Friday, November 19, 2010

The Gardens of Southern Italy

The Mouth of Hell, Bomarzo, near Viterbo

In early December of 2009 I flew to Rome, Italy to fulfill a long overdue dream of living in that most beautiful and historically significant city for a time.  I also had been wanting to experience a number of gardens that I had known of since I was a student of Landscape Architecture at the University of Oregon some 30 years before.  Italian gardens are best known for their structure, and floral plantings rarely allude to historical intention, so it could be said that in winter the gardens look more as they were originally intended.  The winter light is extraordinary and the lack of crowds in many places made it possible to take great photos.  This book, The Gardens of Southern Italy is a collection of beautiful images I captured using a wonderful new little camera, the Lumix DMC-LX3.  Small enough to fit in my pocket, this camera takes photos of very high quality similar to a good SLR camera and has a Leica lens.   I was so happy with the images that I decided to self publish a book on the Blurb Booksmart site.

The book begins with what is perhaps the most fabulous water garden on Earth, the Villa d'Este in the town of Tivoli, a short distance from Rome.  Commissioned by the ambitious Cardinal Ippolito II d' Este at the site of a monastery that was deeded to him by the Pope Julius III in the middle of the 16th Century, the gardens were developed according to the plans of architect Pirro Ligorio.  Diverting large portions of two rivers that supplied water to the town enabled the construction of numerous dramatic and innovative fountains and cascades alluding to classical mythology and fantasy.  Much of the statuary originally displayed in the garden was excavated from the Villa Adriana, the nearby ancient citadel of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.  The villa stands high above the garden terraces with a grand view over the countryside.  Water pressure provided by the vertical drop enabled the creation of powerful fountain jets shooting as much as 10 meters in the air.  Every element of the garden alludes to a classical tale or divine reference.  The Fontana Ovata, an egg shaped pool with a rustic arched nymphaeum on the uphill side is presided over by the Sibylla of Tiber and her son Melicerte (a long story) above where a dramatic arched cascade pours in to the pool.  The spectacular Walk of 100 fountains connects the Fontana Ovata to the Rometta, a symbolic connection to the city of Rome.  A restored water organ, partly designed by the sculptor Bernini plays music with the use of water pressure.  The Neptune fountain below it has all the power of a cataract with huge jets and cascades contrasting with a row of tranquil 3 reflective fish ponds below it.  A multi breasted Diana of Ephesus, a depiction of the patron of the Goddess of that ruined Roman city in present day Turkey once resided in the central arch of the water organ, but was moved to a more discreet part of the garden before a papal visit.  Water channels flow down the handrails of two symmetrical curving staircases flanking the Fountain of the Dragon with its towering central jet of water rising from four entertwined dragons.  The fountain was redesigned to commemorate the visit of Pope Gregory XIII, the dragon being his family crest.  It would take an entire essay on its own to discuss the many elements of this remarkable garden, which was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2001, enabling significant restoration efforts.  I had the luxury of a beautiful winter day here with blue skies and silvery clouds, and almost no people.  Therefore I was totally in heaven.

The next garden in the book is the Villa Adriana itself.  Heavily plundered for building materials, this once vast complex was built in the 2nd Century AD.  What remains today are mere remnants of once grand buildings and reservoirs.  The most famous pool is that of the Canopus, which inspired a modern recreation at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles.   There are lovely remnants of mosaic flooring but it is hard to visualize what the place must have been like in it's original condition.  My favorite image of the Villa was the sky reflected in the glassy waters of a large rectangular reservoir and tall Italian Cypresses.  The villa grounds are surrounded by beautiful old olive orchards with gnarled, twisted trunks, and the villa was listed as a Unesco World Heritage in 1999.
The Canopo, Villa Adriana

Giardino Secreto, Villa Doria Pamphili
The Villa Pamphili in Rome was the home of Pope Innocent X, who on ascending to the Papal Throne in 1664 commenced to build a villa to display his collection of classical Roman sculpture.  The grounds of the villa are now Rome's largest public park.  A grand parterre of unusual design is the most striking feature, ironically named the Giardino Segretto, or secret garden.  Potted lemon trees had been bagged in white plastic to protect them from winter frosts.  Much of the grounds were later remodeled in the manner of a picturesque English park with sinuous lakes and dense thickets of trees.

The second largest and most popular park in Rome are the grounds of the Villa Borghese, who's development was begun in 1605 by the nephew of Pope Paul V, the Cardinal Scipione Borghese.  A large villa was constructed to house his extensive art collection.  Much of the garden was redeveloped as an English park in the 19th Century.  The dramatic silhouettes of umbrella like Italian Stone Pines and Oriental Plane Trees tower over lanes leading to fountains and architectural follies.  Neoclassical buildings added during the 1911 World Exhibition include the excellent Museo de Arte Moderno with monumental sculptures in it's courtyards.
Limonera, Villa Borghese

Bunny Fountain at the Villa Borghese

The next section of the book is dedicated to the fountains of Rome.  The city is graced with hundreds of fountains that provided access to drinking water diverted to the city by a series of ancient aquaducts.  It is indeed a luxury to be able to fill up your water bottle from such elegant sources.  Every square is graced with one, the most famous being the Fontana di Trevi, which features the God Oceanus presiding over a cascade of sculpted white marble rock formations.  He is flanked by two women, representing Abundance and Salubrity.  Two horses, one wild and one tame are led by Tritons, rising from the stones below.   Perhaps my favorite page in the book is one with photos of the four expressive masks that flank the cardinal directions of an obelisk in the Piazza della Rotunda in front of the Pantheon. Another of my favorites is the fountain of books, which stands quite literally in a niche outside the University of Rome's library.  The fountains of Rome deserves its own publication.  Perhaps someday I can write it.
Fountain at the Villa Medici

Bamboo Grove in the Orto Botanico
The Orto Botanico is Rome's botanical garden, which lies behind the Villa Corsini in the medieval neighborhood of Trastevere.  It is a quiet respite from the city, with a lovely collection of palms and extensive groves of bamboo.  I actually climbed over the wrought iron fence to enter this garden as I came upon it while exploring a dark muddy track coming down the bluff from the Gianicolo.  Its easier to pay the entry fee and enter legally from a narrow lane by the Villa Corsini.

River God at the Villa Lante
Cataena d' Acqua, Villa Lante
80 kilometers north of Rome is the medieval city of Viterbo, which I visited because of it's proximity to 3 of the most important Renaissance Mannerist gardens in Italy.  The Villa Lante is considered the finest example of this period.  I waited for the bus to come but wound up walking the 3 kilometers to the lovely town of Bagnaia where the garden lies, passing the gates of grand old villas in the countryside.  Construction of the villa commenced in 1566 by the Cardinal Gianfracesco Gambara on the site of a hunting park.  The garden is unique in that it is the main feature rather than the two matching casini, or small villas that flank each side of the axis above a large four part water parterre.  Normally villa gardens flanked a dominating villa structure.  At the top of the slope, water drips from a rustic grotto, cascading down a series of terraces through fountains representing the four elements, which eventually emerge from a canopy of plane trees into the open water parterre, which represents man's orderly conquest of nature through the use of reason.  The fountain of the Moors at it's center was added later.  Four naked Moorish boys hold a star aloft with water shooting from its points.  One of the more remarkable water elements is the Catena d'acqua, or water chain, a linear channel in the form of an elongated crayfish.  The name Gambara is similar to the Italian word for crayfish and became the families emblem.  After dropping down a dramatic cascade representing the element of Earth, flanked by huge stone River Gods, the water runs through a trough in the center of a banquet table, believed to have been used to chill wine during alfresco feasts.  From there the water drops to the next level at the Fountain of the Lamps.  Carved stone oil lamps with jets of water would light up in late afternoon sunlight like flames.  I was blessed to be the only visitor in the garden that day, one of the glorious perks of traveling in winter.

Fountain of the Moors, Villa Lante
The Tortoise and Whale, Bomarzo

It was a bit of an adventure to get to the town of Bomarzo via public transport to visit the Sacro Bosco, or Sacred Grove, also known as the Monster Park.  I was dropped off some distance from the garden outside what seemed to be a deserted medieval town.  I had dreamt of this garden, imagining it to be dripping wet, shadowy, and draped in mystery.  It was as I imagined the day I visited.  Again, except for a woman selling tickets and two grounds keepers, I was the only person in the garden that day.   Passing through a small stone gate, I entered the fantasy World of Count Pier Francesco Orsini, who's palazzo stands defensively on the hill where the town of Bomarzo is perched.  This garden was built as a place to amaze guests with surreal depictions of mythological characters from some of the Count's favorite pieces of literature.  As I  wandered down paths through the dense forest I imagined that festivities held here were perhaps of a theatrical nature.  Inscriptions on stone plaques built in to walls provide verses from stories relating to the sculpture themes.  The garden is filled with monumental moss encrusted figures, often surreal and even frightening.  Most famous is the 'Mouth of Hell', a wavy haired ogre with a gaping mouth you can pass through to a small cave with a stone table carved in its center.  It is popular to think that picnics were held here but I sensed that the table was more of a handy place for sexual liasons.  The Count was quoted in one of his letters as saying he was 'a dry straw before the flames of lust'.  This is perhaps the most pagan of all of the Mannerist style gardens as the Count was not deeply aligned with the church.  It is interesting to note that little significance is given to Christianity in any of these gardens, even though they were usually commissioned by high ranking members of the Papal community.  

The Sleeping Nymph and her Guardian Dog
It actually snowed while crossing the hills on a bus to the town of Caprarola, which got the students on the bus very excited.  This did not make for a good day for garden touring.  My destination was the fortress like Villa Farnese which lords over the top of the main artery of the old town.  The inside of the villa is intricately painted and makes an interesting tour in spite of the less than enthusiastic guide who led me around.  No matter how persuasive I tried to be, the staff would not allow me to visit the gardens, which were flooded by the heavy rains of the day.  Needless to say I was the only one here, and I was distraught to travel all this way and not be able to see the heavily architectural garden behind the massive pentagonal villa.  As the heavy fog lifted I was able to capture some gorgeous images of the town emerging from it's veil.

The idea of sunnier weather lured me south to the city of Napoli, a grand and trashy jewel on the great bay of the same name.  Mt. Vesuvius lords over the scene.  And yes, I had the best pizza I can recall while there.  One of the architectural highlights of the city are the beautifully restored cloisters at the Basilica Santa Chiara, which was heavily damaged by allied bombing during World War II.  Brick paths are flanked by beautifully glazed tile benches and octagonal columns wrapped in painted garlands of lush foliage, fruit and flowers.

Further south from Napoli is the infamous ruined city of Pompeii.  One of the most important archeological sites in the Western World, the city was buried under a flow of hot ash in 79 AD essentially sealing that moment in time and preserving it until excavations began in the mid 18th Century.  The erotic content of many of the frescos and sculpture found led to a kind of archeological censorship and those images were locked away until recently.  The mosaic work displayed in the National Museum of Archaeology are some of the finest I have ever seen.  Houses typically had rectangular courtyards with a cistern underneath for the storage of rain water collected from the roofs and pavements.  Pompeii is one of the most visited sites in Italy, with over 2 million visitors a year, but on this gorgeous sunny winter day I was able to find solitude, and by late afternoon was the only person still in the ruins.
Ancient Street in Pompeii

Italy is a feast of magnificent destinations and the Amalfi Coast is one of those places I have always wanted to explore.  I based myself in the tourist town of Sorrento and took bus rides back and forth along the narrow winding highway to Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello.  Sorrento is known for it's painted ceramics and grand hotels perched on cliffs high above the Bay of Naples.  It makes a good base for exploring the coast and the island of Capri.   Positano is one of those infamous towns because it is impossibly picturesque with its colorful buildings stacked on the steep cliffs rising from a sheltered gravel beach.  When I arrived and walked down the main pedestrian lane, I came upon a wedding at the church.  The well to do bride and groom were being showered with rice and symbolic Jordan almonds in the piazza.  The beautiful bride and groom later came down on to the deserted beach to be photographed, while I was sunbathing alone in my underwear.  They made a wide arc around as to avoid me.  I actually got teary eyed as the bus made its way along the cliffs and passed through tunnels on the way to the town of Amalfi.  The coastline is one of the most beautiful in Europe, with villas and medieval castles clinging to it's flanks and promontories.   

Cloisters, Villa Rufolo
High above the port of Amalfi sits the fabled town of Ravello, once the home of author Gore Vidal.  At the very edge of the cliff with an impossibly stunning view of the coast sits the Villa Rufolo.  Built in the 13th Century, the Norman style villa has an Arabic flavor.  Cloisters were added in the 18th Century and the gardens a century later.   When the composer Richard Wagner visited he exclaimed that he had found the 'Garden of Klingsor' from his opera Parsifal.  At the very edge of the cliff is the Belvedere, a formal parterre who's beds were dotted with perfectly spaced pansy starts the day I visited.  A major classical music festival is held here every year.

Courtyard, Villa San Michele, Capri
I took a ferry out to the Island of Capri to visit the Villa San Michele, the former home of Swedish physician and author Axel Munthe.  Built on the ruins of a villa built for the Roman Emperor Tiberius by the town of Anacapri, the whitewashed villa and gardens command a breathtaking view of the Bay of Napoli, Mt. Vesuvius, and the town of Capri.  The narrow garden clings to the cliff with a lovely wisteria draped pergola running along it's edge.  I was once again, the only person there that day.

Ornamental Grille on a Garage, Lecce
It would take years to do a proper tour of Italy, but I was only there for 2 1/2 months, so I had to chose wisely as to where to go.  It was a tempting description of the town of Lecce in the province of Puglia that drew me to it.  I wanted to take a ship across the Ionian Sea from Brindisi to Patra in Greece, so I took the train to Bari and then down to Lecce in the heel of the boot shape of Italy.  The city is nicknamed 'the Florence of the South' as it's historical center is packed with magnificent Baroque architecture.  I found a lovely bed and breakfast and spent 5 days soaking up the subdued atmosphere of its creamy yellow limestone architecture overlaying ancient Greek and Roman foundations.  The stone is soft and easy to sculpt so buildings tend to be richly ornamented.  Weathering of softer stone has created a fascinating organic decomposition of some of the ornamentation.  At the edge of the old walled city toward the train station I found a row of wonderful Moorish style villas with striped facades and crenelated rooflines.  This only reinforced my desire to return to Andalusia and to visit Morocco on my next journey.

After traveling to Athens for a week to meet with a Greek mosaic artist I flew to Beirut to visit friends for 10 days.  It was interesting to travel back in time civilization wise from Roman to Greek, to Phoenician cultures.  Even more interesting is that the largest Roman temples ever built lie in the Bekaa Valley at the town of Baalbek.  The largest stone columns on Earth and the largest known stones ever hewn lie here.  One weighs an estimated 1,200 tons.  Yet another pilgrimage for the stone obsessed person that I am.
Jupiter Temple, Baalbek, Lebanon

I returned to Athens for a short time and then flew to Palermo in Sicily.  The weather forecasts there were enticing and I had been asked repeatedly if I was planning on visiting this notorious island, so how could I resist?  Palermo was once the greatest city in Europe at the height of Norman rule.  Now a gritty relic of its glory days, the city has a wonderful patina and heaps of uncollected trash.  At the center of the city is a large white marble fountain, the Fontana Pretoria, which has an unique ring of fountain heads in the form of various animals.  The fountain was dubbed 'the Fountain of Shame' by prudish parishoners coming from the surrounding churches because of the numerous classical nude sculptures that ring the fountains balustrades.  The lavish exterior of the city's Cathedral has a rather stark interior, while the Cappella Palatina, a chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni is covered with some of the finest mosaic work in the World.  There is a lifelike 3 dimensional quality to the imagery.  Outside of Palermo in the village of Monreale is a much larger Cathedral encrusted in gold leaf glass mosaic built by the Grandson of Roger II, who commissioned the Cappella Palatina.  Though magnificent, the rendering of the mosaics doesn't have the realism of their predecessor's.   On the other hand, the cloisters at Monreale are among the finest in Europe, with 216 pairs of columns, no two of the intricly carved capitals being alike.  Pebble mosaic is a common surface treatment in Sicily I found some lovely examples in the courtyards of old palazzos.  There is also a well maintained Botanical Garden in Palermo where many varieties of citrus were introduced in to cultivation.  Another of the perks of traveling in winter were that the citrus trees were laden with fruit.  The markets in Sicily overflow with wonderful produce and there is are 2 pages of images celebrating this colorful bounty.
Turtles in the Orto Botanico in Palermo

Catania, the other great city of Sicily lies on the Eastern coast on the Ionian Sea.  The city's historic center is a World Heritage Site based on one of the earliest and most ambitious urban renewal projects that occurred after a great earthquake destroyed the city in 1693 with the eruption of nearby Mt. Etna.  The stone work has a dark grey color that gives the city a distinctive look.  I found a great deal of pebble mosaic here, including the pavements of the pleasant Botanical Garden.  

Folly, Vill Communale, Taormina
Just to the north lies the ancient town of Taormina, which has been inhabited for nearly 3,000 years.  The most spectacularly sited Greek theater in the World is found here, and an eccentric garden built by the Englishwoman Florence Trevelyan at the end of the 19th Century.  A botanist and ornithologist, she was asked to leave England after having intimate contact with the future King Edward.  After moving to Taormina she began construction of extensive gardens paved in a mixture of pebble mosaic and perforated bricks.  The garden is dotted with impressive follies built using ancient stone remnants of previous Greek and Roman structures blended with brick.  The arched buildings are perforated by many arches and have whimsical projecting balconies and railings made of rustic branches.  I found the construction to be beautifully composed and often very ambitious.  One tower is at least 5 stories tall, commanding grand views of the surrounding landscape.  Most of the structures are closed to public access but that allows for them to be preserved without structural remodeling so that their rustic charm can be maintained.
Excavated stones from ancient Greek ruins are artfully combined with brick to create follies in the Villa Comunale

I returned to Rome by train.  The train actually drives on to the ferry for the trip from Messina to the mainland.  Needless to say I was very sad to leave Italy, and even cried on the plane.  It seems that everyone who spends time there becomes transfixed by the country.  I hope to return some day.


  1. Beautiful tour of the gardens. Thanks so much much enjoyed.

  2. thank you for this beautiful story,this magnificent destination is like paradise.

  3. Wow Italians used to make really BIG things