As our travels in Italy headed us southward, we spent some time in Viterbo, 80 km north of Rome. Set in a landscape of beautiful lakes and heavily wooded hills of beech, chestnut, hazelnut and oak trees, Viterbo is regarded as the best-preserved medieval town in the Lazio region of Italy. The town was the home of the popes in the 13th century and the area retained an affinity with various cardinals, several of whom created significant gardens here during the time of the Renaissance.
One of these cardinals was Giovanni Gambara, who around 1566 engaged the architect Giacomo Vignola to transform what had been since the 13th century the summer residence of the popes at nearby Bagnaia (complete with a hunting wood!) into a grand garden, using water as a central theme. This garden, now known as Villa Lante, was completed by 1573 and is brilliantly designed on its sloping site, with several broad terraces perfectly aligned on a central axis, along which are placed the key water features of the garden. There are no flowers - all is greenery from clipped hedges or ancient trees, mainly plane trees. Some of these trees are now barely more than hollow trunks, but still provide cool shade. Each terrace interlocks exactly with its neighbour yet has its own distinct theme.
Contemporary visitors enter the garden at the lowest terrace, after passing through the wooded hunting park from which the garden was carved. Originally, however, the entrance was at the top of the garden, so that the descent through the various levels illustrated the taming of water (and nature?) and also (I think) the civilisation of mankind! The top level is centred around a rustic grotto between two small, simple temples, where water from a natural spring gushes wildly out of the mouth of a gargoyle, surrounded by ferns, into a pond filled with algae. This feature is called the Fountain of the Flood, an allusion to the biblical Deluge. The walls of the temples have a large number of spouts built into them, which in Renaissance times were activated to drench unsuspecting guests as a joke - but also allude to water as a wild and unpredictable element.
As one descends through the various levels, the water from the spring undergoes various transformations and is gradually 'tamed' along the way - it next travels through a fountain where it spouts from the mouths of very toothy dolphins then emerges to cascade down a long, narrow, stepped channel to give the appearance of an enormous liquid chain. The water then reappears from the Fountain of the Giants, comprising huge reclining statues of the river gods Tiber and Arno holding cornucopia, the statuary said to indicate 'abundance'. Such statues seem to be compulsory features of Renaissance gardens, evoking classical Roman times.
The water is then is channelled into a rill in the centre of a stone table 18 m long, set in the middle of a wide terrace surrounded by shady old trees. It seems that this was used as an outdoor entertaining area by the cardinal in summer and the rill used to cool drink bottles or even to float dishes of food upon - a delightful idea, I thought! - again conjuring up images of a scene in a grand Roman villa. The water continues down to a level where are situated two small but elegant pavilions, which give symmetry to the overall garden. However, in Gambara's time, though both were shown on the original plans, only one was built as he was reprimanded by the church for the amount of money he had already spent on the garden; the other pavilion was not erected until a subsequent cardinal took over the property. On this level, the water is tamed through a variety of spouts - the Fountain of the Lamps - along a staircase: the whole effect is reminiscent of a giant candelabrum.
From this level it is possible to look down upon the final terrace, which is comprised of a large square pool with a serene central fountain - the Fountain of the Moors - where the water is said to be contained and civilised. The pool is surrounded by intricate, geometric parterres of hedges - an overtly manmade feature compared to the much more informal plantings of trees on the upper levels and in the surrounding woods, reinforcing the idea of harmony and control of natural elements. The hedges date from the 17th century and are apparently more complicated than the original ones, which also used to contain fruit trees, such as lemons, pomegranates and cherries - the effect remains stunning.
The overall garden can be seen from this lowest terrace and cannot fail to give the viewer that frisson of delight that an amazing garden design can evoke; and its message of the inspiring fusion of structure and nature's wildness is what seems to me to be the essence of a garden, whatever its scale or budget!
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