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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

You walk along a cypress avenue (once the main street), then follow grass paths (originally cobblestoned alleys) bordered with lavender and rosemary hedges that meander between the ruins. The crumbling stonework supports a profusion of climbing roses, clematis, honeysuckle, and jasmine. Vacant gateways and windows frame views of wildflower meadows, flowering shrubs, rare magnolias, pomegranate groves, and a cluster of giant timber bamboos. In the midday heat, the silence is broken only by the song of a nightingale and the sound of rushing water from the crystal-clear stream that runs through the middle of Ninfa.

It has the romantic appeal of an island, out of time and place. The sense of a natural equilibrium restored is as satisfying as it is humbling, but it’s a reminder too of the vision and hard work behind the scenes that made and now preserve this heavenly spot.

One of its chief creators, Princess Marguerite Caetani, was American and a distant cousin of T. S. Eliot. Besides importing and nurturing many exotic plant species, she founded the international literary magazine Botteghe Oscure, which flourished in the 1940’s and 50’s, and brought a succession of writers and artists to Ninfa. Her contributors make up a roll call of the giants—Lampedusa, Moravia, Calvino, Bertolt Brecht, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Camus, and Malraux, to name a few. In my wanderings, I find the corner by the river where Giorgio Bassani wrote parts of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which he maintained was inspired by Ninfa and the Caetani family.

Leaving paradise, we drive up to the hilltop Caetani village of Sermoneta. Its great castle, once the seat of the Borgias, dominates the countryside. You can see clearly the oasis of Ninfa, an uneven patch of brilliant green among the browns and ochers of the surrounding fields, and the Pontine Marshes stretching to the hazy shores of the Mediterranean on one side and Rome on the other.

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