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.