Sacred Forest or Monster Park?

Some people say it doesn’t matter, but I think it does.  I’m talking about the rooms we stay in when we travel.   And for me, the most important thing about that room is that it have a view.  At the end of a day of sightseeing, even if it’s only for one night, I like to look out my window and see something that lets me know where I am.   And in the morning, to look out that window again and watch the boatmen navigate a small canal in Venice or the breeze shimmer through an olive grove in Tuscany or the fishermen bring in the morning’s catch in Sorrento’s Marina Grande, holds the promise of another bella giornata. Maybe this matters more for solo travellers, but having travelled alone and with company, I’m not convinced.

A room with a view in Positano.

A room with a view in Positano.

What else do I look for?  Small, charming, owner-operated where possible and decorated in a style that reflects the area.   Something that says ‘genuine’.  In Italy I also look for a location where there is a strong possibility that the evening passeggiata is alive and well. And a good selection of restaurants within easy walking distance – I’ve been walking around gardens all day.

On the island of Ischia, geranium barriers block all traffic from the main road for the evening passeggiata.

On the island of Ischia, barriers of potted geraniums are rolled out for the car-free, evening passeggiata.

I start my search by getting out my guide books.  With books you know something about the author.  My favourites are ‘Charming Small Hotel Guides’, Alistair Sawday’s ‘Special Places to Stay’ and ‘Hotels and Country Inns of Character and Charm’ by Rivages.  Then I start trolling the web,  looking for the most recent comments on the hotels I’ve earmarked. Occasionally a change in ownership or rating pops up.  I was upset to see that my favourite hotel in Nice had been upgraded to four stars since my last visit. Not surprisingly, the room prices had also been upgraded.  


The room had a great view but given the upgrade, I’ll have to find a new favourite hotel for my next trip to Nice.

Sometimes, while I’m looking for a hotel, I stumble across a garden or a tourist site I knew nothing about.  When I was looking for a place to stay near Villa Lante, I checked out the hotels in Viterbo.  In addition to glowing descriptions of the amenities awaiting you at each hotel, as a further inducement, most websites also included a list of ‘Nearby Attractions’.  Not surprisingly, Villa Lante was on every list.  But so was another attraction – Sacro Bosco aka Parco dei Mostri.  ‘Sacred Forest’ or ‘Park of the Monsters’, depending on your point of view I suppose.  I’d never heard of it.  From the brief descriptions, it sounded more like a very weird amusement park than a garden, but in the end I decided to go.  It was only 13 kilometres from Villa Lante.


The village of Bomarzo, perched atop a rocky ridge.

It was created only a few decades after Villa Lante, but apart from sharing the same architect, the two gardens could not be more different if they had been created centuries apart, on opposite sides of the planet.   It wasn’t because one was the garden of a Cardinal and the other of a military officer and diplomat. It was the times.

In 1527 Charles V had attacked Rome.  In the brutal rampage that followed – the Sack of Rome – the Renaissance came to an abrupt end.  Days of devastating bestiality, pillaging, murder and rape by the Emperor’s out of control troops had exposed the ideals of the Renaissance to be nothing but an illusion.  And with the shattering of that illusion came the rejection of everything the Renaissance had stood for.

Along the path to the entrance.

No formal cypress-lined avenue here.

In its place a new movement emerged –  Mannerism – so called because of its emphasis on style over substance, on the ‘manner’ of a thing over its essence.  Those paintings with the strange long necks and arms, the weird, unnatural landscapes?  All Mannerist.  When it came to garden design, having rejected all the standard features of the Renaissance Garden – symmetry, harmony, central axes, level terraces, focal points –  what was left for the garden designer to do?  One man’s answer, in fact the most extravagant take on the Mannerist theme, is in a valley in the middle of nowhere.  At least that’s what it seemed like as I was driving along the narrow, country roads trying to find it. As usual there were no signs.

Orsini is a diminutive of orso meaning bear.

The family name of the creator, Duke Orsini, is a diminutive of orso (bear).

In the mid 1550‘s, after witnessing the brutal murder of his closest friend, Duke Orsini was captured and held for ransom.  Three years later he was released and had barely made it back home when his beloved wife died.  Overcome with sorrow, he withdrew from public life, and retreated to his family’s holdings, a wild, rocky property in the hilltop village of Bomarzo.  After a while, perhaps as many of us have done when we find ourselves ‘in the wilderness’, as a way to ease his sorrow, in the valley below he began to create … something.  For lack of a better word, let’s call it a garden.


Solo per sfogar il core. (Only to relieve my heart.)

Orsini himself didn’t call it a garden.  He called it Sacro Bosco (Sacred Forest).  An allusion to the groves where pagans had worshipped in ancient times.  In his Sacred Forest there would be no focal point.  No clear direction to follow.  Visitors were left to meander along the contours of the hillside.  In Orsini’s words, ‘completely free to search for what they most desired or to wander aimlessly until lost’.

I was fine with the idea of searching for what I most desired.  It was the thought of ‘wandering aimlessly until lost’ that made me uneasy.


I read later that the sphinx had recently been moved to its present location, just beyond the entrance.  It was felt that the new location might help visitors understand what is going on in the garden.


The inscription, in an old form of Italian, roughly translates as  “Whoever goes around this place with raised eyebrows and tight lips and is not filled with wonder and amazement at the sight of Bomarzo’s gigantic statues would not be capable of  appreciating even the famous seven wonders of the world.”  Sounded like a taunt to me.  Hoping I was up to the challenge – wouldn’t want to be betrayed by a wandering eyebrow – I set off.


Poseidon, the fisherman turned into the sea god after eating a magic herb.

In keeping with the new Mannerist style, instead of clearing the land of the existing vegetation and boulders and then moving quantities of earth around to create level terraces, Orsini left the valley in its natural state.  And all the enormous lumps of volcanic rock that littered the valley?  He had them carved in situ into Roman and Greek gods, and an assortment of mythological creatures.


“You who have travelled the world in search of great and stupendous marvels, come here, where there are horrendous faces, elephants, lions, ogres and dragons.”


Unlike visitors today, Orsini’s guests would have had no trouble identifying any of the statues strewn along the hillside. This reclining figure might be a siren. Or maybe a goddess.

Hercules was bound to be here somewhere.  For the 10th Labour he had to bring back the magnificent red cattle of Geryon, the fearsome giant who controlled the western edge of the Mediterranean.  On the way back, as Hercules lay sleeping, the rogue Cacus stole a few.  Eventually Hercules caught up to him.


Of all the strange things here, one of the strangest is the Casa Storta, which, unlike the Leaning Tower of Pisa, was deliberately built on an angle.  You can go inside, but I don’t recommend it if you are at all susceptible to vertigo.   Even if you have pretty good balance and the only thing you’ve had to drink so far is cappuccino, you’ll still be lurching and staggering across the floor.  And the world outside will appear disturbingly cockeyed.  It is, as Orsini no doubt intended, disconcerting.


Ironically, the falling down house stands rock solid 500 years later.

Further on Neptune rested with the dolphins, creatures revered not only by the pagans who worshipped in Sacred Forests, but also by the Etruscans, who believed that the souls of the dead were transported by dolphins to the next life.


A rare moment of serenity. Neptune at rest with the dolphins, the creatures



Peace is illusory in the Mannerist world view, so nearby Hannibal and his elephant are ready to do battle and a winged dragon is having it out with a few other creatures.


Perhaps the strangest thing of all is not even in the garden.  It’s the fact that the same individual could have designed this place and the gardens at Villa Lante and Villa d’Este.


The Snare of Lust.

As we saw at Villa Adriana, Hadrian dined al fresco in an elaborately decorated alcove overlooking his guests.  Ippolito d’Este revived the tradition under his Triumphal Arch overlooking Rome in the distance.  Cardinal Gambara dined with a few select guests in an elegant, but small palazzina overlooking a garden that symbolized man’s triumph over nature.  But all of these designs reflected an optimism and confidence that Orsini no longer felt.  Instead, he took his inspiration from Dante.   Over the Gates of Hell in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ is the grim inscription ‘Lasciate ogni speranza o voi ch’entrate!‘  (Abandon all hope oh ye who enter!)  Orsini gave the bleak warning a tweak, turning it into an invitation to abandon not all hope, but all thought.  OGNI PENSIERO VOLA.  Let every thought fly away.


A Mannerist take on dining al fresco.  Above the entrance an invitation to abandon all thought.

Inside the gigantic mouth – unfortunately there was no-one around to give a sense of the size and I hadn’t yet come up with the ‘shoe shot’ idea (The 1st Renaissance Garden, Part III, Sept. 22, 2013) – is a large stone table.  Bizarre, but would have been delightfully refreshing on a hot summer evening.


It has been said that of all the art forms, gardens are the most fleeting.  Sacro Bosco was extremely popular during Orsini’s lifetime, but after his death it faded into oblivion.  It took the devastation of World War II to bring it back to life.  As I meandered, not quite lost, back up the hill to the entrance, I passed a temple-like structure.


Although built as a mausoleum for Orsini’s wife, it was always referred to as “Il Tempio di Vignola“, (Vignola’s Temple), in honour of the architect who designed it.

In the early 1950’s a local, Giancarlo Bettini, purchased the property and hired a group of unemployed veterans who, having returned home from World War II, struggled to survive.


To him and his family goes the credit of having saved from destruction this important complex, the only one of its kind in the world and at the same time of having provided work to the unemployed of the village of Bomarzo.  In eternal memory of his death July 30, 1997.

Like Duke Orsini, I wouldn’t call it a garden – for starters, amidst all its spooky weirdness there wasn’t a single flower in sight – and while I noticed my eyebrow raising itself a few times despite my best intentions – I would also agree with the Duke that it is a place full of extraordinary, surprising things.  Full of wonder.  And, something the Duke could not have known, adding to that wonder is the fact that it was both conceived and brought back to life in the aftermath of war.

note:  If you read my blog on a regular basis, you’ll know that I send out a new post once a week, on Sundays.  But because this is the last post for the Lazio region, and because I am leaving for a three-week trip to Sicily this evening, I decided to publish this one today.   And so, until June, Arrivederci!


Happy Mother’s Day and the Pleasures of Travelling with a Companion

‘You travel by yourself?!’ Sometimes it’s a question. Other times it’s more a comment. Always my questioner seems to be struggling with the discrepancy between the woman standing in front of them and the wild, fearless, maybe even irresponsible creature that the lone female traveller represents for them.  ‘Yes, I travel alone,’ I reply and then, to ease their obvious discomfort, I start listing all the things I don’t do in my solo travels.   I don’t travel to Timbuktu – an expression that, as far as I know, has not yet been placed on the ‘Index’ of politically incorrect phrases.   I don’t travel to places where I can’t understand the language (the dialects of the various regions in Italy don’t count – even Italians can’t understand them).  I don’t drive at night.  I don’t stay in sketchy parts of town.  I don’t cruise late night bars.  I don’t wear tons of flashy jewellery (my not owning tons of flashy jewellery is irrelevant for the purposes of the answer).  There are more things I don’t do, but most people quickly get the point.

Sometimes, however, there is a follow-up question, a clarification of sorts.  ‘But don’t you get lonely?’ to which I answer, ‘No, I don’t get lonely.’ If they’re still looking at me askance, I elaborate.  I spend a lot of time visiting gardens, and who can be lonely in a garden?  Just as importantly, being able to speak with the locals in their language means that I am rarely without someone to talk to.

However, in fairness to the skeptics, ‘No, I don’t get lonely,’ is really only a partial answer.  The full answer would be, ‘No, I don’t get lonely.  Not that lonely.  Not that often.’  Because of course there are times when a companion would be wonderful.  I was reminded of this when I travelled with my daughter in France last year.  So, in honour of Mother’s Day, here are some of the pleasures and advantages of travelling with a companion that I discovered on our mother-daughter trip.


Cheers to Mother-Daughter travelling!

An obvious advantage revolves around eating.  Eating alone is a challenge.  There are a few tricks – a table in the corner will make you feel less conspicuous and will give you a good view of goings-on.  Writing up the day’s adventures, or phrases I overhear, helps ward off discomfort.  But it is still a challenge.  No matter how many times I have asked for ‘Una tavola per una persona, per favore.‘  (A table for one person, please.), it never gets any easier.  Being then asked, as sometimes happens, ‘Per una persona sola?’ doesn’t help.  Although one time in France, when the waiter came to take my order, he first asked, ‘Vous attendez quelqu’un?‘  When he heard that no, I was not waiting for someone, without skipping a beat, he commented, ‘Tant pis pour lui.‘  (Too bad for him.)

No matter how charming the locale, dinner together is always more pleasant. Cassis.

Even in a charming, lively bistro like this one in Cassis, dining is a much more pleasant experience with company.

Having said that, eating can also, as I have had the misfortune to learn, be a challenge when travelling with someone.  If your companion turns out to be a picky eater, or is more worried about gaining weight than trying the local cuisine, or gets upset when you want to stop for lunch, meal times can be a nightmare.  Heureusement, my daughter and I are on the same page when it comes to eating and we never skipped lunch.  (Although she insisted I should have been gaining more weight than I seemed to be with all the wine we were drinking.)

Une table pour deux.

Une table pour deux.  Lunch in La Ciotat, Provence.

I’m sure I would never have had a delightful picnic in the Jardin des Tuileries if I had been on my own.  It’s almost impossible to buy just enough for one person, so you stink up the car with the leftover fromage which, along with a chunk of paté that would for sure have given you food poisoning, you end up throwing out two days later.

Post-picnic nap in the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris.

Post-picnic nap in the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris.

A travelling companion can reveal things about yourself that you had previously been blissfully unaware of.  I, for example, had been totally unaware of a tendency to become oblivious to my surroundings when I’m focused on getting a photo.  I got my first inkling of this when we stumbled across the Marché des Fleurs on our way back to our hotel in Paris one day.


Wonderful. A flower market right in the centre of the city.


A travelling companion will point out that you’re in the middle of the road and a car is coming.

That bad, eh?

That bad, eh?

Nor did I have any idea how much time I spend squatting and crawling around on the ground.


Looking for an angle in the Luxembourg Garden.


Trying to get those foxglove with Notre Dame in the background.

...or just how ungraceful I can look as I'm getting up.

…or the contortions I go through as I’m getting up. (By the way, I had no idea I was not the only one taking photos on this trip.)

And after a day of exploring, un petit verre is much more enjoyable en compagnie.

Apéritifs on our little balcony in Paris.

Apéritifs on our little balcony in Paris.

A totally unexpected benefit, food-wise, to having my daughter with me occurred in Cordes-sur-Ciel.

Cordes-sur-ciel, a medieval hilltop village in the Dordogne.

Cordes-sur-Ciel, a medieval hilltop village in the Dordogne.

When I booked dinner at the Chambre d’Hôtes we were staying in, I had no idea we would be the only guests dining that evening.  Or that we would be treated to a gourmet meal worthy of at least a Michelin star or two. But I was pretty sure there was no way the chef would have agreed to a booking for one person.


Dinner in an elegant room, set up just for us and prepared by our own private chef.


When our enthusiastic, young chef brought dessert, we just sat there looking at it…but not for long.

Another wonderful plus of having my daughter with me occurred the next day.  We had spent the morning exploring the village, and then after a picnic lunch on our terrace,  we headed out into the countryside to explore a couple of villages nearby.

Picnic lunch with a view.

Picnic lunch with a view.

We had just turned onto the narrow, country road that would take us to Monestiés, when Laura cried out, ‘Look Mom !  There’s a garden!’  And sure enough, there, by the side of the road, surrounded by fields as far as the eye could see, was a garden.  I pulled over to have a closer look.  It seemed so odd.  Who had  created it? – or more precisely, who was creating it?  Some areas looked as if they had been recently planted.


We walked up and down along the road, admiring the garden, when, as if out of nowhere, the mystery gardener appeared.   As she came toward us, I grew uneasy.  Even though we had stayed on the road, I somehow felt as if we had been trespassing.  Pas de soucis.  She smiled and called out ‘Bonjour‘.


Soon, like old friends, we were chatting away about rock gardens and favourite plants and detestable pucerons (aphids).  And about how she had lived in Perpignan until her husband died and had then returned to the family home to be with her son and his family.


It was one of those encounters that are as delightful as they are unexpected and one that I probably would not have experienced had it not been for my daughter.  Pointing out the garden to me was such a sweet gesture – made all the sweeter by the fact that she knew she was going to have to tag along on a few garden visits when we arrived in Provence.  And before you start thinking I’m the evil Mom of the West, a bit of background info might be in order.

After I had booked everything for our trip together, my daughter discovered that, due to the miracles of the digital age, she didn’t have to physically be on the campus where she was studying and could join me much earlier than she had originally thought.  While this of course was wonderful news – fortunately I always book a double room – who wants the miserable, single room in the back with no view? – it meant that she would now be joining me before I had finished visiting gardens.

Nigella, one of my favourites and evidently also of the kindred spirit who had created this garden.

Nigella, one of my favourites and evidently also of the kindred spirit who had created this garden.

Another personal discovery was that, with motherhood, I seem to have developed a kind of displaced vertigo.

Route des Crêtes.

Route des Crêtes. ‘Une route pas comme les autres.

To describe the Route des Crêtes as a road unlike any other is an understatement that in no way prepares you for the real thing. But I had driven it before and knew what we were in for.  The official website describe it as un véritable itinéraire bis pour amoureux de grands panoramas, de liberté et de vertige.   I was fine with the grand panoramas and the freedom.  It was the vertigo that caught me unawares.


Even knowing there are a good three feet of rock behind her didn’t help.


While she revelled in the views, I was having conniptions.


Finally, I couldn’t help it. ‘Get back from there!’ I called out.

Truce.  She comes back from the edge and sits down.

Truce. She headed back and sat down, not quite at the edge

One thing I did not need to discover was the mother-daughter disconnect in physical fitness.


One day we went for a hike in the calanques, fjord-like inlets west of Cassis.



As you can see, the calanques are beautiful. They are also rocky and steep.  I wonder if these photos give any sense of how hot it was.


This is as far as we went.  My daughter looks like she has barely got started…


… while I am sitting in the shade wondering if I’ll ever be able to get up again, let alone scramble back down to the village.


Villa Ephrussi, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

A travelling companion can also come in handy when you want to show how big something is.  No need for the ‘shoe shot’ (The First Renaissance Garden III, Sept. 22, 2013) when you have someone you can cajole into posing in front of a big specimen.


This was more useful than you might think.  One day we slipped over the border into Italy to visit the Giardino Botanico di Hanbury.


Giardino Botanico di Hanbury, Ventimiglia, Italy


Look at the size of that thing!

Another rather peculiar benefit was revealed to me one day in Provence.  After a lovely lunch along one of the rivers that flow through the delightful town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue we had driven a good half hour north to visit what had been described on the website as une découverte exceptionnelle.  The restored gardens of a 1st century Roman villa.  I had carefully timed our arrival to coincide with the afternoon opening at 15h.  But when we arrived, the ‘exceptional discovery’ was shut tight and apart from an elderly French couple who had also come to visit the site and a few gardeners who were cleaning up a cemetery on the other side of the alley, there was no-one in sight.


L’Isle -sur-la-Sorgue.

I had a little chat with the French couple.  They found it very strange and were obviously uncomfortable with the fact that one of their tourist sites was not open at the official time.   I was also uncomfortable with this fact, but since climbing over the rather high iron gate seemed unbecoming for a mother, I decided to check out the cemetery the gardeners had been working on.  Ten minutes later, since there was still no sign of life from inside the gates, I went over to the gardeners and had another little chat.  They too were uncomfortable with the unexplained closure.  One of them offered to call the person who was in charge of opening things up.  I passed the next half hour mostly ranting and raving and was just on the point of leaving when a car drove up the alley.

We watched, the gardeners, the French couple and us two Canadians, as a young woman got out of the car, went over to the gate and opened it.  All in a leisurely, provençal fashion.  We paid the entrance fee, which at 8 euros seemed a bit high and with no apology, barely a ‘Bonjour’ from the mademoiselle, we went to visit the garden.  I’ll spare you the details and just say that it was not worth the wait or the drive.  But what I did learn that afternoon was that when things don’t go right, for some reason it’s not quite as irritating when you have someone to share the unpleasant experience with.


Not a sit-down protest. She is very sensibly sitting in the shade while I storm up and down the alley in the glaring sun, ranting and raging.

Another plus, which fortunately only became apparent on the last day of our trip, was that when the weather isn’t what you’d hoped for, it doesn’t seem as bad when you have company.


A windy day in Antibes.

There was one downside.  I had a feeling travelling solo again was going to take some getting used to.





Delusional – but Beautiful

Bagnaia is a small village perched on a narrow, volcanic ridge in northern Lazio.  The name comes from bagno (ban-yo) meaning bath.  The ancient Romans would come here to soak in its mineral waters.  Nowadays most visitors come for the gardens of Villa Lante, considered by many to be a masterpiece in Renaissance garden design.

An astonishing amount of traffic crawls around Bagnaia's central piazza.  sometimes drivers stoop in the middle of the road to chat with a pedestrian.  Amazingly no-one honks.

An astonishing amount of traffic crawls around tiny Bagnaia’s central piazza. I watched in amazement as drivers stopped in the middle of the road to chat with friends.  Equally astonishing, I didn’t hear a single horn honk.

After I had walked around the village – which took all of ten minutes including stops for photos –  I was famished and if there was one thing I have learned over the years, no garden, no matter how beautiful, looks that great on an empty stomach.  But I hadn’t seen any restaurants, not even a trattoria.  Just the bar on the right in the photo above.


The water flowing from the village fountain is NON POTABILE. No longer drinkable.

Time for my second magic phrase.  (for my #1 magic phrase, see ‘Flourishing, Flowering Florence’, Sept. 22, 2013)  ‘Dove si mangia bene e spende poco?’  (Where can you eat well and spend little?)  Sometimes I have to mix it up a bit.   Especially in cities, where spending poco usually amounts to not much more than a slice of pizza standing up, not something I even want to think of after walking around gardens all morning.  In that case I ask something along the lines of ‘Dove si mangia roba genuina e semplice?’  (Where can you eat simple, genuine food?”)  Other words, like casalinga (home cooking) or del posto (of the place) are good too.  I looked around for someone to ask.  Someone who looked like they knew about food.  Which of course is a ridiculous thing to do in Italy, where everyone is a gourmand.


When the woman I eventually asked pointed to the bar, I must have grimaced, because she immediately reassured me that it was indeed a place where si mangia bene. Normally I never eat in a place where there are no other customers.  If you’re travelling on your own, no matter how happily, it’s depressing.  Also, you have to wonder about the quality of the food they’re serving.  But this was early May.  The garden tours hadn’t started up yet.  And it was the middle of the week.  Maybe the locals ate out on the weekend.  I headed over to the ‘bar’ and waited to be seated.  A few minutes later I was enjoying one of the best antipasti misti I’d had in a long time.  And I just about drained the bottle of olive oil the waitress brought with it.

Antipasto misto.  Delizioso!

Antipasto misto. Delizioso!

Fortunately, much of life in Italy is lived outdoors, so there was lots going on in the piazza for me to observe when I wasn’t pigging out on the olive oil.

An animated discussion.  Probably the usual topics - politics, soccer...

An animated discussion. Probably the usual topics – politics, soccer, food…

I felt a bit guilty about all that olive oil, so when it came time to pay the bill, I asked if they also sold it in bottles ‘da esportare’ (take away).  I would never ask this in Toronto, but in Italy, especially in smaller towns and villages, chefs often use products from their own farms or farms of relatives or friends.  Sometimes they also sell these products from the restaurant.  It turned out I was not the only one who had taken a liking to the olive oil.  A group of Norwegians had just bought a case of it.  My waitress wasn’t sure if there was any left.

Now and then I’m sure everyone who travels gets rankled by the goings-on of other tourists.  One thing that always leave me feeling very contrariata is the sight of EEC tourists, who in addition to not having to pay exorbitant airport surcharges and taxes, endure endless, disagreeable hours in airport lounges – I think I’ve already ranted about this so I’ll stop now – also get to return home with the trunks of their cars stuffed with cases of olive oil and wine and other delizie.  Before I had a chance to get really riled up about those Norwegian, the waitress returned, all smiles.  If ‘la signora desidera’, they could let me have one bottle.  I desired it.  


If you go, don’t take the ‘obvious’ middle road as I did.  The entrance to the garden is at the end of the road on the right.

I could have happily lingered a while longer watching life unfold in the piazza, but the whole purpose of coming to this little village in the middle of nowhere was to visit its garden, so, fortified with an espresso, and laden down with a bottle that was surprisingly heavy, I set off.

Unlike any of the other gardens I’d visited so far, the original entrance to Villa Lante was at the top of the hill.  Ironically – think of all the gardens, from Villa Petraia near Florence to Villa d’Este in Tivoli, that we now enter from the top, although they were originally designed to be entered from the bottom – the entrance to Villa Lante is now at the bottom of the hill.


If you want to capture the spirit of the garden as it was originally designed, you have to rush past the Fountain of Pegasus to the right of the biglietteria and march yourself up to the top of hill.


Rhododendrons, an ‘exotic’ newcomer, along the stairway up the hillside.

I had found the garden absolutely enchanting on a previous visit in the fall.  But as I climbed up the hill again this May, it was even more beautiful than I had remembered.

There are some who object to the Rohododendrons and Azaleas.  I am not one of them.  I don’t care if they are horticultural anachronisms.  (It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that foreign travellers, botanists and plant collectors among them, were allowed into China’s interior, where many of the most beautiful species originate.)  My guess is that if they had been available in Cardinal Gambara’s day, he would have wanted lots of them in his garden.


The Grotto of the Deluge.  The rough stone walls symbolize Nature still in control.

The inspiration for the design of the garden comes from Ovid’s Metamphorphoses.   In a nutshell – and my apologies to the Latin scholars among you – a long-lost Golden Age had collapsed into a state of corruption and moral decay, which was swept away by a catastrophic flood in which mankind was almost eradicated.  As we descend the slope, the increasingly sophisticated elements symbolize the slow process of mankind’s rebirth and eventual triumph over nature in a new Golden Age.

One of two palazzzini on either side of the Gotto of the Deluge.

One of two palazzzini on either side of the Grotto of the Deluge.

The circle the 16th century cardinals moved in was pretty small, physically and socially. Bagnaia is only 23 km north of Caprarola, the site of  Cardinal Farnese’s extravagantly decorated palace.  So who else but their fellow cardinals were they going to entertain at their luxurious villas? And since the pool of talented architects and landscape designers was even smaller, recommendations for this fellow or that inevitably got passed around.  As you visit more and more of their gardens, you start to feel a vague sense of déjà vu.  Not to worry.  Your brain hasn’t gone to mush.  You really have seen something similar before.  The palazzina in the gardens of Palazzo Farnese? It was Cardinal Gambara who suggested the idea to Cardinal Farnese.


On the wall of one of the little structures the crayfish, emblem of the Gambara family.IMG_2568

Although he frequently socialized with them, Cardinal Gambara did not share the other cardinals’ passion for grandiose testaments to their wealth and power.  What he craved was a private, intimate retreat.  In the cool shelter of his (relatively) simple palazzina, he and a select group of friends would relax over dinner, freed for the moment from the competition and intrigues of Papal life.


Next to the grotto, more of those hollow trees like the ones at Villa Aldobrandini.


La Fontana dei Delfini (Fountain of the Dolphins) marks the beginning of mankind’s ascent.



Look familiar?  This is where Cardinal Farnese got the idea for his ‘water chain’.

Villa Lante’s was the first cordonata (water chain).  The glittering, fast-flowing water was meant to symbolize the creative genius of civilized man.   And the repeating curves, in the shape of crayfish claws, the symbol of the Gambara family, pointed to one civilized man in particular.  Everyone in Cardinal Gambara’s social circle got it.

Fountain of the River Gods

Fountain of the River Gods

At the base of the water chain, the water flows over the last of the crayfish claws into the la Fontana dei Giganti (Fountain of the Giants).


If these River Gods seem familiar, perhaps it’s because they were modelled on Michelangelo’s statues of the Tiber and Nile Rivers in Rome.  Only here the giants are meant to symbolize the Tiber and the Arno Rivers in a gesture of friendship (much-needed) between the Medici and the Papacy.


Centuries later the water pressure is much lower, making the task of keeping all the spigots clear even more important.

Keeping all the spigots clear of leaves in the fall is a time-consuming and, no doubt, bone-chilling task.

Sometimes Gambara and his guests would dine at the immense table beyond the River Gods, cooling their feet in the channel below and their wine in the channel that ran down the centre of the table.

A dining table that keeps your wine and your feet cool.

Sometimes Gambara and his guests would dine at the immense table beyond the River Gods, cooling their feet in the channel below and their wine in the channel that ran down the centre of the table.


More rhododendrons and hydrangeas, another ‘exotic’ introduction, line the path down to the next stage in man’s ascent.

La Fontana delle Luci. (Fountain of the Lights).

La Fontana delle Luci. (Fountain of Lights).

Spigots hidden around the base of this and other fountains in the garden would randomly shoot out jets of water, drenching unsuspecting passersby.  They were called giochi d’acqua (joh-key da-kwah).  Water jokes.  People loved them.  Fortunately, they no longer function.  As far as I know.


Water continues its path from the Fountain of Lights into the final fountain in the story – the Fontana del Quadrato.

La Fontana del Quadrato. The end of the allegory.

La Fontana del Quadrato. The end of the allegory.

I think Fountain of the Quadrati (Squares) would have been a better name.   In the middle of the enormous parterre, which of course was square-shaped, was a square pool divided into four smaller squares.  And all around the pool were squares upon squares of boxwood.  I wish I’d counted them.

Geometrically trimmed box repeat the theme of mankind's triumph over nature.

Squares and other geometric shapes proclaim mankind’s triumph over nature.


Of course it can be a lot of work maintaining our domination over nature.

May must be box-trimming month. It was amazing to watch these guys wield those things. No strings. All by sight.



On the little island in the centre of the pool, la Fontana del Quadrato, aka la Fontana dei Mori (Fountain of the Moors.)


In those outrageously politically incorrect days, all dark-skinned foreigners were called ‘Mori‘ (Moors).



The desire for a private, intimate retreat didn’t mean that the Cardinal wasn’t keen on extravagant displays now and then to entertain his guests on long, summer evenings.  Mock naval battles like those that had been held in the greatest gardens of Imperial Rome were a favourite.


Most of the time I like knowing the story behind the design of a garden.  Why it was designed the way it was, what message the designer or the owner was trying to convey. But the underlying symbolism at Villa Lante, especially the part about mankind’s triumph over nature, struck me as not only delusional, but utterly incompatible with the sheer beauty of the place.  This is one garden where I’d recommend the ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach.