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Rome's Most Beautiful Gardens

Looking down on the quadrato with the Fountain of the Moors, at Villa Lante.

Photo: Christopher Simon Sykes

Its main terraces are subdivided by paths and box hedges into geometrical patterns; they’re linked by steps and a central stream that falls from a grotto at the top of the garden through a sequence of magnificent fountains and cascades (adorned with shrimp tails, dolphins, and river gods) to the great water parterre that overhangs the ocher-roofed town below. As you look down on the garden from above, the beauty of these symmetrical arrangements becomes apparent—the sparkling play of sunlight on water; the inviting cool of ilex-shaded bowers—adding to the harmonious effect of the whole. Flowers, rarely a key feature of Italian gardens, would be a distraction.

However remote from the modern concept of a garden—nothing much has changed since the French essayist Montaigne, strolling the paths here in 1581, admired the fountains for their beauty and grace and saw rainbow effects in the misty spray—you can still appreciate how Villa Lante achieves through its inspired design a bucolic sense of peace, which goes back to the classical ideal of balancing art and nature in country living.

After a simple yet delicious lunch at Il Borgo, a café-restaurant with tables on the main square in Bagnaia (the local mozzarella and house-made licorice-dark chocolate ice cream are memorable), we set off on a 20-minute drive to the last garden of the day, in Caprarola. The only way to see what gardening authority Penelope Hobhouse called “one of the great masterpieces of Italian garden art” is by first taking the official tour of the Villa Farnese, a formidable pentagonal fortress that sits above the town looking out toward Rome. We troop through one magnificent empty salon after another (including a map-of-the-world room painted around 1570), and get a feel for how uncomfortable life must have been in those days, even for the rich and powerful.

It’s a relief to emerge into the sunlit grounds behind the palace and wander uphill through mature woods of ilex, chestnut, and pine to the Casino del Piacere (House of Pleasure), a perfectly proportioned lodge also built by Vignola. The final approach to the casino is by way of a dramatic arrangement of steps and fountains leading to a terraced garden of stone pillars, 28 male and female busts on tall pedestals that seem to have sprung from the ground along with the sentinel cypresses. The grandeur may be a little daunting, but Caprarola illustrates the importance the late-Renaissance builders and their masters set on the relationship between villa, garden (with all its sculptural forms), and the surrounding landscape.

The next morning, taking the old Appian Way out of Rome, we drive south for an hour toward Naples and stop, as travelers have been doing since Roman times, at Ninfa—a lush oasis in the desolate, once brigand-haunted Pontine Marshes. Here, tucked under the arid Lepini Hills, the ruins of a medieval town (razed by civil war in 1382) were gradually transformed over the course of the 20th century by the aristocratic, now died-out Caetani family into what some consider the most beautiful garden on earth.

There was never a formal plan. Three generations of Caetani wives helped Ninfa grow back over the skeleton of the abandoned town, its streets and buildings (tower, town hall, several churches) providing the framework for the garden. It still has a feeling of being inhabited not by ghosts but by the flora and fauna that have taken over the place, creating a dreamlike world of color, fragrance, and serenity.

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