In Search of a ‘Practical’ Potager

After my last post ((G7 Woes in the Pearl) I wanted to write about something less stormy. Something that wouldn’t lead to popping Advils.  The Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago off Sicily’s north-east coast, seemed like just the thing.  (The volcanoes – apart from Stromboli –  have been inactive for a very long time.)  I had spent a couple of days there on my first trip to Sicily almost 15 years ago.  But as I was going through my old photos and notes, a strange thing happened.  I began to long to visit the islands again.  Given that I’m going to Sicily in May, these weren’t just pie in the sky longings. After a few days of this I took Oscar Wilde’s advice and gave in to temptation and booked a room on one of the islands.  The new itinerary felt great and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it in the first place. But now I had a problem.  There was no point writing about a place I was soon going to, so what was I going to write about?

On a boat ride around the Aeolian Islands almost 15 years ago.

The answer came in my email Inbox.  A reader was planning to create a potager and wanted to know if I had any suggestions for gardens to visit in the Veneto that might give her some ideas.  She stressed that she was interested in PRACTICAL potagers.  My full reply is in the Comments section of the Welcome page, essentially that I didn’t think she would find much of practical use in that region.  On the upside I thanked her giving me the topic for my next post and with the wind howling and the snow gusting, I went looking for all the potagers I’ve visited over the years. I didn’t expect to find much that was practical for a Canadian gardener, but I felt sure it would be a lovely antidote to what was going on outside my window.

I started with the Veneto, the region the reader was interested in, but as I had expected found nothing there that had anything even remotely connected to a vegetable garden.

Entrance to the gardens of Villa Pisani, along the Brenta Canal, not far from Venice.  No lowly veggies here.

Then I headed west to Italy’s lake district – Lakes Garda, Como and Maggiore.  Lots more gardens there, but again not a single vegetable garden.

The ‘Japanese Garden’ of Giardino Melzi on Lake Como.

I went all the way over to Liguria, Italy’s most westerly region.  Go any further and you’re in France.

La Cervara, Portofino, Liguria.

Then I headed south, to Tuscany, the birthplace of the classic Italian Renaissance garden. While not the first, Villa Gamberaia, on the outskirts of Florence, is considered by many to be the most ‘perfect’.

The ‘Hidden Garden’ of Villa Gamberaia.  On the upper terrace to the left is a lovely lemon parterre.  But no veggies.

I was beginning to despair.  Then I remembered another garden I’d visited in Florence.  I’d forgotten about it – probably because it wasn’t a favourite.  Despite the gardeners’ hard work, the focus here was clearly on the statuary rather than the plants.

Villa Pietra was created not by a gardener or even a plant lover, but by an antiquarian.

But it did have an orto (or-toe).  Although, as you’ll see, despite some very serious vegetables, it is not a very ‘practical’ orto.

The monumental entrance to the vegetable garden of Villa Pietra.

I might be missing something but I don’t see anything here that would be of practical use to a Canadian gardener.

A young woman picks fava beans for a gala dinner in the villa that evening.

Continuing south I came across a few veggie gardens.

The orto of the Abbey of Passignano, Tuscany.

A private veggie garden in the hilltop village of Monticchiello in the south-east corner of Tuscany.

But the pickings were very slim, something I will have to remedy when I go back to Tuscany this fall.

Continuing south things didn’t get any better.

Ninfa, Italy’s most romantic garden, is designed to look as if it is on the verge of collapse. Compelling, but definitely not a place for someone looking for inspiration for a veggie garden.

Italians love vegetables.  And they love growing their own.  Just walk around any part of Toronto where Italians have settled.  When space is small, they even plant vegetables in their front yards.  To the consternation of neighbours who think that sort of thing -especially tomatoes plants with their ungainly stakes – should be relegated to the back yard.  I was flummoxed.  Why did I have so few photos of vegetable gardens in Italy?

I figured the Amalfi Coast, for all its stunning, natural beauty, was hardly the place to look for veggie gardens.

Along the Amalfi Coast, where land is scarce, terraces have been carved over the centuries up the mountainsides.

Still, I found a few.

One of the loveliest potagers I’ve seen in Italy is along the path to Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.

It also has one of the loveliest views.

I looked through thousands of photos from my trips to Italy searching for potagers, even impractical potagers. Then one day, in one of those moments when you don’t think you’re thinking about something, the light bulb or the penny or whatever your personal Eureka moment is, hit me.  Potager is a French word.  Even though I spend less time in France and had probably visited far fewer gardens there than in Italy, I had visited numerous French vegetable gardens.   And I had hundreds of photos of these gardens!  What was going on?  Do the French celebrate their potagers more than the Italians their orti?  I have no idea.  But I will try to find out.

Like many veggie gardens in France, the potager of the Val Joanis winery in Provence is both beautiful and full of practical ideas.  Even for a Canadian gardener.

In the meantime I have to end this post now because I’m leaving for the Rivieras – French and Italian – in a few hours.  This is an experiment.  My first ‘March break’ in many years.  I’m a little worried because I see a lot of rain in the forecasts for both Nice and Ventimiglia.  But at least there is no snow.

Every potager needs a shed. Val Joanis.





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!

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.

Heading for the Hills

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.


From the hilltop town of Frascati, a view of Rome sweltering in the distance.

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.


Tenuta Cusmano at dusk.

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.  


Early morning.

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.

Villa Aldobrandini.  The most grandiose villa.

The most grandiose villa of all – Villa Aldobrandini.

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.


Visitors aren’t allowed under the green tunnel, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t kept in perfectly trimmed shape.

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.

Incredibly these hollow trees were not just surviving.  They were positively thriving.

Incredibly these hollow trees are not just surviving. They are positively thriving.

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.


So that the visitor’s attention might not be distracted from the grandeur of the building, the gardens were placed to the rear.

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.

Rounding the corner of the villa.

Rounding the corner of the villa.

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.

The nymphaeum.

In Aldobrandini’s day, water flowed from the twin pillars of Hercules, down the staircases and over the entire grotto.

Since all the best gardens of ancient Rome had a grotto, Aldobrandini had one, a rather enormous one built behind villa.


Atlas in the centre, holding aloft the Universe. A flattering symbol of the Pope.



In the enormous niches, scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.

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.

Prov 11 803

Séguret, a Provençal village surrounded by vineyards.

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.

Prov 11 806

For now we have to imagine the sound of water trickling down Aldobrandini’s emerald backdrop.

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.


In the flickering light of candles, all those brown bits might be transformed into a rather romantic setting.

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.


To the right of the Centaur, scaffolding covered the rest of the grotto.

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.

Detail of one of the pillars.  The sound of the water must have been exquisite.

Detail of one of the pillars. The sound of the water as it splashed its way around the pillars must have been exquisite.

I decided not to go any further.

The source of the water was further uphill, but I didn’t think it was worth risking a sprained ankle to find it.

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.

I hadn't noticed this on the way up.  A foretaste of  a garden I would soon be visiting.

A foretaste of a garden I would soon be visiting.


‘Hacked to death’ was my first thought.  But the skinny tree/hedge is covered in foliage and far from dead.

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.

Close, But Not Too Close to Rome

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.


Interior courtyard of Palazzo Farnese.

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.


A guide who tailored her script to her audience and a very respectful group of students made for an unexpectedly pleasant guided tour.

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.


In the landscape of the ‘Rustic Fountain’, the cities of Parma and Piacenza, a not so subtle reference to the vast territory under Farnese control.

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.


Summer. The guide may have explained what is going on in the rainbow – and the torso-less head.  I have no idea.

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.


Spring. This time there’s a different head. And it’s to the right of the cherub. Is that meaningful?


One of the rooms was dedicated to the many, and of course illustrious exploits of the Farnese’s. Apparently the male posterior was an object of considerable interest even then.


Did they have chiropractors in those days? I don’t know how any of Cardinal Alessandro’s guests could have spent more than a few hours here without getting a sore neck.

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.’


The walls were much easier on the neck than the ceilings and you didn’t need to know any history to appreciate the beautiful trompe l’oeil columns in the corners.


The amount of work and money that must go into restoring and maintaining these places!


Apart from Jacob’s Dream, most of the frescoes in the cardinal’s bedroom did not strike me as at all conducive to a good night’s sleep.


In the Sala degli Angeli, there was a surprising range of angels. The one on the right has the usual aura of piety, but that is not at all how I would describe the one of the left.


My favourite room was the Sala del Mappamondo. The ceiling was covered with a gorgeous depiction of the constellations.


Along the far wall was the map of the world as it was known in 1574.


I was so intrigued with the female figures in the corners that, even though I lingered behind the group, to the annoyance of the guard who kept up the rear, I never got a shot of the complete map.


In spite of the clothes, this one has such a modern air about her.

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.


Next to the palace was a charming terrace and pergola covered with roses. A good start.


The grotto was…unusual.


Hmmm… My thoughts exactly.

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.


At the top of the water chain, the casino.  The cardinal’s summer pleasure pavilion.


River Gods lounge next to the Fountain of the Chalice from which water flows – sometimes – into the water chain below.

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.


I am sure this meagre trickle of water is not what the Cardinal had in mind.


Everywhere you looked – the frescoed interior, here in the garden – there were Fleurs-de-lys, symbol of the Farnese family.


The pleasures pursued in the casino were, ostensibly, only those of the mind.

Surrounding the pavilion was one of the strangest sights, horticulturally speaking, that I had ever seen.



Initially these statues reminded me of the statues surrounding the Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa.  (An Emperor’s Country Retreat, Feb. 22, 2015).


But even the most restrained of these statues had nothing in common with Hadrian’s classically elegant caryatids


Is the goat-like attire meant to be a reminder for those who may have forgotten where they were? Capra = goat = Caprarola.


If this was all meant to be a joke, they had what strikes me as a very creepy sense of humour in those days.


And what are we to make of these two in the corner? Pleasures of the mind? I don’t think so.


A wide staircase leads to the upper parterre and bosco (forest) beyond.


Dolphins line the balustrade. No water pours from their open mouths today. Maybe the water gets turned on only when the President of Italy – the casino is one of his official residences – is present.


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.



Arrivederci Roma

On the day I had to leave Rome, I woke up with a heavy heart.  In the past few days, as I meandered around, I found myself warming up to the city.  Getting used to, even rather fond of its extravagant Baroque architecture and monuments.

L'Altare della Patria

L’Altare della Patria.   Altar of the Fatherland, aka The Typewriter, Wedding Cake…

There were of course some that were probably never going to win me over.  Like the Altare della Patria.   Unlike my favourite building, the Pantheon, the Altar of the Fatherland is easy to spot – remember the view from the ‘back door’ of Villa Medici in last week’s post? It’s not just its size.  The ‘Wedding Cake’ effect of all that white marble make it stand out – its many detractors would probably say, glaringly – against the rusts and ochres of the rest of Rome’s buildings.


View from the Janiculum Hill. I know the twin statues on top represent the Goddess Victory driving chariots pulled by four horses (quadrigas). They still look like swans.

It was originally conceived as a monument in honour of King Victor Emmanuel II, who had the dubious honour of being the first to try his hand at ruling the fiercely independent city states that were officially united under the Italian flag in 1870.  But as work limped along between the early 1880’s until it was finally finished in 1925, the temptation to tweak not only the design, but also the symbolism proved irresistible.


One of several tweaks to the original design, the goddess, Roma stands watch over the tomb of the unknown solder.

For me, the best thing about the Altare is hidden behind the building next to it.

To the right of the Altar/Wedding Cake a statue of Castor stands guard over the staircase leading to the epicentre of Ancient Rome.

On the far right of the Altar, Castor stands guard over a grand staircase that leads to…


… Il Campidoglio. Capitoline HIll, the citadel of Ancient Rome.

There was a large wedding group one day.  It took me For a while I wasn't sure which was the groom.  Then I saw the photographer.

There was a large wedding group one day.  For a while I wasn’t sure which was the groom. Then I saw the photographer.

The statue behind the wedding group is of Marcus Aurelius.  For such an illustrious figure, it’s mounted on a surprisingly modest pedestal.  That’s because Michelangelo, who had been commissioned by Pope Paul III to spruce up the piazza for the upcoming visit of Emperor Charles V, didn’t like the statue.  But the Pope insisted.  He believed, as did everyone at the time, that it was not of an ancient, pagan Roman, but of the Christian Emperor, Constantine.

Below the entrance to the Palazzo Senatorio, Minerva, the goddess of Rome.

Below the entrance to the Palazzo Senatorio, a familiar face.

On one side of Minerva the mighty Nile.

On each side of Minerva, lounge the gods of two mighty rivers.  On the left, the Nile with a pharaoh for arm rest.

oN the other, the Tiber, with the legendary founders of Rome, Romuls and Remus.

On the right, the Tiber.  Here the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, provide the arm rest.


A little further to the right, la sposa (bride).

When he redesigned the piazza, Michelangelo deliberately turned his back on the Forum and the pagan Romans of old, directing the eyes and hearts of the Romans of his day to the new, Christian Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica across the Tiber.  Fortunately, for modern-day visitors, the great artist’s snub has had an unanticipated and marvellous consequence. If you leave the piazza and go down an unassuming alley to the right of the Senators’ Palace, you will come to a small terrace with one of the greatest views in the city.

Beyond the Forum, the topmost arcades of the Colosseum.

I came back to the little terrace several times.  The view during the day was spectacular, but twilight had its charms too.

I came back to the little terrace several times. The view during the day was spectacular, but twilight had its charms too.

And what, you may well be asking, does all this have to do with my heavy heart?  Allora. (ahl-loh-ruh).  One of the most beautifully evocative words in the Italian language.  An amorphous creature, it means nothing and everything and is often accompanied with a hint of a sigh or regret.  But enough digressing!  As sad as I was to be leaving the Città Eterna, that wasn’t the main reason for my distress.  It was the fact that the day had finally arrived when I would have to pick up the rental car, drive out of the centro storico and get onto the Grande Raccordo Anulare.  The GRA, as it is usually called, is the justly maligned, 70 km, approximately 6-lane highway around the city.  (‘approximately’, given the locals’ habit of squeezing in an extra half lane or so every now and then.)   And here’s where that tangent I started off on comes into the picture. The GRA was designed so that its very centre would be – the Campidoglio.

After fortifying myself with even more cappuccini than usual, I checked out of the hotel and headed for the ufficio di noleggio (oo-fee-choe dee no-ledge-joe).  I had chosen this particular car rental office not so much for the servizio impeccable and the staff cortese e professionale (see how easy Italian is!), but for its location.  It was the closest to the GRA and hopefully in an area that didn’t have any Varco Attivo or Non Attivo, because by now I had them totally mixed up.

Before crossing back into the familiar terrain of Tuscany, there were three more gardens in the Lazio region I wanted to visit.  This first morning morning al volante I was on my way to a Renaissance extravangaza created by a Farnese cardinal.  It was in Caprarola, a town 60 km north of Rome.  Adding to my general senso di agitazione was the knowledge that many would-be visitors had arrived there only to find the garden inexplicably closed.

Once I had managed to get on the GRA,  all I had to do was follow the directions I had printed off before leaving home. “Take Via Cassia Veientana/SS2bis and SR2 to Strada Statale 311/SS311 in Nepi.  Continue on Strada Statale 311/SS311. Take Strada Provinciale 1/SP1, Strada Provinciale 36/SP36, Strada Provinciale 69/SP69 and Strada Provinciale 35/SP35 to Via Filippo Nicolai”.   According to the Michelin people, it would take me ‘1 h 1 min., without traffic’.  Since ‘Rome without traffic’ was obviously an oxymoron, and since I was bound to miss one or two of those signs,  I gave myself two hours.  That meant I would arrive around lunch time.  Since I also had a hunch that trying to find my way around Caprarola for the first time was not something to be done on an empty stomach, I decided to head for a village nearby that was sure to be more manageable.

Ronciglione.  This being Italy, somewhere in there was a place to eat.

Ronciglione. This being Italy, somewhere in that medieval jumble of buildings there was bound to be a place to eat.

Unlike most of the medieval villages I have visited, Ronciglione did not wind itself around the top of an elevated promontory.  It was on flat ground.  But I assumed that the layout would be similar – a labyrinth of winding, cobblestone alleys that would lead me, inexorably, to the town’s centre, where I would find a place to eat.

But the layout was less medieval labyrinth than geometrical Roman grid.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, ‘There was no centre, there.’  The closest thing to a centro was an irregularly-shaped piazza with a fountain and part of a presumably ancient wall.  Around the piazza were a few stores, but nowhere to eat.

Forget about those dark clouds.  Look at the flowers growing on top of the wall.

Ignoring for a moment the dark clouds, look at the flowers growing on top of the wall!

Thinking that in my effort not to hit anything or anyone, I might have missed something, I decided to explore on foot.  But I was worried about getting disoriented, so after wandering fruitlessly along a few of the streets that led off the piazza, I gave up and asked a local.  I was in the centro after all.  In the grandly named Piazza Principe di Napoli. (Prince of Naples)  My friendly guide suggested a couple of places, but then remembered they were all closed.  Restaurants and a host of other commercial establishments are required by law to close one day a week.  It’s called la chiusura settimanale.  When I first came across this, I assumed it was to protect vulnerable employees, and perhaps, by making it impossible for patrons to spend all their euros at one establishment, promote the economic survival of all.  But I have noticed as I travel around, that in many places, an astonishingly large number of eating establishments have the same closing day.  (Do not visit San Gimignano in Tuscany on Tuesday if you want to have a good choice of eating options.)  Obviously I had arrived on Ronciglione’s off day.

Non si preoccupi, signora!’  I was not to preoccupy myself.  If I followed a narrow dog-leg off the piazza, I would come to the ‘new’ part of town where there might be something open today.


PINK PARKING SPOT.  A gesture of courtesy/area reserved for pregnant women and new mammas.

Whenever I see buildings like this I always wonder - do the neighbours get along?

Across the street from the osteria, a row of residences.  Whenever I see buildings like this I always wonder how the neighbours get along.

I found a non-pink parking spot close to an osteria that was open.

OGGI  (odg-gee).  The first thing on today's menu was pasta e fagioli, just the thing.

OGGI!!! (odg-gee). TODAY!!!

The first thing on the menu – pasta e fagioli – was just what I was in the mood for.  The tables outdoors looked inviting, but it was cool and windy.  I joined the locals inside.

The osteria's 'wine cellar' was right next to my table.  Wine was obviously not going to be a problem.

The osteria’s ‘wine cellar’ was right next to my table. Wine was obviously not going to be a problem.

A cheerful, young woman came to take my order, but when I asked for pasta e fagioli, she advised me, politely but with a surprisingly authoritative air that, nonostante the menu out front, pasta e fagioli were only served on Wednesdays.  This was giovedì (joe-vay-dee).  Thursday.  I followed her suggestion to try the antipasto misto.

I'm not sure this photo does justice to the antipasto misto which

Fried zucchini flowers, crostini, fried rapini and spinaci saltati (jumped around) Not as photogenic as some meals, but delizioso all the same. Especially when washed down with the local bianco.


By the time I finished lunch, the dark clouds had disappeared.  I set off for Caprarola.


A Tuscan’s Garden in Rome


Villa Medici at twilight.

According to my itinerary, for which, unhappily, I alone could take credit, after Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa, I was to visit the gardens of Villa Medici, created by the Tuscan Cardinal, Ferdinando I.  By the time I got back to Rome, sfinita – a much better word to describe how I was feeling than ‘exhausted’ – and dragged myself up the Spanish Steps, the sun was already setting and, for the first time in all my travels around Italy, I was glad to see the word CHIUSO. (kew-zoh)  CLOSED.  Fortunately it was downhill all the way to my favourite piazza, where I figured I would have energy left to plop myself down and order a glass of wine.

The next morning, after having done a major revision of the rest of my itinerary, I set out for the villa again.

as beautiful by day as by night.

At the top of the Spanish Steps, Trinità dei Monti. As beautiful by day as by night.


Unlike most of the obelisks scattered around Rome, the Sallustiano Obelisk is a copy.
Not a very good one apparently. Some of the hieroglyphs are upside down. Still gorgeous.


In the soft twilight of the previous evening, the façade had seemed much less austere. Where was the ostentatious self-glorification of a typical cardinal’s villa?


My heart sank when I saw the inscription over the massive door.  Had I just climbed the wrong hill – for the second time!?

In my experience, one of the unexpected challenges of finding one’s way around Italy is the apparent reluctance Italians have in settling on just one name for many of their major tourist sites.  The most confusing time I ever had was in northern Italy, trying to figure out which Palladian Villa was which.  Many of them have two, some even three names.  Since they’re scattered all over the Veneto, if you do manage to get to what you hoped was Villa A, you’re likely to be greeted with large signs at the entrance for a Villa B, which, as you will discover if you don’t just head to the nearest bar, turns out to be Villa A after all.  (More on this when I get to the gardens of Northern Italy.)

But no, there in tiny lettering next to the small section of the door that opens to let visitors in, were the words I was hoping to see – Villa Medici.

Of course it’s not just to annoy tourists.  In a country with such a long, convoluted history, where preservation and restoration fortunately almost always trump the wrecking ball, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that over the centuries, its buildings have occasionally undergone changes in ownership and/or function.  What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is the custom of hanging on to the old names.   Or, as in this case, of referring to a building by its new name, while leaving the old name emblazoned on the façade.

Visitors enter through the lower left section.  The rest of the immense door remains firmly shut.

Visitors enter through the lower left section. It looked like the rest of the door hadn’t been opened in a long time.

To make any sense of the ‘aka’ in this instance we have to go back to the French King Louis XIV.  In the mid 1660’s he had founded an academy in Rome so that promising French artists could immerse themselves in the great works of art of the Renaissance and Classical Rome, after which they would return to France, loaded with replicas and ideas.  A couple of centuries later Napoleon took a fancy to Villa Medici and relocated the Sun King’s academy to these premises.


It wasn’t until 1985 that anyone realized the ceilings were covered with frescoes.
They had been white-washed over.

I had not been happy to find out that visits are by guided tour only.  But I got lucky.  I had arrived just a few minutes before a huge group (all groups look huge to me) and had been chatting – in italiano – with the two young guides who were on duty that day.  I don’t know why, but when they saw the group arrive, they excused themselves and went over to the reception desk and had a little chat.  I waited and watched a seemingly endless train of English-speaking tourists step through the little door.  Then, to my surprise, one of the guides came back to me and said, if I was OK with doing the tour in italiano, we could go.  The other guide was going to take the English group.


The entrance to the Villa Medici garden, like the garden at Villa d’Este, was through the villa.  And the walls and ceiling, like those of Villa d’Este, were covered with frescoes.


The Aviary.

Finally we stepped out into the garden.


The obelisk on the right is a copy.  Given the various Popes’ love of obelisks, Ferdinando took the original with him when he returned to his native Tuscany and had it installed, safe from the Pope’s reach, in the Boboli Gardens.  (A New Garden for a New Home – Boboli Gardens – Part I, Nov. 17, 2013)


Mercury, the patron god of, amongst other things, commerce, communication, travel – and trickery and thieves.  (Who knew thieves had a patron god?)

The statue of Mercury is also a copy.  Like the obelisk, the original is in Florence (in the Bargello), where it had initially come from.

When Ferdinando decided he needed a statue for the fountain, he called upon Giambologna.  Born in Flanders – his birth name was Jean Boulogne – he had set off, at age twenty-five, to study the wonders of Rome.  Several years later, on his way back home, depending on how you think of it, he made the fatal mistake, or the best move of his life, when he decided to have a look at what was happening in the arts in Florence.   When the Medici’s became aware of his  talents, they took him under their heavy wing.  Apart from a couple of occasions – not even the Medici’s could say no to a pope – the powerful family refused all entreaties, including those of the queen of France, to ‘lend’ their protégé, who lived out the rest of his life in the City of Flowers.

Over the door behind Mercury is a tribute to Napoleon.  Given the Emperor’s penchant for self-aggrandizement, there had to be one somewhere.




If the austere front entrance was a surprise, the ornately decorated ‘rear’ was an even bigger one.  What kind of Cardinal would put all his best stuff at the back of his villa?

In typical Medici style, their coat of arms front and centre.

In typical Medici style, the family coat of arms, front and centre.


The vignettes were pilfered from ruins. When they didn’t fit, the ‘extraneous’ bits were hacked off.


Some people say you should never go back to a place.  It won’t be as good as you remember.  (I hope I’m not repeating myself here…)

I’m not one of those.  If I like a place the first time, I tend to like it even more on a return visit.  The first time round, I’m often so overwhelmed, I can’t take it all in.  This is not false modesty.  I have been amazed at how many things I discover  when I’m back home going over my photos – things I didn’t even remember noticing at the time.

‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see.’  (I wanted to make sure I had this gem from Thoreau right, so I googled ‘look at but not see’.  As I scrolled through the sites, just above the one with the Thoreau quote was a site with the heading –  ‘You look hotter after 1 drink but not 2.’   Oh dear.)

In ogni caso, the clue to the puzzle of the façades lay in one of the frescoes we had passed by – the one with the garden in the foreground and the villa at the back.  But I didn’t ‘see’ it at the time.


After visiting Villa d’Este this statue needs no introduction. (In case you missed the post – A Cure for Road Rage, March 1, 2015 – or the name momentarily escapes you, it’s Rome’s favourite goddess, Minerva.)

Maybe, if my neural pathways hadn’t already become so congested, what with listening to my guide – one of the rarely mentioned disadvantages to having a private guide is that there is no letting your mind wander, no hiding or not paying attention – I might have made the connection between what was going on here and what I had seen at Villa d’Este.


Ferdinando was just as interested in self-glorification and ostentation as his peers.  It’s just that we had come through the back door.  In Ferdinando’s day, just as they did at Villa d’Este, visitors entered the property from the bottom of the hill and walked up through the garden to the villa.


My guide was very informative, very charming and allowed me as much time as I wanted at each of what were obviously the ‘talking points’ of the guided tour.  But I began to feel a bit restless.  I had come to see a garden.  Where was it?


Apart from a noble, but very small attempt to recreate a medieval orto (vegetable garden), there was nothing of a horticultural nature that warranted trudging all the way up the Spanish Steps.


Next to the orto, there was a nice patch of grasses, but hardly what I would call a garden.

It turns out that the Cardinal was a keen collector of antiquities.  The so-called garden was merely the backdrop for his extensive collection of statues.  I didn’t remember coming across that little tidbit when I was planning my trip.


Niobe, punished by the gods for her pride.

When this group of statues was discovered, Ferdinando snatched up the whole thing.  It portrays the story of Niobe and how her arrogant pride led to her downfall.  It is a terribly tragic and rather strange story to have in one’s garden, but I suspect the Cardinal prized the statues for their value as a collector’s item, not the cautionary tale they told.

Since we’ve already here, we might as well have a quick look at the story. The action takes place in Thebes, during a ceremony honouring Leto, who was the mother of the twin gods, Apollo and Artemis.  (She had become pregnant after being raped on her wedding night by Zeus disguised as a swan, but that’s another story.) At one point, showing a jaw-dropping disregard for the social niceties, one of the guests, Niobe, started boasting about her superior procreative skills.  The proof?  She had succeeded in producing not just two, but a magnificent total of fourteen children.  The grapevine was evidently alive and well in those days and Niobe’s words soon reached the ears of Leto’s twins. Enraged they flew down to earth.  Apollo, who most of the time was the enlightened god of light and music, shot his arrows at Niobe’s sons, killing all seven of them.  Artemis, the virgin goddess of nature and hunting, aimed her arrows at the hapless daughters.  At this point the plot line gets a bit murky.  Poor Amphion, whose misfortune it was to be the husband of Niobe, and the father of the slaughtered children, either committed suicide or was done in by Apollo when he attempted to seek revenge.  But not to worry. This is Niobe’s story, not Amphion’s.

Overcome with grief, Niobe then neither commits suicide, nor does she die attempting to avenge the slaughter of her children.  Instead she runs off to the mountain where the gods live and begs them to end her pain. Zeus, in an uncharacteristic gesture of sympathy, accepts her request and turns her into a rock.  But Niobe the Rock continues to cry, a symbol of the endless mourning that comes from being a mother.


If you want to see the originals, you’ll have to go to – you know where.  A few decades later, the new Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold I, took such a fancy to them he had the whole lot transferred to a room created specifically for them in the Uffizi Gallery.

I saw Acanthus, so difficult to grow in Canada, flourishing like a weed everywhere in Rome.

Acanthus, a rare plant back home, seemed to grow like a weed here.

It wasn’t at all what I had expected and I doubted I would come back, but I’d had a lovely time chatting with my guide and who knows, if I hadn’t been drawn by the thought of visiting a garden, I might not have climbed all the way up the Spanish Steps again.  And I would have missed one of the best views of the city.


Not a bad back door view.  In the distance, soaring above the rooftops, the Altare della Patria.