  Apparently he found the killing of small, defenceless animals had a therapeutic effect on an inherited tendency to melancholy.

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Knowing that he will be killed by the wild boar waiting nearby, Venus begs Andonis not to go hunting.

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While he waits, the boar keeps an eye on the palace in the distance.

As I have said before, for places that we tend to think of as oases of tranquillity and peace, there is an awful lot of violence going on in many Italian gardens.

The last fountain, at the base of the waterfall, is another hunting scene.   Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, has taken off her clothes and is about to bathe when she and the nymphs that attend her catch sight of Actaeon spying on her.

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The nymphs rush to cover the naked goddess who, as punishment for the violation, transforms the wretched Actaeon into a stag.

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Actaeon, in the midst of being transformed into a stag, soon to be torn to pieces by his own dogs.

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All the water for the enormous channel is brought by an aqueduct constructed solely for this purpose. Like countless others this man-made waterfall was inspired by Bernini’s Fontana di Nettuno at Villa d’Este. (I’ll get there. Eventually.)

It’s tempting to start the long walk back to the palace.  At least it’s downhill.  But there is another palace giardino. And we are standing right next to the entrance to that garden.   When will we ever get the chance to return?

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TBC