As hard as it had been to find my way around Ronciglione, I was even more confused when I arrived in Caprarola. There were, as usual, no signs anywhere – at least that I could see. After circling around a piazza a few times under the watchful eye of a few anziani (old fellows) sitting outside a bar, I finally got out and asked them, ‘Dov’è il Palazzo Farnese?’ ‘Là. Là sù.’ (There. Up there.) Since they were pointing at the top of a very narrow, very steep street I had taken for a pedestrian zone in my drive rounds the piazza, I then, very reasonably, asked, ‘Come ci si arriva?” (How do you get there?) I got the ‘guard dog’ look. (In the Garden of an Aesthete, Oct. 15, 2014) There was an awkward silence. Finally one of them said, ‘Con la macchina.’ By car. By the time I got to the top of the hill and found the rather dodgy-looking parking lot, I was so rattled, I forgot to take a photo of the castle exterior.
But it had all been worth it. As I walked up to the entrance, I could see that, unlike other tourists, I had arrived on a day the palace was open. My spirits at seeing the open door were only slightly dampened when the fellow at the biglietteria informed me visits were by guided tour only. I wasn’t too concerned. I was the only tourist. Maybe I would get lucky again and have a private tour. But I did wonder why he was so strangely vague about when the tour would start. About ten minutes later the mystery was solved. The school group he had been waiting for had arrived.
It could have been a lot worse. As I tagged along, I became more and more impressed with the guide, who rather than spouting endless dates and names and events, asked the students lots of questions, leading questions, to try and draw out the information, get their imaginations working and engaged in what they were seeing. Of course I was able to enjoy all this without having to worry about being quizzed on any of the content later on.
By now I had visited enough of these palazzi to know how things went. If you want to see the garden, first you have to tour the interior. There are over thirty rooms in Palazzo Farnese. Fortunately, some of them were not open to the public that day. That still left quite a few, so there was lots of time to go into the history of the palace.
I hope the students were able to absorb more than I did. After a few rooms – actually, maybe after the first room – I gave up trying to follow, let alone absorb what the guide was saying. The walls and ceilings were covered – literally covered with frescoes. It was an insane, A.D.D.-inducing mishmash of mythology, biblical and historic events. And the structure itself was terribly disorienting. An open circle on a pentagonal base, which, in the castle’s first life as a fortress, was perfect for hurling things at your attackers from the interior as well as the exterior walls.
The luxurious villa we were gawking at was the work of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ‘Il Giovane’ (The Young One), who by the time he reached his eighteenth birthday, was well-accustomed to a lifestyle of immense extravagance and social prestige. Nowadays we’d say he was one of the ‘1%’. He probably would have continued this lovely life had it not been for one inconvenient development. In 1549 his grandfather, who before becoming Pope Paul III had been the original Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, died.
It happens. Grandfathers die. But when your grandfather was pope and the expectation shared by you and your extended family is that you will continue the family tradition, things can get complicated. The conclave of cardinals that gathered to elect the new pope was divided into three more or less equal factions, one of which wanted to reconvene the Council of Trent; one wanted to drop it altogether and the Farnese’s just wanted guess who to win. In the end, after the usual intrigues and machinations that these things involve, a compromise candidate, i.e. somebody nobody wanted, won. And Pope Julius III did not take kindly to the Farnese family’s expansionistic endeavours, which by this point had reached the gates of Rome.
Sensing that a lower profile might be in his best interests – especially after one of his relatives was arrested and charged with plotting to kill the newly elected Pope – young Alessandro decided to take a break from the Vatican. He would undoubtedly have preferred to go to Frascati, the hilltop town south of Rome where the Vatican elite typically sought refuge from the searing heat of Roman summers (next week’s post), but unfortunately his grandfather had built the family fortress in the backwater of Caprarola.
But it wasn’t long before the Cardinal began to see the advantages of Caprarola. Close, but not too close to Rome. Clean, country air. And an existing structure dominating the surrounding countryside, which, with the best architects of the time and his unlimited funds, could easily be transformed into a luxurious Renaissance villa.
I read somewhere that when San Carlo Borromeo, the Bishop of Milan visited, he chastised Alessandro. The money spent on decorating the palace could have gone a long way to alleviating the suffering of the poor. To which the Cardinal replied, ‘I have given the money to the poor, little by little, making them earn it with their sweat.’
Finally. The garden. After the visual onslaught of the interior, I was looking forward to a lush oasis of tranquillity, filled with beautifully harmonious and colourful plants.
Unlike Cardinal Ippolito, who had made sure all the gardens at Villa d’Este were highly visible, not only from the entrance to the property at the bottom of the hill, but also from his villa at the top, Cardinal Farnese decided to ‘hide’ a large section of his garden. Guests walking through a grove of chestnut trees would be surprised to discover a giardino segreto. Today’s visitors may be surprised to feel no surprise or sense of discovery when they come to this part of the garden. How could they? In the 1950’s the chestnut trees were replaced with larches (rather sparsely planted) and the narrow, forest path was widened.
When we reached the garden I had asked the guide if it was OK if I went ahead. She was fine with that, but the fellow whose possibly thankless job up until now had been to keep up the rear, was not. It turned out that in the garden his duties were extended to include running ahead of the group to turn on the water in the fountains.
Surrounding the pavilion was one of the strangest sights, horticulturally speaking, that I had ever seen.
Per dire poco (to say little) it wasn’t what I had expected. And although sometimes I have changed my opinion about a garden – always from negative to positive; I’ve never yet visited a garden that I liked while I was in it and over time grown to dislike it – I didn’t think this would be one of those gardens.