An Italian Eden All Around

By Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times

BAGNAIA, Italy ~ I know how to get to paradise in this life.
It lies atop a hill about 60 miles north of Rome where a gentleman-cardinal built a garden in the 16th century. His architects created it from water and stone, green leaves and vine. But the result is more than the sum of its parts. Villa Lante embodies the humanist ideals of the Italian Renaissance.
Soon after I moved to Rome last spring, I began seeking out area gardens.
I took a Vatican Gardens tour to see the pope’s beautiful back yard, and I saw the ingenious fountains at the Villa d’Este, about 20 miles east of Rome. I found secret havens in the city – the rose garden on the Aventine Hill, for one – and tagged along with a group of architecture students from Yale University to visit Villa Madama, in the hills northwest of the city.
When summer’s heat settled in, I fled the city almost every weekend, navigating a rental car to the Grande Raccordo Annulare, the ring road that encircles Rome. From there it was easy to find cool, green, consummately beautiful pieces of paradise.
In 1578, Cardinal Giovanni Francesco Gambara was suffering an attack of gout when Pope Gregory XIII arrived at the Villa Lante. When the pope saw Gambara’s exquisite and obviously costly estate above the hamlet of Bagnaia, he canceled the cardinal’s allowance.
It couldn’t have been a good day for Gambara.
When I visited Villa Lante I was blessed in every way. On the drive from Rome, I followed the path of the Tiber River, lined by fields of golden, just-reaped summer hay.
I turned off the highway near Orte into a landscape of volcanic hills, crater lakes and strange, eroded canyons. A winding country road took me to L’Ombricolo – which means “the little shady spot” – a bed-and-breakfast that occupies a tile-roofed farmhouse surrounded by sunflowers.
Once I settled in, inn proprietor Dawne Alstrom gave me directions to Bomarzo, a garden as remarkable as Villa Lante in its own weird way.
I found Bomarzo, a privately owned “garden of monsters,” as it’s called, in a narrow, wooded valley about a 20-minute drive from L’Ombricolo. From the parking lot it looked like a cheesy tourist attraction featuring monumental statues of dragons and sphinxes set among the trees.
But once I ventured in, I realized something profoundly strange goes on in the woods at Bomarzo.
Stone colossi wrestle to the death in the dell.
An elephant pinions a Roman legionnaire in its trunk, and a precariously tilted house seems to totter at the edge of a terrace.
Around the bend, an ogre’s head rears up, its wide-open maw revealing a tongue in the shape of a stone table, where visitors can picnic while being devoured.
Art historians attribute the bizarre stone gallery, created circa 1570 by Vicino Orsini, to the rise of the Mannerist style of art that evolved after the High Renaissance. But psychology might also explain it.
Orsini was a papal soldier who retired, disillusioned, from the wars that wracked the Italian peninsula in the 16th century. At Bomarzo, I like to think he used his still-intact prankish sense of humor to vanquish his demons.
Villa Lante is comparatively demure, intent on perfection, not astonishment – without the distraction of flowers – and unchangingly green through the seasons.
When I passed through the gate, I caught a strong whiff of freshly clipped boxwood from the parterres around the Fountain of the Moors on the lower level, the interlocking hedges shaped in spirals, squares and circles with little lemon trees peeking out.
Then I turned around and saw the chain of fountains that decorates the hill. Drawn from springs in the nearby San Valentino hills, the watercourse emerges from the highest grotto, known as the Fountain of the Flood, then vanishes and re-appears in pools and channels that flow between the two palazetti, or “little palaces.”
There’s the Fountain of the Dolphins, richly emblazoned with the Gambara crayfish crest; the scalloping Chain Fountain, as ramblingly beautiful as any mountain stream; the long Cardinal’s Table, with troughs of running water that served as finger bowls for Gambara’s dinner guests; and the classic Renaissance garden on the lowest terrace.
I read in Helena Attlee’s Italian Gardens that, from top to bottom, Villa Lante tells the story of human evolution, beginning with the rustic Eden created by God at the Fountain of the Flood and climaxing in the perfect geometry of the lower parterres.
To understand the garden’s symbolism isn’t to take any less sensual delight in it. I couldn’t keep from dipping my toes in the cold, flowing water of the Chain Fountain. I ran my palms across the moss that clothes Villa Lante’s stone nymphs and goddesses. I sat at the Cardinal’s Table, half waiting for Gambara’s liveried servants to serve lunch.
On another summer getaway, I stopped to see a garden in the medieval town of Ninfa, owned along with its hilltop neighbor Sermoneta by the noble Caetani family, which still has a palazzo in the historic center of Rome.
Ninfa, open to visitors on selected summer weekends, is a garden for wandering with a book and a dog, for lying in fresh-cut grass and dreaming, especially in April and May when the ornamental cherries blossom.
As it was, I saw Ninfa with a Caetani Foundation tour during the stultifying height of summer, when only a few pink roses lingered to suggest the garden’s spring quintessence.
We entered near a spring-water lake that feeds the Ninfa River, saw fine old Holm oaks and white maples, then stopped at the ruined Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, where Pope Alexander III was crowned in 1159 after having been forced to leave Rome by supporters of Emperor Frederick I (known as Barbarossa).
Protected from extreme weather by the Lepini Mountains to the east and the ever-chilly Ninfa River, the 20-acre garden has myriad microclimates in which the Caetanis experimented with nonnative plants such as banana, bamboo and magnolias. In damp spots near the river, lilies thrive, and everywhere there are roses, climbing medieval ruins or preening in the walled garden.
La Landriana is an estate a few miles north and inland from Anzio, on 25 acres of land left bare and mine-pocked after World War II. The Marquis Gallarati-Scotti and his wife, Lavinia Taverna, bought it at auction in 1956, and it remains the family’s country home, receiving visitors by appointment only.
To see it, I booked a tour with Sue Webster, an English-speaking guide and avid gardener who lives nearby.
La Landriana’s story starts with a bag of seeds given to the marquise by a friend, which she planted and watched spring up. After that, she ordered more plants native to the Mediterranean, Australia or California, according to her interest of the moment. A garden took shape, but without coherent form.
In 1967, she summoned English garden architect Russell Page to La Landriana.
Page was a devotee of Renaissance formal gardens, which were then out of style.
The relationship between Page and Taverna, who died in 1997, proved especially fruitful as the master brought order and subtlety to the passionate experimenter’s diverse plant collection.
Page divided the hillside garden into 32 themed “rooms,” as he called them, using Taverna’s nurslings to create subtle artistic ensembles of texture, scent, shape and color. As a result, La Landriana is a gardener’s garden, known among connoisseurs for its subtle design and unusual variety of plants.

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