Una Passeggiata a Roma – Part II

It wasn’t lunch time yet, but it would be soon, so I set off from Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere to have a look at the restaurants in the area.

I had just started out on the quest for today's lunch when I saw this place.

Tempting, but it was only 11:30.

We're now wise to the varco system, but how is anyone supposed to know what is or isn't allowed on the sign to the right?

After last week’s post we’re wise to the varco system, but how is anyone supposed to know what is or isn’t allowed on the sign to the right?

Pazienza is a much-practiced virtue in these narrow alleys.

To live and work here ci vuole pazienza.  (You need patience.)  Molta pazienza.

I'm against tourist menus too, but I wonder how many are put off by the sign.

I’m against tourist menus too, but I wonder how many potential customers are put off by the sign.

On the menu - short sleeves, badly cut pasta and priest-stranglers.

On the menu – short sleeves, badly cut pasta and priest-stranglers.

Just in case the chef’s aversion to ‘Tourist Menus’ extends to tourists’ languages…

Bufala con prosciutto di Norcia.  If buffalo and prosciutto seem an unlikely combo, they probably are, but that’s not what we’ve got here.  Bufala is the luscious mozzarella di bufala made along the Amalfi Coast.  Prosciutto (pro-shoot-toe) you already know, although you may not have sampled the variety from Norcia, a village in Umbria, the so-called ‘Green Heart’ of Italy.

Burrata pugliese con rucola e pachino.   This is also a multi-regional offering. Burrata is a lusciously creamy mozzarella from Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy.  Rucola is from all over. You may know it as arugula.  Or maybe rocket.  (If you’re interested in the story of how this simple plant got so many names – caterpillars, aphrodisiacs and the toe of Italy’s boot all played a role – have a look at Sam Dean’s highly entertaining article in the May 23, 2013 issue of Bon Appétit. http://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/article/the-etymology-of-the-word-arugula)  Pachino is a tomato, but not just any tomato.  It’s a tomato with an IGP – Indicazione Geografica Protetta – a high-end label like the DOC and IGT for wines.  The geographical area in question is a well-defined area around the town it’s named for – Pachino – in south-eastern Sicily.

Pecorino grigliato con miele e tartufo.  Grilled pecorino with honey and truffles. (and it’s grill-yah-tuh.  Silent G!)  I’ve had a lot of pecorino, especially in the Val d’Orcia in southern Tuscany, but I’d never had it grilled.

Crostino di polenta con baccalà.  Usually crostino means toasted bread, but here it’s made with polenta, which is often unappetizingly described as ‘cornmeal porridge’.  It’s a standard of northern Italian cuisine, and not my favourite, so I limit my polenta intake to when I’m in that part of country.  The baccalà (cod) holds no appeal for me either – although one of the best antipasti I’ve ever had was a mushed-up ball of cod, olive oil and garlic.  Sounds awful.  Didn’t look like much.  But, oh my goodness, was it delicious!  (I’ve also had something similar in Provence.  Only there, instead of on toasted bread, they served it in little puffed pastries.)

Frittatina con erbe.  A little omelette with herbs.

Strozzapreti all’amatriciana con pachino freschi.  Strozzare (stroats-sah-ray) means ‘to strangle’.  Preti (pray-tea) means ‘priests’.  That’s right.  Priest-strangler.  Despite the ubiquitous and powerful influence of the Vatican in the region – perhaps because of it – anticlerical views, more or less openly expressed, have a long tradition here.  Especially among the impoverished peasants who were often required to share what little food they had with the local priests.    Since open dissent was rarely an option, one of the ways they could (fairly) safely vent their anger and frustration involved a kind of linguistic passive-aggression.   There are all sorts of legends as to the origin of strozzapreti.  One has greedy priests wolfing down the pasta so quickly, they choked to death.  Another has the women imagining they were strangling the priests as they hand-rolled the pasta.

Now for what may be the most controversial part of the dish.  All’amatriciana (al-ah-mah-tree-chah-nah) means ‘done in the way of Amatrice’ (ah-mah-tree-chay).  Amatrice  is a town about an hour east of Rome.  According to the town’s official website, the only ingredients in the vera (veh-ruh) amatriciana – the real thing – are pancetta – or more precisely, the jowl of a pig – pecorino, white wine, tomato – has to be San Marzano – pepper and chili flakes.  So when a chef added a clove of garlic, the citizens of Amatrice hanno perso le staffe. (lost their stirrups).  The local headlines screamed – ‘Carlo Cracco and the heretical ingredient, Amatrice furious with the Masterchef’.  To get an idea of how seriously Italians take such things check out the PRI interview with Lidia Bastianich (http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-02-11/garlic-or-no-garlic-squabble-kitchen-over-how-make-traditional-amatriciana-pasta.)  The people at ‘Food and Wine’, perhaps hoping to avoid the wrath of the volatile Matriciani, have cautiously called their version ‘Strozzapreti with tomato and pancetta sauce’.

Fettuccine ai funghi porcini.  Fungi porcini is one of those items we have become so used to seeing on menus, it needs no explanation.  It’s one of my favourites, although I think it’s best in fall when made with fresh mushrooms.

Mezze maniche con carbonara vegetale. Short sleeves with a vegetarian carbonara. Just as a short sleeve is a shortened version of a long sleeve, mezze maniche are shortened versions of the longer tube-like rigatoni.  A vegetarian carbonara was new to me.  I’d only seen it before with pancetta.

Crema di zucca.  Squash soup.  Maybe in the fall, but not on this warm, spring day.

Maltagliati con ceci.  Some things lose their appeal when translated.  I don’t know about you, but Maltagliati con ceci (mal-tahl-yah-tee kohn chay-chee) sounds a lot more appetizing than ‘Badly cut pasta with chick peas’.  In this case, there are no downtrodden peasants waving knives around.  The pasta just ends up that way. Even if you’re a nonna who has been making fresh pasta your whole life, there are always odds and ends left over.  In the cucina povera, where nothing was wasted, all these bits would be used in soups, or in dishes like pasta fagioli (fa-joe-lee) – pasta with beans.  Recently, in the bizarre world of human tastes and fashions, the peasants’ scraps have become sought after items.  If you don’t want to make or, let’s be reasonable, buy lasagna sheets, that you can then cut badly, you can buy factory-made maltagliati.  For a premium of course.


There were so many tantalizing places, I could feel myself falling into that embarras du choix spiral – you know, where you leave a store without buying anything, because there are too many choices.  In the end I settled on this place.  It was in a charming little piazza and had a nice, casual feel about it.  I have eaten far better versions of antipasto misto along the Amalfi Coast and in Tuscany’s small towns and villages, but I haven’t spent as much time in Rome, haven’t discovered its hidden gems yet. Besides, I’m of the view that not every meal has to be a gastronomic extravaganza.  Ci si può stufare anche delle buone cose.  (You can get tired even of good things.)  By the way, for those of you who have actually been trying to pick up some Italian as we go along, be careful with ‘stufare‘ (stoo-fah-ray).  It has nothing to do with feeling ‘stuffed’ after eating too much.  It means your are ‘fed up’, ‘sick and tired’ of something.  Definitely not to be used when your Italian host offers you another helping.

Antipasto misto, my old stand-by for lunch.

My old lunch standby – Antipasto misto.

When I went to pay, I I was glad I hadn't talked to the waiter about politics and high strategy.  Both proibito.

I was glad I hadn’t talked to the waiter about politics and high strategy. Both proibito (pro-ee-bee-toe).

Rested and not at all stufata, I set off again, meandering vaguely eastward.  I wanted to visit the garden of Villa Farnesina – not to be confused – as I did at first – with Palazzo Farnese across the river, or Villa Farnese, 50 k north-west of Rome, in the village of Caprarola.  As well as the outdoor garden, I had read there was also an underground ‘garden’.   In the 1870’s excavations for the construction of the embankments along the Tiber had to be halted when the workers came upon the remains of a luxurious Roman villa. One of the most striking features of the villa, the summer residence of Livia, wife of Caesar of Augustus, was an underground room covered with frescoes designed to create the sensation of being in a garden.

Porta Settimiana

Villa Farnesina is on the other side of Porta Settimiana


It’s relatively quiet on this side of the gate because nowadays most of the traffic is on the new, wider road along the Tiber.


Villa Farnesina,

The entrance to the villa – and presumably the biglietteria (ticket office) – was on the right side of the building, but first I wanted to have a quick look at a couple of Cedars of Lebanon, one of my favourite trees.  Sprawling below them was an unusually-shaped clump of  European Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis, for the garden gurus).


I’m sure the gardeners are very fond of this tree, but really.


Since I was already at the west corner of the villa, I decided to have a peak at the garden, but I began to feel uneasy. There was no-one around and I hadn’t paid yet, so I decided to go back to the entrance and come back in modo legittimo.  After paying the entrance fee, I asked if there was a little guide or pamphlet for visiting the garden.  ‘Il giardino non si visita oggi’, the agent replied.  ‘The garden is not visited today’.  In spite of my protestations – I had printed off the schedule – he insisted the garden was off-limits, mumbling something about restoration work being done that day.  Fine.  There was still Livia’s frescoed garden.  Out of sorts, I was in no mood to ask how to get to it.  Besides, I was sure to come across it by following the arrows through the villa.


Dolphins carry Galatea, the sea nymph, away from the clutches of Polyphemus, the ugly one-eyed giant who has just killed her beloved Acis. (Since Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ predates this fresco by three decades, any charges of plagiarism must be directed at Raphael.)


Why this unfinished section? Because Michelangelo, ever the bad boy, whipped it off while Raphael was briefly out of the room.


Loggia of Cupid and Psyche. Parts are by Raphael, when he wasn’t off with his lover, but most is by his assistants.

In addition to sore feet, by the time you leave this room you’re bound to have a sore neck too.  I was thinking about lying down on the floor – another advantage to travelling solo is that things aren’t nearly so embarrassing when there’s no-one around you know – but obviously someone had already thought of that and the people in charge had not been pleased.  There were signs everywhere prohibiting such indecorous behaviour.




Cupid with the Three Graces. The current obsession with being thin was obviously not an issue.


Along with Cupid and Psyche, a whole slew of gods are portrayed, doing various (un)godly things.


In the Room of the Frieze, the Twelve Labours of Hercules are depicted, at another neck-challenging height.

I followed the arrows upstairs, assuming there was another staircase that would lead to the underground garden.


From the open window a glimpse of the garden.  No renovation work in sight.


The Room of the Perspectives.  A marvel of trompe l’oeil.

The Sala delle Prospettive was where the 16th century owner, the fabulously wealthy Sienese banker, Chigi, held his wedding banquet.


In Chigi’s adjoining bedchamber, ‘The Wedding Night of Alexander the Great’. Aspirational or a reflection of Chigi’s sense of self-worth?


Cherubs help the bride, Roxanne, disrobe as the Conqueror approaches.


While this of course had not been in my original meandering plan, it was all captivating.  The only thing was, I couldn’t find the way to Livia’s garden.  I went back to the front desk, hoping someone else had taken over.  They hadn’t.  No point getting agitata.  I asked how to get to the sala con gli affreschi del giardino.   The agent, to whom I had taken a totally irrational dislike, looked at me for a moment and then replied, ‘Non c’è più qui.’ (It isn’t here any more.)  Now in addition to being agitata, I was also sconcertata. (without my concert – baffled).  Pardon? I asked. Perhaps realizing I wasn’t going to give up so easily this time, he elaborated – ‘Gli affreschi sono stati trasferiti‘.  (The frescoes have been transferred.)  ‘Oh!  When was that?’ I asked.  He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Alla fine dell’Ottocento.’  At the end of the 1800’s.

Later, when I went over my notes, I saw that I had forgotten, or in the pile of research I had accumulated, had totally missed one not so little detail.  The villa and underground garden room had indeed been discovered in the 1870’s, and – here’s the detail – in order to preserve the obviously invaluable frescoes, they had immediately been removed and taken to a studio where they had undergone extensive cleaning and restoration.  They are now on display again in the recently opened Palazzo Massimo.

It was time to leave Trastevere.  The closest bridge was Ponte Sant’Angelo.


Castel Sant’Angelo. A structure with a varied history – mausoleum, Papal fortress, prison and – for the moment – a museum.

As much as Hadrian loved spending time at his countryside retreat, Villa Adriana, he was well aware that the more fitting place for an Emperor such as himself to be buried was Rome.  Since the mausoleum he had in mind was on the north side of the Tiber, he commissioned a bridge, Pons Aelius (Aelius was his family name) to connect it to the city.


A few centuries later, an archangel appeared on top of Hadrian’s mausoleum.  Since angels trump emperors, the bridge was renamed Ponte Sant’Angelo.  (Bridge of the Sacred Angel)

And a few centuries after that, the angels along the bridge were added.  They are rather lovely angels.  Incongruously lovely, given that they hold the symbols of the Crucifixion.


Look at those legs!


Ponte Sant’Angelo, and in the distance, St. Peter’s Basilica.

I turned around for one last look at Rome’s ‘other side’ and then, in the gathering dusk, headed back to Campo dei Fiori.










Una Passeggiata a Roma – Part I

After the guided tour of the Vatican Gardens, I needed a day of just meandering around. No museums.  No art galleries.  No churches.  But where to spend such a day in a city that seems to have at least one of those around every corner?


Everywhere you look – churches, statues, columns galore.

My sense of the dynamics between the citizens of Rome and Florence is that it would be highly unpleasant for the vast majority of them to admit that their cities have anything in common.  But I think they would have a hard time denying that their cities do share one, not insignificant characteristic.  The major monuments of both cities are concentrated on one side of the rivers that run through their respective cities.

When I had needed a break from all the art and architecture and museums of Florence, I had taken a walk through the Oltr’Arno – ‘Across the Arno’ – the district on the north side of the Arno River (On the Other Side, Nov. 10, 2013).  Rome has its own Oltr’Arno.  It’s called Trastevere – which, in what may be an inconvenient coincidence, means ‘Across the Tiber’.  The perfect place for a day of meandering.

I was staying near Campo dei Fiori (Field of Flowers), a 10-minute walk from the Tiber River.


In the morning, the flower vendors set up their stalls at the west end of Campo dei Fiori.

I got an early start, before the tour groups started clogging up the streets, but it still took me a lot longer than 10 minutes to reach the river.  First of all there was the flower market. I had expected lots of cut flowers, but I was surprised to see so many plants for sale.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been.  I had already seen quite a few spectacular balcony gardens in the short time I’d been here.


Geraniums, petunias, bougainvillea, plumbago.  What haven’t they got in this balcony garden?.

In the middle of the piazza, high above the market is a statue of Giordano Bruno, whose free-thinking views collided with those of the 16th century Vatican.  In an effort to silence him, the Vatican put all his works on the Index of Forbidden Books, and when that didn’t work, had him burnt at the stake.   Shortly after the unification of Italy, the ‘heretic’ was given new life as a martyr to the freedom of thought that would hopefully prevail in the newly founded country.  The statue was placed on the exact spot where he had been put to death and positioned so that his defiant glare is directed for all eternity towards the Vatican.


Will someone please go up there and take down that plastic bag?


At the other end of the square, the fruit and vegetable vendors were still setting up their stalls.


This market has a gritty charm you will not see in the markets of Provence.


Carciofi (car-choe-fee). One of my favourites. They must be in season.

Eventually I reached the Tiber.  I crossed over the pedestrian bridge next to the island that inspired the Fontana di Rometta  (‘Little Rome’) we saw a couple of weeks ago at Villa d’Este. (A Cure for Road Rage…, Mar. 1, 2015)


Tiberina Island.

In Avignon, where seven Popes carried on the business of the Church during what some refer to as the Babylonion Captivity of the Papacy, the ancient bridge that was repeatedly swept away by the flooding Rhone River, is now one of the city’s most important and most visited tourist sites.   Even if you didn’t have a clue what you were singing – and undoubtedly mangled the words – you probably still remember the melody to the children’s song,  ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse…

Sur le pont d'Avignon...

On days when the Rhône flows so gently, it’s hard to imagine it as the torrential deluge that has repeatedly swept away the Pont d’Avignon.

Like Avignon’s much celebrated Pont d’Avignon, the bridge in Rome was also damaged by periodic flooding.  But unlike Pont Saint-Bénézet, the official name of the French bridge, this one has come to a much less glorious end.  In the 2nd century BC the Romans christened it Pons Aemilius.   On second thought, given what the Romans would do a couple of centuries later to adherents of the new religion which threatened the established hierarchy, ‘christened’ is probably not the best choice of words.  In ogni caso, the ‘official’ name of the bridge now seems to be, not Ponte Emilio, the modern Italian equivalent, but Ponte Rotto.‘ (pone-tay roht-toe).  Broken Bridge.


Rome’s ‘Broken Bridge’.


While the crowds are lined up at the Vatican and Colosseum, Tibernina Island and Ponte Rotto languish in relative obscurity.

Finally I was on the ‘other’ side.  And once again, happy to be a piedi (ah pyay-dee).   On foot.  Because soon I came across what is possibly the most perversely worded road sign ever created.  It has generated a tsunami of vitriol in Italian newspapers.  Even the venerable Accademia della Crusca, the oldest institution in the world dedicated to the study and preservation of the linguistic purity of the Italian language – even older by several decades than its august counterpart in Paris, the Académie Française – has felt compelled to wade into the stormy waters.

Varco means passage.   As one apoplectic journalist points out, in every Italian Post Office, in every state or business office in the country for that matter, the sign ‘sportello non attivo‘ means that the wicket is chiuso (kyu-zoh). (ilfattoquotidiano.it/2013/06/12/varco-attivo.)  Logically, by extension, a sign indicating that something is attivo, means that it is open and you’re free to go.

Another journalist, obviously even more incensed, writes about imbroglio, inverted logic and massacres by swindlers. (www.ilgiornale.it/news/interni/1017838.html).  I checked the automatic English translations.  They are not bad, but if you do have a look, you will see that, strangely, some words have been left untranslated, leaving one to wonder if the translating program had been designed to avoid words that might offend the tender sensibilities of us English readers.

While most of the entries rant and rave about the misleading wording and the heavy fines that Italian and foreign drivers alike have incurred since the system was set up in late 2007, the Accademia della Crusca, in keeping with its mandate, takes a more measured, more scholarly  approach.  (Maybe none of its members has been hit with a fine yet.)  It turns out that, unbeknownst to all except those who set up the system, it is not the varco that is attivo or non attivo, but the electronic controls which monitor the varco.  If the control is attivo, that means it’s ‘on’ and you can’t go.


VARCO ATTIVO – the most perverse road sign ever.

Two fellows with shopping bags walked past the contentious sign.   Sure enough, there was a market just down the road.




Roman zucchini and behind them, a zuccone like the ones I’d seen on the Amalfi Coast.


All the fixings for a ‘special’ minestrone.  Did the vendor have bags already made up?  It would be a pity to spoil his display.


Even if you don’t speak Italian, spinach, broccoli florets and chicory are easy. But ‘capata’? I had no idea, so I  asked the vendor.  It’s Roman dialect.  The ‘proper’ Italian word, which I know and which would have been used if we were in Tuscany, is lavata (washed).


If you’ve ever enjoyed a glass of vino rosso, you’ll know what this sign means.


Next to the beans, more artichokes. They are definitely in season.


But wait a minute. The Prince of Brittany? I got the feeling the vendor would have preferred I hadn’t noticed the box.


Almost time for the fishmonger to pull out his awning. The sun was rising fast and the fish that had been in the shade when I arrived was now in full sun.


Is it just me, or does it look like these two are having a little smooch?

Time for the morning’s second cappuccino and even though I was meandering, I knew exactly where I wanted to have it – Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.



Plumbago. My favourite blue flower.


Miraculously no-one honks their horn and they somehow manage to avoid hitting each other as they make their way through the piazza. Sometimes I wonder if these tight spaces don’t lend themselves to a greater civility than the wider streets back home.


Another favourite. Brugmansia aka Angel’s Trumpet.  Imagine the garden behind that wall.


Brilliant! When the Wisteria (on the left) is finished blooming, the Bougainvillea takes over.


Persiane and wisteria.

I had a general idea where the piazza was and only had to ask twice. Somehow, looking at the map seemed like cheating.


Santa Maria in Trastevere


Opposite the church, the perfect place to watch goings-on in the piazza.

An indication of the effort and expense required to keep the persiane in good repair.

How much effort – and expense – must go into keeping the persiane in good repair?


A few locals, somewhat worse for wear, gathered around the fountain.

A policeman walked by the half sober locals – perhaps a glance was all it took to keep them in line – and went over to a young man who had been sleeping in the doorway to the left of the fountain and – very gently – woke him up.



My cappuccino arrived and then people started coming out of the church. I had been so engrossed watching the locals that I hadn’t noticed the hearse on the other side of the fountain.


Weddings and funerals, like so much of life here, always strike my North American eye as surprisingly public affairs.



Mourners and passersby milled around, including one woman who looks as confused as I often feel when in Rome.


One woman sat on a marble stump, watching the proceedings. From my viewpoint I assumed she was one of the mourners.


Until she and a companion I hadn’t noticed before went over to the church entrance.  Were they Roma?  Would the nun would give them something?   She didn’t.


Nor did the nun who came after her.  But she didn’t shoo them away.


Time to continue meandering – and have a look at some menus.  Soon it would happily, once again, be l’ora di mangiare.  TBC

The Pope’s Garden

Whenever we’re talking about all there is to see in Rome – even, as we saw last week, its fountains – inevitably the name of a Pope, or two, comes up.  It was time to visit the garden of those Popes.


Just 871 steps and there you are.

To my lasting regret, after climbing 871 steps up to St. Peter’s Dome – you can lop off 321 of those steps by taking an elevator, but I was travelling with much younger people and didn’t want to look bad – I somehow neglected to take any photos of the Vatican Gardens while I was up there.


A gorgeous spiral staircase leads to the Vatican Museum. I would have loved to get a better angle, but I didn’t dare lean any further over the railing.

The Meeting Point for the garden visits is in the same part of the building as the entrance to the Vatican Museum.  To say that it was total pandemonium is an understatement.  But that was the easy part.

If Ninfa (Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village, Feb. 15, 2014) wins first prize for the difficulty of arranging a visit, the Vatican Gardens are a close second.  And that’s not even taking into account how difficult it is to tear yourself away from everything else there is to look at in Rome.


Trees outside the entrance to the garden, waiting to be planted.

Like Ninfa, the Vatican Gardens can only be visited by guided tour.  But unlike Ninfa, you can’t just opt to see the garden.  You have to buy a ticket that includes the Vatican Museum which, I was astonished to hear our guide observe toward the end of our tour, would be jam-packed with tourists by the time our tour of the garden ended and a thoroughly unpleasant experience, especially after the tranquillity of the garden.   Whether you choose to forego this unpleasantness or not, you still have to fork over a whopping 38 euros to see the garden.


As soon as the tour started, it was obvious that being a guide here involved more than the usual challenges.  She tried to keep us moving along, but there was a building on our left that was working against her efforts.

To take part in the guided tour you can’t just show up.  You have to make a reservation, preferably quite far in advance, for a tour held in a language you understand.  This of course is the easy part for English speakers.  So I was surprised when in reply to my request to book a tour, I received an email advising me that all visits were ‘Sospese fino a una data da destinarsi‘ (Suspended until a date whose destiny was yet to be determined.)  I had written in February – just around the time Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned. I tried again a few weeks after the current Pope Francis I was elected and got my reservation.


Beautiful mosaics proclaim the names of Rome’s greatest painters – all under the patronage of the Pope. Except for one  surprising omission – Michelangelo, who at the time was considered a sculptor, not a painter.



Eventually our guide got us moving and we set out along the Avenue of the Square Garden.  As I explained in ‘The Abbey of the Good Harvest…’ (Apr. 27, 2014), the square, symbol of the underlying, mathematical order of a divinely created universe, formed the basis of the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden of the Middle Ages.



Unlike other gardens I have visited, with the dome of St. Peter’s always in view – as Michelangelo had designed it to be – and the occasional monk, you never forget where you are.


The ‘Italian’ Garden

The garden follows the contours of the hill behind St. Peter’s, a hill which is part natural, part man-made.  The man-made part is all the earth that was excavated to make room for the basilica and piled on top of the existing hill.


The trimmed boxwood and formal symmetry of the ‘classic’ Italian garden.

The description on the garden’s official website refers to the monochrome palette of this garden “as dictated by Renaissance topiary art without the presence of a single flower”.  Hopefully the website will soon be updated.  A researcher working in one of the Medici gardens of Tuscany has discovered records that show that the Renaissance gardens were not just about trimmed box and yew, but were filled with colour.  The common misconception comes from the fact that the plants that provided all the colour – roses were very popular – were much more fragile and simply died during centuries of neglect.  I KNEW it!  It never made any sense to me that the gardeners of the Renaissance, a time when man was bursting with confidence and exuberance, would limit themselves to just one colour.


Always present, the dome of St. Peter’s.

Further on we caught our first glimpse of one of the highlights of the garden – Casina Pio IV aka Villa Pia – one of the first papal pleasure pavilions.


It is easy to imagine the villa as a summer residence, a bit of a stretch to see it as a hunting lodge.  But in those days, wildlife roamed the area and popes enjoyed hunting.


In the small social circle that the Popes and the Cardinals inhabited, it wasn’t unusual to share designers and landscape architects. Villa Pia was designed by Pirro Ligorio, the same architect who had designed Villa d’Este.


Cybele – Mother goddess of the ancient Greeks and Romans

Unlike Cardinal Alessandro d’Este, who fifty years later would have the statue of a pagan goddess moved to a remote part of his garden, (A Cure for Road Rage…, March 1, 2015) Pope Pio IV apparently had no qualms about pagan goddesses being prominently displayed in his garden.


Were the grottoes of the ancient Romans any more beautiful?



Side view.

Our guide knows that gentle coaxing won’t work to pry us away from the Casina, so she doesn’t pull any punches.  The Vatican, pop. 840, is the world’s smallest sovereign state, half of which is occupied by the gardens.  That’s 57 acres.  We will only be seeing the highlights (whew!), but there is still a lot of ground to cover and – this is where she really gets our attention – our tour could be terminated at any moment and we would have to leave the garden.  No refunds.  No rain checks.


Beyond the most beautiful clump of European Fan Palm (Chamaerops humbles) I have ever seen, our guide leads the way.

It’s because of a fairly new feature in the garden – a heliport.  Before, whenever the Pope had to leave the Vatican, whole sections of Rome would be shut down for the Papal motorcade.  As fond as the Romans are of the Pope, they got fed up with the constant interruptions that made driving in Rome even more excruciating than normal, so they came up with an alternative.  They donated a helicopter to the Vatican.  Now, whenever the Pope is called away on business, it’s just a few, hapless tourists who are inconvenienced.


Now that we know they can kick us out at any moment, they don’t look so friendly. SCV on the licence plate stands for Stato della Città del Vaticano. State of the Vatican City.

Even if you ignore the monks and the views of St. Peter’s and the Gendarme, the garden still doesn’t fall into any of the standard garden styles.  (Calling ‘Eclectic’ a style always strikes me as somewhat oxymoronic.)  Part of this is simply due to the age of the garden.  Even private gardens change over the centuries as  owners come and go.  But when the ‘owner’ (technically Popes are not allowed to own land; more on this in a couple of posts) is the most powerful man in the western world, things get magnified.


The Fountain of the Eagle.  The gift of a Borghese Pope.

Few Popes have managed to resist the urge to leave their imprint on the garden.  When Sixtus V built the Vatican Library, a huge part of the garden and a beautifully designed perspective went by the wayside.  Some popes preferred to embellish the gardens with ‘gifts’, which invariably had a lot more to do with self-glorification than Christian generosity.  The surprisingly pagan Fountain of the Eagle was commissioned by a Borghese Pope to celebrate the restoration of Trajan’s aqueduct under his leadership.


Water flows from and around dragons and sirens.

Why the eagle?  It’s the emblem of the Borghese family.


Bizarre is the most positive thing I can come up with.

Dignitaries representing the devout from countries around the world also bring gifts –  a piece of the Berlin Wall, a Chinese Pavilion, rocks from a Polish mountain – all of which, etiquette demands, must be placed in the garden.  Trees and plants from the visitors’ native countries are an obvious choice.  I asked the guide what this tree with the gorgeous, red flowers was.  She wasn’t sure.   Possibly a gift from Brazil.  When I got back home, after wandering around the Internet for a while, I finally found it by googling ‘brazilian tree with red flowers’.  It is the Cockspur Coral Tree – the national tree of Argentina and Uruguay.


Cockspur Coral Tree. National tree of Argentina, Uruguay – and possibly Brazil.

It’s not just foreign countries that donate trees.  This centuries-old olive tree is a gift from Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy.


An ancient olive tree from Puglia.  Symbol of peace.

The inscription on the plaque reads:  Olivi di Puglia/ Radici in Pace/ il Messaggio di una terra generosa ed ospitale.  Olive Trees from Puglia/ Roots in Peace/ the Message from a generous and hospitable region.

In 1902 the government of France donated the most obviously spiritual gift in the garden – an exact replica of the Lourdes Grotto.  It was built on the highest point of the hill and is considered the spiritual heart of the garden.  At the end of May the Pope comes to pray and greet the faithful who climb the hill in a torch-lit procession.


An exact replica of the Grotto of Lourdes. Gift of the government of France.


Star Jasmine covers the arches in the French Garden. The scent in May was intoxicating.


It’s hard to tell where the French Garden ends and the English and Rose Gardens begin. Not to worry.  It is all lovely.



The Christmas card shot.

Up until now our guide had worked hard to keep the group together and moving along.  It wasn’t just a matter of security – there were lots of other groups in the garden and it would have been easy to get mixed up as we crossed paths.  Those who straggled behind in an effort to get photos free of heads and other body parts were a special challenge.  But when we got to this arch, she changed tack, almost insisting that we line up, and waited patiently as, one by one, we took this photo – the perfect image, she declared, for the Christmas cards we would be sending later in the year.  I wondered how many non-Christians visit the garden.


The Jubilee Bell of 2000. The devout rang the bell in celebration so frequently that after a while it was secured.

We continued along the Leonine Wall, named for Pope Leo IV who had it built after Saracens attacked the Basilica in the middle of the 9th century and took off with mounds of gold and silver.


The Pope must have been pretty upset.  The wall is 4o feet high, has 44 towers and is 3 km long, encircling the Vatican on three sides.  (The Tiber takes care of the fourth).


We were almost at the end of tour and since there wasn’t all that much of interest in this part,  our guide could finally relax, as we walked along companionably with her.   One of the group asked if she had ever had a tour interrupted.  Only once.  But she knew of other guides who had been less fortunate. We followed her down the slope, past the Polish ‘mountainside’ where she had frequently seen the previous pope in sweats, exercising. Before Pope Francis, who regularly gives the Vatican security conniptions, the garden was the only place where popes would go when they wanted to be outside on their own.


Back at the entrance to the museum there were a few rather tense minutes.  We were lined up and counted as, one by one, we re-entered the building.  Security is strict and the number of us going in with the guide had to match the number who had gone out with her an hour earlier.

Not your typical garden visit, but fascinating all the same.

Not your typical garden visit, but fascinating all the same.



Water, water everywhere…

After all those fountains at Villa d’Este I had water on the brain.  At least that’s what I think led me to a way to see Rome in a new, more positive light.  I would go on a scavenger hunt of its fountains.

On previous visits I had, of course, noticed some fountains, but when I started making the list for my scavenger hunt I was surprised to learn how many fountains there are in Rome.   More than any other city in the world.  I suppose, with all those monuments and churches and statues and art galleries, and markets and shops, the fountains must have got lost in the wash.


Who pays much attention to a fountain when they are standing in front of what many consider – me included – the most perfect building of all time?   The Pantheon.

And unlike the water that surrounded the becalmed sailor in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, all this water is fresh.  Drinkable.  Potabile (poh-ta-bee-lay).

It all started with the Ancient Romans.  They were crazy about water, but as we saw at Villa d’Este, the major source of fresh water was inconveniently located in the mountains north-east of the city.   Since a day now and then in a country spa did not cut it with the water-loving populace, they started building aqueducts to bring the water they wanted -almost 60 million gallons per day – to Rome.  In the end they built nine aqueducts, through which half of the water used in present day Rome still flows.


Early morning in Piazza della Rotonda.  Place of the Round Thing.

The fountain in front of the Pantheon is called Fontana del Pantheon, which made me wonder why the piazza is called Piazza della Rotonda.  Why wasn’t it named for the Pantheon?  It turns out it is.  Like many of Italy’s major monuments – Santa Maria del Fiore aka the Duomo in Florence came to mind – the ancient Roman temple has an official name – Pantheon – and a common name – la Rotonda.   The Round Thing.


The Pantheon  is an immense half circle.


Incredibly, it is open to the elements at the top.


Gargoyles around the base of the Fontana del Pantheon.  Signs of welcome or protection against evil spirits?

In almost all the fountains of Rome the water flows from the mouths of mascheroni (mass-kay-roh-nee).  Big masks.  After the collapse of the Renaissance, and with it the loss of confidence in man’s exalted position in the universe, these fantastical creatures became very popular.  In ancient Greece where they originated, they offered welcome to visitors, but over the centuries they took on a role more in keeping with their appearance – warding off evil spirits.


The Pantheon is close to Piazza Navona – a 3-for-1 scavenger hunter’s dream and one of my favourites. It’s also one of Rome’s largest piazzas, the legacy of the enormous stadium commissioned by Emperor Domitian in 86 AD.  The arena it enclosed, even larger than the one in the Colosseum, was called the Circus Agonalis for the agone that were held here. Not the English ‘agony’ that the annoying spell-check program on my computer keeps switching what I type to, but the Latin agone – physical competitions. Somehow over time agonalis morphed into ‘in agone‘ and then ‘navone‘ and eventually to the name we know.


Piazza Navona, where a ‘square’ is an elongated oval.

There are some who look down on this piazza.  Too touristy.  Too crowded.  Too expensive.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s like being dismissive of the Tour Eiffel or the Taj Mahal or any number of world-renowned sites, all of which are too touristy, too crowded, too expensive.  The problem might be that, for some people, things have become too democratic.  Too accessible to the hoi poloi.  (And yes, I know there shouldn’t be a ‘the’ in front of ‘hoi-poloi’.  It just doesn’t sound right.)


Things have quietened down a lot since the days when the Romans of old would flood the piazza and entertain the locals with mock naval battles.  Or centuries later, when Rome’s elite, in a somewhat futile attempt to escape the stifling heat of Roman summers, would be pulled through the water in elegant, horse-drawn carriages.  But not to worry, there’s still plenty going on here.


Even if you’re not on a fountain scavenger hunt, Piazza Navona is close to a lot of the monuments and museums on most visitors’ must-see lists  (a dressed-up form of scavenger hunt?)

La Chiesa di Sant'Agnese in Agone occupies almost the entire west side of the piazza.

The much-visited Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone occupies almost the entire west side of the piazza.

And when you cannot bear to take one more step, the piazza is a great place for people watching while you work up the energy to visit the next site.


There are lots of benches with a good view of the goings-on in the piazza. Or, if you’ve made it to a ‘respectable’ time of day, a glass of the local white at one of the cafés lining the piazza is also very piacevole (pee-ah-chay-voh-lay).   Full of piacere (pleasure), the key word in an expression I think every visitor should learn – per piacere (pair pee-ah-cheh-ray).  Please.


That bride must be freezing. Look at what everyone else is wearing. May 2013 was the coldest in decades.



I have never understood why fashion dictates that the female of the species must be half-naked, while the male gets to wear more weather appropriate attire.

Back to the fountains.  As I mentioned this is a 3-in-1 piazza.  If you enter it at the south end, the first fountain you come to is the politically incorrectly named Fontana del Moro.


The ‘Moro‘ is an Ethiopian struggling with a dolphin in the centre of the fountain. At the time all dark-skinned people were called Mori.  Moors.


The ‘Moor’ is surrounded by four Horn Blowers. It wasn’t until I got home and was going over my photos that I noticed the ‘Happy Face’ covering the privates of one of them.

At the north end of the piazza is the Fontana del Nettuno.  Although it and the Fontana del Moro are supposed to complement each other, I couldn’t see any unifying aesthetics between the two.  I put it down to ignorance on my part until I learned that, for some long forgotten reason, work on the fountain had barely begun when it was abandoned.  Work wasn’t resumed – and the fountain given its present name – until the end of the 19th century.  In the intervening two centuries, the locals, who had to call it something, came up with Fontana dei Calderari.  Fountain of the blacksmiths.  (There were several blacksmiths’ workshops in an alley nearby.) I know people here in Toronto who still refer to local stores like Metro and Loblaws by their former names (Dominion and Zigggy’s).  I wonder how many of those turn of the century Romans continued to call the fountain by the name they had grown up with.


In the centre of the fountain Neptune slays a giant octopus.


Around him an assortment of nymphs, cherubs and other sea creatures get up to some rather astonishing shenanigans.



In spite of all the mayhem they seem to be having a lot of fun.

Finally, taking centre-stage is the largest and most grandiose fountain in the piazza – the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (kwah-trow few-me).  The Fountain of the Four Rivers.  It’s a good example of how Rome’s fountains weren’t just about building efficient hydraulic structures for the benefit of the populace.  Where there wasn’t room for a power garden, a fountain – something the grateful locals used on a daily basis – could be an extremely effective propaganda tool.


Innocent X was a Pamphili, so at the top of the obelisk, instead of a symbol of the church – a cross perhaps – there is a dove, the Pamphili  family emblem.

What Pope Innocent X had in mind with this fountain was to create a powerful symbol of his role as the world’s ambassador of peace.  Closer to home things didn’t get off to a very peaceful start.  The optics, as we call them today, were pretty bad (and, unfortunately, surprisingly familiar).

In 1646, when construction of the Pope’s fountain began, Rome was in the midst of a terrible famine.  To add insult to injury, in order to cover the costs of his blatantly self-glorifying project, the Pope – like Cardinal Ippolito d’Este had done a century earlier at Villa d’Este – imposed a variety of taxes on consumer goods, including a tax on bread. The half-starved citizens were close to rioting.  In that pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era, hand-written messages of protest were ‘posted’ on the blocks that were to be used for the construction of the fountain.  One of these pasquinate, as they were called, so incensed the Pope, that he had the authors tracked down and arrested.  What egregious words had they written?  ‘Noi volemo altro che Guglie e Fontane. Pane volemo: pane, pane, pane!’  (We want something other than Obelisks and Fountains.  We want bread: bread, bread, bread!)

The vendors who had traditionally sold their wares in the market fared no better.  The Pope felt they ruined the aesthetics of the grand piazza he had in mind and ordered them to leave.  When they refused, he had them forcibly removed by the papal police.


If Innocent X only knew what goes on in his piazza today.

At the base of the obelisk are four immense figures.   They are the river gods of the four continents to which the Pope aspired to bring peace. (Australia had yet to be ‘discovered’ by Europeans.)


Asia is represented by the Gange.  The long oar symbolizes the river’s ease of  navigability. The hooded figure represents the NIle, whose source had yet to be discovered.The hooded figure represents the Nile, whose source had yet to be discovered.


A palm tree and lion to his left add ‘local’ colour – or at least 17th century ideas of what Africa was like.

The Danube represents Europe.

The Danube represents Europe.  Above the river god, a dream balcony garden.


The god of the Plata River represents the Americas.  He holds up his hand in terror at the sight of a serpent. Or maybe the thought of losing his worldly treasures, represented by the pile of coins lying next to him.


The creature in the foreground is a sea serpent and the one behind it a crocodile. The sculptors of the time were arguably some of the world’s greatest. They just didn’t always know what they were sculpting.

At this rate it was obvious that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, there was no way I was going to make it to all her fountains in a day.  I scratched a few – make that quite a few – off the list and headed south – at least I tried to head south.  The ancient Romans may have designed their cities on a geometric grid, but the ones that followed them, especially during the Middle Ages, were more interested in confounding potential attackers, so they added lots of confusing curves.  Eventually I found the next fountain on my list.


Amidst all the Baroque extravaganza of Rome, when you round the corner of tiny Piazza Mattei, la Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles) comes as a surprise.  More like something you’d expect to find in Florence.

As it turns out, it is the work of a Florentine sculptor.  At least part of it is.  Despite the name, the turtles are an add-on.  In the original design the four ‘ephebes’ held up a dolphin from which water was supposed to flow.  But the water pressure was too low, so they got rid of the dolphin, which left the young things with their hands in the air. Everyone agreed this looked ridiculous, so Bernini added the turtles.



Some of Rome’s fountains have not aged well. Like the ones on Via delle Quattro Fontane (Street of the Four Fountains).




Is this River God confiding his despair to the lion?

And some just leave you shaking your head.  Like the fountain at the the base of the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna.

In May potted azaleas are set out along the Spanish Steps.

In May potted azaleas are set out along the Spanish Steps.

This is a decidedly upscale part of town – five star hotels surround the piazza and the flagship stores of companies like Gucci and Bulgari line the streets nearby, so you’d think there’d be a pretty decent fountain.

A window display in one of the many upscale stores in Via Condotti.

A window display along Via Condotti nearby.

So what is an ugly, old boat doing here?  Those aren’t my words.  That’s what it’s called – la Fontana della Barcaccia.

At either end of the boat, bees and the sun, Barberini symbols, remind all and sundry of the family’s largesse. Beyond the fountain a grand piano is being set up.

At either end of the barcaccia, bees and the sun, Barberini symbols, remind all and sundry of the family’s largesse.
Beyond the fountain a grand piano is being set up.

As we’ve seen before, you can take almost any word in Italian and give it a new slant by tacking on a few letters.  It’s wonderfully convenient.  As anyone who has spent at least two minutes around young children will know, it is astounding how quickly a ragazzo (young boy) can go from being an adorable ragazzino to a naughty ragazzaccio.

Back to the barca.  Before the walls that now line the Tiber were built at the end of the 19th century, the river would overflow its banks on a fairly regular basis.  One particularly severe flood at the end of the 16th century left Piazza di Spagna under a metre of water.  When the waters finally receded, stranded in the middle of the piazza was a boat – an ugly, old, bashed-up boat – in other words una barcaccia.


Definitely ugly.

In memory of that flood the powerful Barberini’s commissioned – who else? –  Bernini (am I the only one who has a hard time keeping these names straight?) to create a fountain.  At least, so goes the legend.  Less imaginative types blame the design on problems with low water pressure at the site.


Unlike the fountain, the music that will waft over the piazza in the evening is bound to be bellissima.


Those in the know have already taken front row seats for the evening concert.

And then of course there is Rome’s most famous fountain.   


La Fontana di Trevi.

The name comes from the tre vie (tray vee-ay), the three, narrow alleys that converge on the tiny piazza.


We may no longer be offering prayers to appease pagan gods, as the Ancient Romans did, but it seems few can resist.  I watched from the side as tourists pushed their way to the railing and tossed their coins into the fountain.   Huge mounds of these coins are raked out every week.  The Italian coins go to the city and the foreign ones to various charities.

By the way, if you want to improve your chances of returning to the city, toss that coin over your left shoulder.


At twilight, just before the lights go on.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers at night.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers at night.

Obviously, there are many more fountains.  No wonder the song is called ‘Arrivederci Roma‘.  Until we meet again.

A Cure for Road Rage and Other Modern Ailments

The next time you have to slam on your bakes to avoid crashing into the car that has just cut in front of you, or  you’re stuck, seething, behind a car whose driver turned on his – or her, these things being largely gender neutral – left turn signal, just as the light turned green, before you lean on the horn – or even worse – thereby adding to the already frazzled state of all around you, you might want to consider what a 16th century Italian cardinal did when those around him did things that sent his blood pressure into the stratosphere.

Symbols of the d'Este.

Ippolito d’Este’s family symbols

While Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este didn’t have to cope with rude and reckless drivers, he had his own frustrations dealing with the rest of the Cardinals, who, year after year, stubbornly refused to elect him Pope.  He did have a couple of things against him – but really, it wasn’t his fault his mother was the infamous Lucrezia Borgia.  More hurtful to his cause was his total disregard for the importance of how one packaged one’s aspirations.  Ippolito’s blatant displays of raw ambition appalled the Cardinals.  How could they entrust the powers of the Papacy to someone who didn’t even bother with the usual social niceties?

In ogni caso, after Ippolito’s first unsuccessful attempt – he tried five times in all – the Pope awarded him the governorship of Tivoli.  A rather lavish consolation prize, you might be thinking, but Julius III didn’t get to be Pope for nothing.  He didn’t trust Ippolito either. The governorship was a ruse to keep Ippolito tied up looking after the affairs of Tivoli and as far as possible from Rome, where the real power lay.

With each defeat, instead of venting his frustration in any of the usual ways of the day – arranging the untimely death of a cardinal, perhaps a bit of well-placed bribery – Ippolito poured his money and energy into transforming Tivoli into his version of the mythical Gardens of the Hesperides. Here at least, in this alternate world, Hippolito would reign supreme.


The original entrance to the gardens. A long cypress-lined walkway. 

The entrance to the gardens was at the bottom of the hilltop town, thus ensuring that visitors would be suitably humbled, in body and spirit, by the magnificence of Ippolito’s creation by the time they reached the villa at the top where their host awaited them.


Nowadays the bus from Rome brings visitors to the centre of Tivoli at the top of the hill and then it’s a short walk along a cobblestone alley to the villa entrance.  A note of caution in case you’re thinking of going – Do NOT drive to Tivoli!  Believe me.  I tried.


The glory of Villa d’Este was – and still is – its spectacular fountains.  Because the entrance to the property is now at the top of the hill, you have to go through the villa to reach the garden.


To my unschooled eye the artwork, which covers every square inch of the walls, is of varying quality.

Tantalizing glimpses of the fountains and gardens make it difficult to give more than a cursory glance at the ornately decorated walls.  It’s even more difficult if you visit on a warm day in May as I did, when the windows are open and the halls filled with the sounds of water splashing and gushing out of those fountains.



Surprisingly unecclesiastical.

As soon as I stepped out into the garden I wished I had learned how to use the video feature of my camera, just to capture the sound of the water flowing all around me.  As anyone who has visited Niagara Falls knows, whether you’re standing by the railing at the top of the falls or on the deck of the ‘Maid of the Mist’, it is the sound, as much as the sight, of all that raging water that is so awe-inspiring.


Niagara Falls from the railing at the crest of the falls.

The ‘Maid of the Mist’ approaches the Canadian Falls.

Finally, out in the garden

Fountain of the Dragons.

Like many of the fountains in the garden, the Fontana dei Draghi (dra-ghee) is not just an extravagant display of hydraulics and statuary.   Through an extraordinary feat of genealogy the d’Este family traced their lineage all the way back to Hercules.  In honour of their legendary ancestor, the exploits of Hercules are prominently featured in the garden.


For his 11th labour Hercules had to steal the golden apples that grew on a tree in the Garden of the Hesperides.   Instead of the fire-breathing, 100-headed dragon that guarded the mythical tree, a four-headed monster spews forth powerful jets of water.


The Fontana di Tivoli, aka the Fontana Ovato because of its oval shape, is one of three fountains that tell what may be the most important story of the gardens – at least in Ippolito’s world view.  The craggy backdrop represents the Tiburtini mountains north of Tivoli, the major source of all the fresh water not only for Tivoli, but also for Rome.


Avenue of the Hundred Fountains.

Water flows from the Fontana di Tivoli to the second fountain in the storythe Viale delle 100 Fontane (Avenue of the 100 Fountains).  Three tiers high and 130 meters long, it is a remarkable feat of hydraulics, even by today’s standards.  (How many times have you been caught in the middle of taking a shower when someone starts running the water somewhere else in your house?)   Eagles along the uppermost level make sure no-one forgets who created all this.


The most magical part of the garden? Definitely the most photographed.
In the background the Fontana di Tivoli.


Along the lower level, mythological creatures.

Before he could start work on his dream garden, Ippolito had to free up some space.  Lots of space.  The townspeople watched, powerless, as entire neighbourhoods were expropriated and demolished.   Then the hillside was excavated and the earth moved around to create five level terraces.

Since Ippolito’s vision also required enormous quantities of water, he had an aqueduct built.  When this proved inadequate, he ordered the diversion of a tributary of the Aniene River – which just happened to be a major source of water for Rome.


On the way to the next fountain.  Why I like to visit gardens in May.

Like most of the cardinals of the day, Ippolito was enormously wealthy, but all this activity began to strain even his resources.    So he did the usual thing – imposed a special tax on the hapless townsfolk.  Things might have continued in this manner and the gardens might have been even more extensive, but eventually the long-suffering locals got together and put a stop to further expropriation.  As for the tax…

Neptune's Fountain

Neptune’s Fountain, a ‘recent’ creation.

When I came to la Fontana di Nettuno, while decidedly grandiose, extravagant, even over-the-top, it seemed totally in keeping with the rest of the garden, so I was surprised to find out later that it is, in large part, a 20th century creation.

In Bernini’s original design, a grand waterfall cascaded over the upper balustrade into the enormous Peschiere (Fish Ponds) below.  The design was such a hit, that it was quickly replicated in the most important gardens in Italy and much of Europe during the 17th century.  Remember the waterfall in the gardens of the Reggia di Caserta? (‘Versailles all’italiana‘, Feb. 1, 2015)

From the waterfall at Reggia di Caserta flows all the water for a three kilometre water feature.

At the Reggia di Caserta water flows from a man-made waterfall along a spectacular three kilometre long channel.

But Bernini’s waterfall could not withstand two centuries of neglect and by the early 1900’s the original structure was damaged beyond repair.  In the late 1920’s – when much of the western world was on the brink of the Great Depression – funds were somehow made available to restore the fountain, albeit on a less grandiose scale.


The new, more modest Fontana di Nettuno.

The fountain above Neptune’s Fountain is not nearly as spectacular at first glance, but don’t let that fool you.  It is called the Fontana dell’Organo (oar-gah-no).  Fountain of the Organ.


The Greek gods of music, Orpheus and Apollo, frame the temple-like structure that houses the ‘organ’.

There was more to explore around Neptune’s Fountain, but I didn’t want to miss the concerto, so I climbed the stairs to the upper level.   I was a few minutes early and the little doors that protect the organ were closed.  Time for a quick look around.

Orpheus charming the beasts.


Originally there was another statue in the centre, but a later Cardinal had it moved to a more remote part of the garden.  We’ll get to it in a bit and you’ll see why.

Finally the little doors open and the concert begins.

Finally the little doors open and the concert begins.

The ‘music’ is created by an ingenious system involving water pressure and air.  It was absolutely enchanting and we all sighed when the little doors closed.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, ‘An Emperor’s Country Retreat’, a lot of the statuary from Villa Adriana ended up here.  What else would you expect if you put the same person in charge of the excavations of the most extravagant Imperial Residence of the Roman Empire and the design of your new, power garden?


One of Ligorio’s ‘finds’ from Hadrian’s Villa

The fellow in question was Ligorio, one of the most revered landscape architects of the time.   It was inevitable – whenever Ligorio was over at the ruins, he would be on the lookout for bits of statuary he could use over at Villa d’Este.  He was also an adept poacher of design ideas.  The pools beyond Neptune’s Fountain recall the Peschiere (pes-kyai-ray), the enormous pond Hadrian liked strolling around in the evening.

From the balustrade near the Organ Fountain looking through the jets of Neptune's Fountains to the Peschiere beyond.

From the balustrade near the Organ Fountain looking through the jets of Neptune’s Fountains to the Peschiere below.

In Ippolito’s day and for centuries after, the only colour in the garden came from marble, pilfered from …  Since the Italian state took over the property at the turn of the century,   an assortment of colourful perennials has been introduced.

An ancient cypress gets a little help.

An ancient cypress gets a little help.

When I reached the west wall of the garden I caught my first glimpse of the statue that had once held centre stage at the Organ Fountain.


Diana of Ephesus, the Roman Goddess of Nature and Abundance. A lot of abundance.



After a great deal of soul-searching, in 1611 Cardinal Alessandro d’Este came to the conclusion that it was inappropriate to have such a generously endowed goddess, a pagan goddess at that, so prominently displayed in the garden of a Man of the Church.  However, rather than having the statue destroyed – think of the Bamiyan Buddhas blown up by the Taliban in 2001 – he instead ordered it to be transferred to this somewhat less visited part of the garden.  And here she stands, to this day, in splendid isolation, surrounded by beautiful, abundantly flowering roses.


A gardener was watering the roses nearby.  I asked him what his favourite time of year in the garden was.  He hesitated and then said,  “Maggio (madge-Joe), per le rose”.   (“May, for the roses.”)  Me too.


I continued along the rose-covered wall to the southern border of the garden, the site of  the last fountain in the three-part story that begins with the Fontana di Tivoli.

Just to be on the safe side, in addition to tying up Ippolito with the governorship of Tivoli, the Pope also passed a decree prohibiting him from owning property in Rome.  The beleaguered cardinal was essentially banished from the city.  However, never one to accept defeat graciously, Ippolito decided that since he could not go to Rome, he would bring Rome to Tivoli.  He commissioned the construction of a new fountain, one in which the starring role would be played, not by water, but by statuary.

La Fontana di Rometta

Minerva watches over Romulus and Remus.

He hired sculptors to create exact replicas of all the major monuments in Rome. Although most of the statues have since been stolen or destroyed, the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome and Minerva, the Roman Goddess of wisdom, still remain.  The channel of water below represents the Tiber and the boat in the middle the Tibernina Island, where the first Romans settled.


Minerva, Goddess of wisdom, one of the Romans’ favourite goddesses.

Ippolito called his miniature city the Fontana di Rometta. Even if you don’t parlare italiano, you’ve probably come across one of the most intriguing things about the language –  the way you can change the meaning of words by adding little bits onto the end.  If you want to make something small, there are all sorts of possibilities – spaghetti/ spaghettini, Giulia/Giulietta – so you may have already  guessed that Rometta means ‘little Rome’.  And what was the source of all the life-giving, fresh water for Rometta and, by extension, Rome itself?

Next to his ‘Little Rome’ Ippolito and his guests would dine under a triumphal arch, the hazy outline of the city that spurned him in the far-off, immaterial distance.

Next to la Rometta, la Fontana di Flora.

Next to la Rometta, la Fontana di Flora.

Whatever you think of him – Ippolito certainly seemed to have a fair bit of the delusional, narcissistic, if not egomaniacal about him –  you have to admit that the way he chose to vent his frustrations resulted in the creation of an absolutely gorgeous garden.  Food for thought, even if trying to drive from point A to point B is hardly on the same level as trying to get elected Pope.