Villa Lante - The Art of the Garden
Updated: Apr 4, 2019
Deeper into Tuscia takes us to its ancient capital of Viterbo, and from there to a very special garden, once hailed as the most beautiful in Italy!
The twenty or so miles which separate Tarquinia from Viterbo, capital of La Tuscia, are a curious blend of golden meadows, steep ridges and thick forest. As we hurtled beyond the necropolis and atop the plateau, a many arched aqueduct, the pride of Roman engineering, snaked in and out of view. One might readily believe that it was ancient, bearing a great resemblance to the mighty channels which feed Rome, but it was in fact constructed in the first decades of the 18th century, when the love and admiration of the classical world was at its apex. After all, at a time when the age of fighting sail was leading the former provinces of Rome to imperial glory, it was both natural and indeed educational for them to look back on the power which had done it first, and done it better.
For many centuries, Tuscia was a fairly sleepy grove in the Italian wood. The absolutism of the Papal court, and relative peace in Central Italy following the surrender of Siena to Imperial arms in 1555, meant that much of its strategic value had become moot. The shift of global commerce away from Italy, to the great trade routes of the colonial empires, spelled stagnation and decay for the Italian states following the ravaging of the peninsula in the Italian Wars. Thus it was that something of a trance descended on Latium, one that has still not entirely lifted. Wherever one goes in Tuscia, there is a profound sensation that one is the first visitor there for many an age. It is this slightly haunting melancholy which defines modern Lazio, and which sets it apart from the regions which surround it.
Yet anything but sleepiness is gripping Italy, for acidic ruptures are tearing their way through the fabric of Italian society, a rift laid bare at the General Election. The old status quo which had served Italy so poorly has apparently been overturned by the breakthrough of Movimento Cinque Stelle and Lega, propelling two men to the reins of power. One, a certain Luigi Di Maio, a Campanian engineering student and webmaster whose professional experience to date consists of serving drinks to the crowds of San Paolo stadium, and another, Matteo Salvini, a political veteran wise to the folly of the euro, and vocal about it, and the swiftest to understand that the internet has shattered the traditional state monopoly on information. Yet only weeks ago, the apolitical and impartial President Mattarella made the entirely political and partial move to deny the right of the government to appoint their own choice of Minister of the Economy, Mr Paolo Savona. It may surprise the Anglo-Saxon reader to learn that government ministers in Italy, even Prime Ministers themselves, need not be elected officials. Thus within the Italian bubble, that Mr Savona was a political layman was neither here nor there. An economist and professor with a career spanning fifty years, he is a qualified man. He does, however, have the audacity to point out that the euro has throttled Italy since its inception, and serves the Teuton more than it ever could the Italian. Until recently, such beliefs would result in a lifetime sentence in the jail of publicly regulated morality.
Thus fell the President's axe, followed by a televised declaration that the appointment of Economy Minister must be reassuring to the markets, and without so much as a hint of irony, "in questo modo, si riafferma, concretamente, la sovranità italiana" ("In this way, Italian sovereignty is concretely reaffirmed"). Italy, to President Mattarella, is a business, not a nation, and problems are not to be laid at the feet of Management. Italian dignity was further rubbed in the dirt by German European Commissioner Günther Oettinger, who promptly declared that markets will teach Italians to vote correctly. Inevitably, a storm of outrage erupted from all corners of the Peninsula, with unprecedented levels of condemnation levelled at the Quirinal, even by opponents of the new government, wary of the precedent such an overtly political use of ceremonial office would set. Hyperbole has long enjoyed great currency in the public discourse of Italy, a superlative often launched where others might make do with a humble adjective. It is a cultural detail which has gone some way towards the foreign love of Italy as a land, yet its ridicule as a State. Seldom, however, has it reached the threats of assassination which have been made against Mattarella, while more mildly mannered folk have called for his impeachment.
The Italians are, by and large, a patient and tolerant folk. But even they have limits, which the European Union is intent on testing, and these limits now take centre stage in modern Italy. The sting of this was still being felt as we sailed through Tuscia, the dwindling crowd of Italians who still hold onto Brussels as a kind of Messiah against the entrenched interests and inertia which have shackled the nation for seventy years, rallying to Mattarella, and those who simply cry, "sic semper tyrannis". Almost a century earlier, Lawrence found an Italy facing what seemed to be a new beginning under the Duce, as he did bureaucratic battle with the suspicious blackshirts. Today the guards are gone, but judging by the posters and graffiti which litter the suburbs of towns, the rhetoric is not. But with a national and supranational power structure both stifling any serious debate, who can blame them?
Disembarking before the impressive, and reassuringly old, Porta Romana at Viterbo we stared up at the monumental gatehouse which guarded the old road to Rome. Crafted in 1649, it was completed merely months after yet another period of turmoil for Rome, when the nations of Europe warred for thirty years over the right to determine the faith of their own lands. Exhausted by the loss of eight million souls, the continent would see the power of the Church forever signed away in the Treaties of Westphalia. His Holiness Pope Innocent X, enraged by the forced recognition of Protestantism as an internationally recognised faith, spat forth with the fury of a Trumpian tweet, declaring the Treaties "nulla, irrita, invalida, iniqua, injusta, damnata, reprobata, inania, viribusque et effectu vacua omnino fuisse, esse, et perpetuo fore..."("null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, of no meaning and effect for now and for all time..."). Fiery rhetoric has not sprung up in the twenty first century West. It simply lay dormant during the supremacy of Victorian moralism. It is the name of this Pontiff, and his arms, which adorn the Porta Romana of Viterbo, a city which bore witness to many of the most eccentric caprices of the Papacy, from its more rustic days prior to the Italian Renaissance.
Yet our exploration of the town would have to wait until tomorrow, for we had a rather more verdant objective in sight, and one beyond these walls. Thus hurriedly we rattled our suitcases along the broad basalt slabs and headed for the heart of old city, and its exquisitely quaint Quartiere San Pellegrino, straddling the ancient Via Francigena which has borne pilgrims from Canterbury to Rome for a good dozen centuries. Viterbo, doubtless aggravated by its exceedingly inconvenient rail connections to Rome - which lies but forty miles to the South - is, like much of Lazio far more quiet than it ought to be.
Turning onto Via San Pellegrino, and thus into the twelfth century, we soon found our lodgings for the night, a lone citofono (buzzer) heralding its presence on a palazzo which otherwise blended in to the rest of the deserted alley. We pressed, and waited perhaps a minute, before a rather sleepy voice responded, "Salve" ("Greetings"). We returned them, and mentioned our booking. "Ok va bene, sali e arrivo" ("Ok great, come up and I'll be with you shortly"), came the rather languid reply. We had the distinct impression that we had just woken him up. Suddenly the electric door lock crackled into life, and upon stepping inside we found ourselves at the foot of a somewhat steep stone staircase. Wrestling our baggage up, we entered the first room of the first floor and our mouths fell open. A great wooden table greeted us, topped with candlesticks and various papers, and surrounded by beautifully upholstered high-backed chairs. Yet behind it was an imposing stone fireplace, surmounted by a carved family coat-of-arms and flanked by two frescoed figures. Quite clearly, this place was, or had been, the residence of a great family who had flourished in the High Renaissance, perhaps the mid 16th century, judging by the decorative style. There was scant evidence that the palazzo had been redecorated since, except perhaps for a pair of wooden cabinets which could not have been made after the 19th century. A peaceful silence pervaded the place, not unlike that which we had enjoyed at Del Prete Belmonte residence in Venafro months earlier.
Some minutes later, the sound of dragging footsteps grew from faint to clear, before the man from the citofono rounded the corner, wearing a vest and a shirt with but one or two buttons done up. Bleary eyed, he looked up and saw us, "Ciao, benvenuti" ("Hi, welcome"), he ventured, in a sedate and gravelly voice. "Avete i documenti?" ("Do you have identification?"), he asked, in a manner that sounded much more reassuring than it reads. As we reached for our passports, he blinked as though still fighting back sleep. Upon taking them, he gestured at us to take a seat, as he trudged off next door to note down our document numbers with a pen and paper. There appeared to be little trace of technology, but this did not feel remotely concerning. After some time, he reappeared with a rather old set of keys, beckoning us to follow him up another flight of stairs, apparently to the very top of the palazzo. By the time we reached the top, we might well have appeared to be crewmen who had stumbled onto the shot of a period drama, our clothes a jarring contrast to the house. A welcoming landing branched off into four or five rooms, and a bathroom. Suddenly our host turned, and gently leant down to unlock the first door on the right, in no rush.
Our room was spacious, and charmingly atmospheric. The wooden furniture, bedecked in lacework, lined the walls around a comfy looking bed, headed by an iron frame. Straight ahead, a veiled double window opened out with a view straight across the alley and over the rooftop opposite, far into the distance. As if to emphasise this, the moment the shutters struck the wall on the outside, a pair of pigeons took flight, fleeing our intrusion upon the peace. Our gracious host bade us welcome, and assured us that he was at our service, before retiring once more to his quarters below. To do what, we had no doubt.
Around a half hour, and half a mile, later, we found ourselves in a kind of valley which lies beyond Viterbo's Piazza del Comune, which today is given over to its bus station. Like many Italian bus stations, it appears at first sight to be rather devoid of life, particularly staff, and thus may be profoundly intimidating to the traveller keen on locating the correct means by which he might seek his destination. Even better, many bus stops are scattered almost randomly down a two hundred yard stretch of road, each poorly signposted and deeply lacking in information. One fellow, either a driver or a handyman, seemed to be scrubbing out the interior of a dormant bus yonder, so we took our chance. "Mi scusi, ma qual è l'autobus che va a Bagnaia?" ("Excuse me, but which bus goes to Bagnaia"), we tried. "Guarda, credo che parte da lí" ("Well, I think it's the one which sets off from there"), he replied, gesturing rather vaguely back towards the terminal building, which looked like it hadn't been operational for years. There another man in an orange high visibility jacket was seated upon a bench, trails of smoke rising from the cigarette in his fingers. We tried our luck once again, and the gentleman took a deep puff of his tobacco, before throwing the butt out in front, as though casting bread for a pigeon. "Bè, onestamente non te lo so dire, può darsi, si" ("Well, to be honest I don't know, but it could be this stop"). In Italy, concrete information is a scarce commodity.
Less sure than we were before asking, we decided to strategically take up seats where we had the broadest view possible of the parking area, and resolved to make a dash for any bus which arrived around a quarter to three. Our spirits were raised slightly by the arrival of two rather jovial middle-aged Argentinian women, who were apparently also seeking Bagnaia. With a laugh we resolved to each perform lookout duty.
Only around six minutes after the scheduled time, an orange bus pulled into the yard! James made a beeline for it, as its doors clanged open. "Bagnaia?"
"Si si", the driver replied.
With a fist pump, James turned and indicated to the Argentinians that victory had been attained. Living in Italy teaches one to never underestimate the joy that is to be had in even the most modest of triumphs.
The journey by bus to Bagnaia is around a quarter of an hour, most of it along the dead straight Viale Trieste and Viale Fiume, two rather attractive avenues lined with gated villas and overhanging trees. All of a sudden, the view opens out as one crosses a viaduct, its presence heralded by what was presumably once some manner of toll house on the left. Old Bagnaia falls away from you off to the left and the right, and is instantly arresting. Like many of the towns of northern Lazio and southern Umbria hewn from tufo, a volcanic stone commonplace in Central Italy and favoured by the Etruscans and Romans for the ease with which it can be cut, the town resembles a plateau, its buildings forming the 'cliff edge'.
Bagnaia itself lies upon a root of Mount Cimino, the highest of the peaks of the Latin Antiappenines, and owes its rather unusual name to the prevalence of pleasant thermal springs in the area, bagno being the Italian word for the act of bathing. In the thirteenth century, the heirs of Saint Peter bestowed the town upon the bishops of Viterbo, many of whom enjoyed the relaxation and clear air that it provided during the summer months. Despite its good name, Bagnaia has barely grown over the centuries, its new town no bigger than the old, housing perhaps five thousand souls. It is, however, astonishingly dense with the traces of the great and good, since it provided something of a haven for the fantasies of the wealthy clergymen or aristocrat. It was first the lover of the arts, yet ultimately misfortunate Cardinal Raffaele Riario, great nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, who began this tendency at the turn of the fifteenth century, during his tenure as Bishop of Viterbo. Displeased by the lack of comfort on offer, he began work on the imposing bishop's palace, which still commands the approach today. He would have little time to enjoy it before he was implicated in the 1517 plot on Pope Leo X's life, avoiding the executioner's blade only by surrendering his property to the Holy See.
Disembarking in the central Piazza Castello, at the fore of this approach, a confused moment of disorientation followed as the chugging engine of the bus drowned out all that was fair. When the din ceded to the delicate trickle of water from the fountain opposite, and sporadic twittering of birds, we immediately felt the glorious peace of rural Italy wash over us once more. Towering over us was the imposing tower, its white clock face glinting in the afternoon Sun. The old town, so beautifully designed, is the fruit of the Sienese architect Tommaso Ghinucci, son of Bartolomeo, who would also find employment in the gardens. Keen to see this revered bucolic bliss, we turned to head up the gentle incline.
For those who have seen Piazza del Popolo in Rome, they will see its influence here. Just like the Tridente, three streets fan out from the square, as though it were some great medusa (jellyfish), its tentacles drifting off behind it. At the summit of the central Via Gianbologna, we could make out the imposing gate to the villa, and our thirst for adventure peaked once more, though one of us had need of a refuelling first at a nearby cafè, whose presence was heralded by the irresistible scent of gelsomino (jasmine) which nature had draped across its door.
Upon being energised once more, we made for the archway located at the villa's western flank. To a certain extent it is a pity that the visitor today must approach the gardens from the north, since their full, bedazzling impact was meant for the visitor from the south, from Rome. However what is lost from this is gained from the charm of Bagnaia, so it may be forgiven.
The first thing which struck us was the beautifully manicured lawn, not unlike the great English gardens of Sir Lancelot Brown, which drew us towards a feature which was both a balcony and a fountain. The great Fontana del Pegaso, or Pegasus Fountain, stretched out its balustrades as though the welcoming arms of the hillside itself, fine jets of water spouting from the busts arrayed at the top, though curiously, those of the Nine Muses lay dormant. Perhaps the water supply is conserved more today than in the sixteenth century, when Ghinucci embarked upon his impressive feat of diverting the waters via aqueduct to Bagnaia, and had them so beautifully spray the Latin air of the Villa Lante.
We call it Villa Lante today, though it is perhaps a tad deceiving, for it did not enter the estate of Ippolito Lante Montefeltro della Rovere, 1st Duke of Bomarzo, until a good century after it was completed. Prior to the fall of Riario from grace, the dashing Cardinal had in these parts stocked a wood that he might use for hunting, such being the expected and noble pastime of men of stature. His Holiness Pope Leo X, paranoid with the fear of assassination, had the villa, and Bagnaia itself, transferred to his nephew, the Cardinal Niccolò Ridolfi, who began to make something of this woodland, hiring Ghinucci to channel the waters of the mountains. Yet it was Ridolfi's successor as Bishop of la Tuscia and Viterbo, Cardinal Giovanni Francesco Gambara, who would turn this wood into a fairytale.
The symbols of Gambara are to be found all over the villa, in the form of the heraldic symbol of the family, the shrimp - gambero being the Italian word for the humble crustacean. Of the House of Gambara, we know that they hailed from the Longobard nobility of Northern Italy, and that they held the fief of Gambara, a small town near Brescia, and were thus loyal to the Emperor of the Germans. Giovanni Francesco's father had served as a marshal to the universal sovereign Emperor Charles V himself, and his mother, Virginia Pallavicini, had prior been married to Ranuccio Farnese, son of His Holiness Pope Paul III. Thus was Cardinal Gambara a man who could scarcely have been more connected to the finest men in Italy, at a time only scarcely more tumultuous than our own, with Rome struggling to contain the continental revolt against its rule with the same efficacy with which Brussels, making largely the same mistakes, does today. He could even count a Saint amongst his kin, being stepbrother to Carlo Borromeo, who was appointed Archbishop of Milan just two years before Giovanni Francesco took up residence in Bagnaia, in the year of our Lord 1566.
Gambara was not a man to lay idle, for he was granted the bishopric in October, and had already given the order to begin work on his splendid new garden by December. My what a jewel of a hortus he would leave us.
Passing up and over the Pegasus fountain, we came to a sudden plateau, in the shadow of a cube shaped casino. Casino in Italian has retained its original meaning that English has lost, referring simply to a building which served to entertain visitors, frequently in a garden. While many a fortune may well have been lost in card games there, it was not their primary function. There are two casini at Villa Lante, almost perfectly symmetrical, tastefully simple and wisely they do not distract from the beauty which lies between. Gambara likely knew his fellow cleric, Ippolito d'Este, who six years earlier had begun building a magnificent water garden at Tivoli, and would have remained impressed and envious. He was certainly acquainted with the Farnese, and their monumental palace and estate at Caprarola. Only the best would do, and Gambara would seek the services of perhaps the greatest architect of land and stone to have escaped fame in the Anglo-Saxon world, one Giacomo Barozzi de Vignola, who was known in his age simply as Il Vignola.
Gambara however, unlike his cousins at Caprarola, had little interest in monumental palaces, and preferred the company of nature. As a man who travelled far and wide, who participated in no fewer than three Papal conclaves, who was present at the Council of Trent, who served on the Tribunal of the Inquisition, and who held no fewer than six appointments in the 1560's alone, perhaps this garden for him represented the distant hope of a quiet life. It was certainly that which we felt, as we walked out into the Quadrato, which from ground level is intriguing and from above is breathtaking.
Eight years ago, Villa Lante was nominated as the 'Parco più bello d'Italia' - the most beautiful park in Italy - by an array of the most prominent cultural associations in the land, under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture itself, a branch of government perenially starved of funds and imagination. The Villa is lauded as 'the quintessential expression of Mannerist garden design' or words to that effect. Such an accolade will likely be entirely meaningless to the casual visitor, and perhaps a good many others, since far too often, the barrier of assumed knowledge at Italian cultural sites is so high that most will leave with primarily visual memories, rather than in possession of any meaningful sense of its context or place in history. What does it mean calling Villa Lante 'Mannerist'? How are we to know that it is an exceptional example of 'Mannerism' if the term goes stated but unexplained? For the benefit of the curious reader, who indeed may ask themselves such questions, allow us to attempt to machete our way through the tedium of indulgent academia, and cast 'Mannerism' in a manner that those who lived through it might have seen it. To do this, we must reach back in time, precisely four hundred and ninety-nine years.
At the early death of the gifted Urbinese painter Raphael in 1520 at the age of just thirty seven, any new would-be great artist, architect or craftsman faced a daunting task. The epitaph on the Master's tomb, conceived by the Venetian scholar Pietro Bembo, said it all,
"Ille hic est Raphael timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori"
"Here lies Raphael, by whom nature herself feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die"
How could any ambitious, visionary or creative soul improve on what had already been made divine? There was no emotion left, nor holy scene, which had not already been painted, and painted with exceptional grace. In essence, the classical forms had been done, and overdone. To bland dough must salt be added, and added it was. The chaste forms of Madonna col Bambino (The Madonna with Child), serenely spiritual expressions and clasped fingers, were abandoned in favour of un po' di dramma. Emotion became raw, more personal, more human and more affecting. Settings became more lavish, more extravagant and more striking. Where there had been a pair of figures in the paintings of the Florentine Renaissance, there would now be a crowd. The English term 'Mannerism' is a translation of the Italian word Manierismo, itself coming from the word maniera, meaning 'style, way or manner'. There were those who looked down at this apparently crude, vulgar and new maniera, dismissing it as poor taste. Thus, in its time, 'Manierismo' might just as well have been a term of disdain as of innovation. As the sixteenth century matured, however, such scornful individuals would find themselves ever more at odds with what appealed to the ordinary folk of Europe.
Artists, and their patrons, flirted ever more openly with the depiction of gods and goddesses of the old world, allured by the discoveries which were being made across Italy, discoveries which forced us to confront the reality that a superior civilisation had existed over a thousand years prior. The educational and entertaining tales of the all too human deities who watched over them brought a wealth of new material, which could be cleverly adapted to a contemporary audience, and offered another way to teach, preach and boast of virtue. The Roman Church would walk an ambiguous line towards this Manierismo, until the Council of Trent would recognise its ability to speak to the masses more effectively than the austere art of before. Upon this official acceptance, and the election of His Holiness Pope Paul V Borghese, in the year 1605, Manierismo became rebranded, and became what we call the Baroque.
For gardeners, the Renaissance of the late 15th century meant that the garden, which in the medieval age had been a largely practical endeavour, cultivated for produce and to fulfil monastic vows of labour, began to take on a role of aesthetic pleasure. We say 'began', though in Ancient Rome, the garden had been just this over a thousand years earlier, particularly when Lucullus, the conqueror of Tigranocerta and lieutenant of the Dictator Sulla, introduced the Persian garden to Rome in the sixtieth year before Christ.
But the manieristi of the sixteenth century transformed the garden from a quiet glade to the emerald stage of raw drama. The scales grew grander, the vistas more symmetrical and the water features more playful. Topiary returned, after a thousand year sleep. Beyond allowing the viewer a comforting moment of relaxation, as they closed their eyes and inhaled the peace, the gardens of the manieristi surprised and gripped them, as they would wonder how it all worked, what that water jet would do, or was about to do. It was the expression of man's bond with nature, and that the former had achieved mastery over the latter, and could shape it to do his bidding. Here at Villa Lante, from the mind of Il Vignola, the expertise of Ghinucci and the funds of Gambara, mastery was achieved, and we can only be grateful that it survives intact today.
We followed the stairwell up to the upper terraces, where one has the feeling of following a small river to its source, as the water gushed past us over dark peperino stone. At each new level, some new feature wowed us, from the long stone dining table crossed by a channel of water, where the Cardinal and his guests might eat and then dip their fingers into the cleansing waters - or else cool the wine, to the symphony of trickling water offered by the Dolphin Fountain above. Ringed by shrimps from the Cardinal's coat of arms, perfectly symmetrical and wonderfully elaborate, it is Manierismo incarnate.
Yet amid the theatrics there is a quiet corner to be found, in the form of an elegant loggia approached by an avenue lined with trees on one side and a row of columns on the other. Framed so beautifully by harnessed nature and architectural prowess, no more welcome a respite from the punishing August Italian sun could Gambara have found in which to read or converse. Except perhaps the cool dappled waters of the beautiful nymphaeum just yonder. Once a sanctuary dedicated to the water nymphs of ancient belief, the manieristi appropriated them for the service of pleasure, for men of the cloth at times more acquainted with pagan than Christian theology. Perhaps here the educated men of sixteenth century Italy might have melancholically striven to live life as though it were the apex of the Pax Romana once more, shutting out the brutal reality that the dream of Rome had all but disappeared from the world, the former provinces of the Empire drifting further and further apart as the years went by. The barbarians had dealt the mortal blow to Roman political power, now the followers of Luther were landing strike after strike against its spiritual power. Centuries later, today it is Rome which begins to fight back against the Teutons.
It was indeed futile to resist such a drift away into such thoughts, surrounded by the impossible perfection of Gambara's splendid garden, though time brings an end to all things, as it did to the Cardinal's own tenure at Bagnaia, with his death in 1587. Sound connections would also herald the Villa's next owner, Cardinal Alessandro Peretti di Montalto, who was immediately appointed Apostolic Administrator of Viterbo. That he was the great-nephew of Pope Sixtus V, who ascended the throne of Saint Peter but two years earlier, most likely explains his promotion to this role at just sixteen years of age. Sixtus, devoted to a ruthless crackdown on the rampant banditry and lawlessness which had gripped the Papal State under his predecessor, was a prolific builder in Rome, though in his attitude towards classical culture, there has without the merest shadow of a doubt been no philistine more abhorrent in the history of the Roman church. It was said that only the interruption of his death spared the Colosseum itself from demolition. Perhaps some of this rubbed off on young Alessandro, who did little to Gambara's garden other than add the symmetrical second casino in the main Quadrato.
Indeed, we were rather disappointed by di Montalto's casino. It has been stripped bare of both its furnishings and its soul, leaving only architectural frescoes behind. Gambara's, however, is far more entertaining. Colours of all shades dance across its walls and ceiling, many of them as vibrantly as they did an age ago, all interspersed with the omnipresent shrimp, which hides in corners, plain sight and even protrudes from the stucco ceiling. We were even treated to a bird's eye view of the Palace of Caprarola, which we would be hoping to visit in a few week's time.
At the heart of the idyllic Quadrato, we had great joy wandering among the pools of water and carved hedgerows, laughing at the occasionally comic touches left by Il Vignola and Ghinucci, such as the four dwarfs playfully blasting water out of what seemed to be peashooters. It is said that there are several secrets in this garden, certain traps which, when triggered, will drench the unwitting guest. How coarse these manieristi could be!
The last trace of any notable change at Villa Lante is the rather large sculpture at the heart of the Quadrato, Giambologna's Fontana dei Quattro Mori, displaying the Montalto coat of arms. What is remarkable is that it appears to be made of bronze, but is actually made of the local volcanic peperino, a stone which acquires a metallic look when wet.
Thus has Villa Lante remained these four and a half centuries, near as perfect as it was when Gambara first passed his scarce free time in it. In 1656 it was purchased by Ippolito Lante Montefeltro della Rovere, 1st Duke of Bomarzo, finally acquiring the name of Villa Lante. The Ducal family lived here until 1933, thanks in part to the most fortunate 1866 marriage of Don Antonio Lante Montefeltro della Rovere, 3rd Duke Lante della Rovere, to Mathilde Davis, daughter and heiress of the eminent New York real estate magnate Mr Thomas E. Davis, which spared the Lante the indignity of financial ruin, a spectre which had haunted them since the storming of the Bastille.
Villa Lante is, we reflected as we trotted back down the hill towards the bus stop, one of the most beautiful gardens one could imagine, and Bagnaia one of the most beautiful little towns in Italy. It was designed to be an oasis of tranquility, and in this endeavour it triumphed, and triumphs still. How much poorer our continent would be, were it not for the marriage of minds that Villa Lante represents. It is the elegance of classicism, channelled through the resourcefulness of Il Vignola and Ghinucci, which is first to awe us. Yet neither would have had the chance to exhibit these talents, nor would Villa Lante even have existed, were it not due to the imagination, status, connections and means of Gambara. This desire, and near habit, of educated men of means, to try to make some corner of the world a little more like Elysium, and to do so in a manner which would live beyond their years, was one of the truest, and finest, legacies of Imperial Rome which the Renaissance breathed life into once more, and for which Italy is all the more enchanting, and rich even in poverty, today.