If after visiting Rome, you’re not in a big hurry to be back in Tuscany, instead of heading north as I did on my last trip, you might want to make a short detour to the south to visit the hilltop town of Frascati.
Summer in Rome is caldo, which means ‘hot’, but sounds like it should mean ‘cold’. I once overheard a tourist at the table next to me ‘translate’ antipasti caldi, whereupon her companion wrinkled her nose and said, ‘I don’t want a cold dish.’
Anyone who has ever visited Rome in summer would probably say it’s not just caldo, it’s caldissimo (cal-dee-see-moh). And while it might be a tad warmer these days, it has always been uncomfortably hot, which is why the Popes and cardinals of old would flee the city at the beginning of summer and head for the hills surrounding Rome. Their preferred refuge was Frascati. Here in grandiose private villas, they would pass the days in comfort, cooled by the gentle breezes of the hilltop town.
Because I wanted to visit the garden of one of those cardinals, I had booked a room in the village of Grottaferrata, two kilometres from Frascati. As any of you who have booked rooms on the Internet will know, there are some absolutely brilliant photographers out there. The owners of this hotel had not hired one of those photographers. It was even more beautiful in real life.
I don’t often touch on the subject of accommodation – too tricky, what I call charm, for example, others might call unpleasantly ‘old’ – but for this hotel, the owners make you feel so welcome, there was such a strong sense of family, of being a casa sua (at home), that I feel compelled to make an exception. It’s called Tenuta Cusmano.
Reluctantly I left the oasis I had stumbled upon and set out for Frascati to visit what is considered the most grandiose villa in the area. It belonged to Cardinal Aldobrandini, who in typical cardinal style placed his villa on the highest point of the hillside. The cooling hilltop breezes were undoubtedly a major attraction to the location. But you can’t help feeling that the cardinal’s enjoyment of those breezes was enhanced by the view of Rome stifling in the distance.
We’ve already seen where other cardinals located the entrance to their villas – Villa Medici in Rome and Villa d’Este in Tivoli – so it should come as no surprise that, like the guests of the Medici’s and the d’Este’s, Aldobrandini’s guests had to huff and puff their way from the the bottom of the hill to the villa at the top where their host would greet them.
Nowadays that entrance is shut tight. Maybe they open it now and then – possibly for dignitaries. But if you’re part of the hoi poloi you walk along a very unpastoral, heavily trafficked road that climbs the hill to the left of the property and enter through a small gate at the level of the villa.
By the beginning of the 1600’s, the popes and cardinals had built so many of these sumptuous villas, the competition for water had gotten decidedly unChristian-like.
When Cardinal Aldobrandini discovered there wasn’t enough water on his property for the lavish lifestyle he envisaged, he solved the problem by diverting a tributary that fed into a neighbour’s property.
Not surprisingly the neighbour objected and eventually it was agreed that Aldobrandini would pay for the rights to the spring. He had a little help funding this project from the man he called his uncle – Pope Clement VIII.
Clement VIII’s generosity probably had less to do with any affection he may have felt for the young man than with the fact that once elected Pope, he was, technically speaking, prohibited from owning property. Helping his nephew, which is how Papal offspring were often identified in those days, was merely a way of “keeping it all in the family”, a practice that is, regrettably, all too alive and well to this day. Only now we call it nepotism, from nipote, Italian for nephew.
Since all the best gardens of ancient Rome had a grotto, Aldobrandini had one, a rather enormous one built behind villa.
Water has not flowed from the Pillars of Hercules for a long time. If I was into Photoshop, I suppose I would ‘fix’ these photos, transform all the lifeless, brown bits into the vibrant greens of the ferns and mosses that the water once trickled over. But since I am not, and do not ever foresee being into such ‘creative’ editing, you’ll have to use your imagination. On the other hand, I did take a photo years ago in Provence that I think gives a sense of what things might have looked like back in Aldobrandini’s day. I had been on my way to Séguret, one of those seemingly countless villages de charme and excellent wine in northern Provence.
Like most medieval villages in France and Italy, you park your car outside the village. On the short walk to the village, I came across a strange sight. If a hillside can gently sway, then that is what this moss and fern-covers hillside was doing.
The current owner of Villa Aldobrandini has taken on the (daunting!) task of restoring the fountains, so the day may come when the water will flow again, but in the meantime, brown bits and all, the grotto attracts lots of visitors and is the site of sold-out concerts throughout the summer.
I thought I had read somewhere that you could climb the hill to the water chain and Pillars of Hercules above. Part of the grotto was covered in scaffolding and there were a few workers milling around, so I wasn’t sure.
I got a few looks from the construction fellows as I made my way up the rough path, but they didn’t tell me to stop, so I kept on going. There was a sign at the top – one of those ‘Danger – do not cross’ signs – but even though this wasn’t my idea of a garden, I was here, so I was darn well going to check out the whole thing. I hopped over a missing part of the terrace and started along the path up to the pillars.
On the way down I came across a couple of strange things I had been too busy huffing and puffing to notice on the way up.
Enough of these horticulturally challenged, power statement gardens. The next garden I was off to visit was a ‘real’ garden. I knew it was real, because I’d visited it a couple of years before in the fall. It was beautiful. I wondered if it would be any more beautiful in May.