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Historic Gardens of Lazio Post AGM Excursions

by Katherine Greenberg
photographs by David Parker

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No 84, April 2016.

Katherine Greenberg writes:
“The autumn rains came early to Italy in 2015, and all the countryside was green as we made our way from the island of Ischia to Lazio after the AGM in October. Frascati, one of several hill towns to the south-east of Rome that are known collectively as the Castelli Romani, would be our base for visiting historic villas and gardens.

Our first stop was Villa Aldobrandini, considered to be the most spectacular of the late Renaissance villas in this region and the best example of early Italian Baroque style. The estate, which occupies 500 hectares (1250 acres), is still owned by the Aldobrandini family.

In the centre of the terrace, the Water Theatre is set in a wall of sculptures and fountains with mythological themes. The Fountain of Atlas occupies the central niche, and sculptures of Polyphemus and a centaur in the side niches once played pipes and horns. A chamber on the left is dedicated to St Sebastian and one on the right is called the Room of the Winds.”

Villa Aldobrandini - Water Theatre (eastern side)

Villa Aldobrandini - part of the restored garden

“Our destination the following day was Ninfa… the 8-hectare (20-acre) garden has a long and fascinating history. Named for a temple dedicated to nymphs and built over natural springs in ancient Roman times, Ninfa became a settlement in the 9th century and later developed into a prosperous medieval town, with a cathedral, several churches and 150 houses. …it was destroyed in 1382 and never rebuilt. In 1920, Gelasio Caetani initiated a plan to convert the medieval town hall into a dwelling and create a garden among the ruins. He began planting native oaks, pines, cedars, cypresses and a grove of pomegranates, as well as exotic species including magnolias, tulip trees, giant bamboos, maples, tree peonies and Japanese cherries. His brother Fredo Caetani continued the development of the garden and his niece, Lelia Howard, expanded the plant collections and created a nature reserve on 100 hectares of adjoining wetlands. She also established the Caetani Foundation to ensure the preservation of the garden after her death in 1977.”

Bridge over the river at Ninfa

The river at Ninfa with autumn colours

Ninfa - hydrangeas growing between fallen tree trunks

The next gardens visited were at Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este in the nearby town of Tivoli.

Katherine writes:
“Built between AD 118 and 138 at the base of the Tivoli hills east of Rome, Hadrian’s Villa was a reflection of his interest in places he had visited throughout the Roman Empire, first as a general and later as emperor.

The site has an abundant supply of water and natural hot springs, which were used for an elaborate system of reservoirs, fountains, pools and baths. One of the most spectacular fountains was in the triclinium or dining area at one end of the Canopus, a long, rectangular pool designed to represent the canal linking Alexandria to the town of Canopus on the Nile. From the banquet area, the emperor and his guests could admire the Greek and Egyptian statues surrounding the pool as they dined behind a curtain of water. Some of these sculptures were later used at Villa d’Este and others were taken to major museums in Europe.”

Hadrian’s Villa - the Canopus

Hadrian’s Villa – the library framed by olive trees in raised beds

“The Villa d’Este is renowned for its spectacular displays of water. The central theme of the garden linked the villa’s harnessing of water to the labours of Hercules, representing the humanist idea of man taking control of his life in Renaissance times. A river flowing through Tivoli provides a constant flow of water for the fountains, which are based on ancient Roman technology.

One of the most impressive of the water features, named The Hundred Fountains, is actually a wall of fountains that runs across the entire slope of the garden and contains over 300 water jets. The Fountain of the Oval, one of the largest fountains, was inspired by the triclinium at Hadrian’s Villa. On a lower level, the musical Water Organ flows over several terraces leading to the Fountain of Neptune. Plants are secondary to the elaborate fountains and sculptures in this garden.”

Villa d'Este - The Hundred Fountains

Villa d'Este - The Neptune Fountain with Water Organ behind

“On our last day in Lazio, we were fortunate to visit Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, which was recently opened for public visits by Pope Francis. Built on the rim of the volcanic crater that is now Lake Albano and overlooking the plain of Latium, the 17th-century palace incorporates the ruins of a villa of Domitian dating from AD 81. After the 55-hectare property was ceded to the Vatican in 1929, Pope Pius XI embarked on a major renovation of the garden.

We were able to visit part of the original thermal baths from Domitian’s time, although more remains to be uncovered. At the end of an old stone wall, we stopped to see a lovely contemplative garden with several cypresses, clipped yews, and a statue of the Virgin Mary beside a small pool.”

Castel Gandolfo - Giardino della Madonnina

“The lower garden extends across a series of geometrical parterres, planted with colourful annuals and edged by towering cypresses, umbrella pines and cedars.”

Castel Gandolfo - third parterre
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