High above the spanish steps in the wooded, statue-filled pleasure grounds of the Villa Medici, I find myself puffing heavenward up Pincio Hill, whose mini belvedere offers a 360-degree panorama of the Eternal City.
Lost in the astonishing view, I’m only half listening when our guide remarks that in the first century B.C. this same 17-acre site was covered by the Gardens of Lucullus. What she says next gets my full attention. The fabled gardens, created by a retired Roman general around his villa—somewhere under our feet—would become a model for other gardens in the city and later be recognized as one of the first attempts in the West to tame nature through landscape gardening.
This is where it all began. Right here.
In the company of friends who have come to look at villas and gardens in and around the city, I set off each day from the Hotel d’Inghilterra on sorties of enlightenment and varied delight. It’s early May, the ideal time to be in Rome (fewer people; less traffic; the temperature in the balmy mid seventies) and to make excursions into its newly greened-up countryside. Fields of scarlet poppy and yellow mustard plants line the road to Bomarzo, a good hour north of the city by car and the first and most extraordinary of the gardens we visit.
More sculpture park than garden, Bomarzo’s Sacro Bosco occupies a lush area on the grounds of the Villa Orsini. A web of looping trails leads though open glades, past rocky outcrops, and down steep ravines inhabited by giant, often grotesque statues of gods, mythical beasts, and other marvels. At every turn there’s an encounter with some unexpected and eccentric work of art. An elephant with a tower on its back; a huge turtle bearing the statue of a goddess; a leaning stone fun house. Some of the moss-covered figures are badly worn and their symbolism long lost, but there’s no mistaking the ogre whose gaping cave of a mouth (big enough to walk into without stooping) represents the entrance to the underworld.
If there’s something melancholy about nature having reclaimed much of the “Parco dei Monstri,” as it’s known locally, it fits the spirit of the place and the story of its creator. In 1552, Prince Vicino Orsini started work on a Villa of Wonders for his beloved wife, who died tragically young, which caused the project to be shelved; it was later completed as a monument to her memory. On the morning of our visit, though, the woods are loud with birdsong and the sound of delighted laughter as groups of schoolchildren race around this Renaissance Disneyland, clambering over the monsters and being yelled at by exasperated teachers.
In Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), Edith Wharton points out that villa in Italian refers both to the house and its garden or pleasure grounds. At the Villa Lante, built for Cardinal Gambara in the 1560’s on a hillside above the medieval town of Bagnaia and considered by many to be the finest Renaissance garden in Italy, the twin pavilions, or palazzine, play such a minor part in architect Giacomo Vignola’s overall design they might as well be garden ornaments. In contrast to the fanciful exuberance of Bomarzo, only a few miles away, Villa Lante is all about order and proportion, if not restraint.