I have the incredible privilege of spending four weeks at the American Academy in Rome as an Affiliate Fellow, representing the IMA. From time to time I hope to post some of my adventures and discoveries here. What a ride! (To read the rest of the posts in this series, click here.)
I had powerful motivation to recover at least most of my strength by Friday, Oct 16. Katharina, a young classicist from Columbia University, and I were scheduled to go on an excursion to see several castles and palaces with amazing gardens in the hill towns Northwest of Rome. I am very thankful to say that when Friday morning came, I did not feel feverish, my cough was manageable, and I bundled up for the trip in crisp fall weather.
Katharina and I took a train from Termini Stazione to Orte, where professional garden tour guide Lisa Finerty met us at the train station, accompanied by another American expat, Julie. A few words about Lisa: She is a former Merrill Lynch executive, a master gardener and a garden activist. She’s done some fantastic work with schools and marginalized communities in Chicago. She has that combination of acute observation and quiet confidence that comes from working close to the earth. What a day we were in for!
The winding roads, truth be told, made me a tad car-sick. Our first destination was the Castello Ruspoli in Vignanello, a medieval fortress that became an elegant home in the 16th c. Two princesses from the family still live in the castle and have been activists on behalf of historic preservation. I won’t even attempt to go into the complex genealogy and political history related to the family. Well-connected, rich and powerful is the simple description. Handel was a guest in this house, where he composed and performed.
The site offers both a remarkable garden designed to impress, and a “secret” garden for more private use. The main garden is a green garden – no flowers and a clean bare-earth floor. Sculpted green labyrinths form significant patterns of initials and family crests. These are meticulously restored with authentic Buxus Semprevivans (box evergreen or boxwood) and, in some places, Myrhh. The secret garden, drawing on imported Persian traditions, was a more intimate place for meditation and inspiration. When a glimpse of it was revealed to us, I gasped. The view from above was like a Persian miniature painting, exquisite and tranquil. A faithful dog guarded the pathways and we did not walk down into it. Better, perhaps, that it remain an unattainable vision.
There is a church across the Piazza from the Castle. We went there to see the crypts and chapel underneath, but also got treated to an archeology lesson. A group of volunteer excavators have been clearing some Etruscan tunnels further below the crypt. They were part of an amazing and ancient engineering system that carried water over very long distances. The tunnels, carved from the volcanic rock, remained in use through Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance periods. We had to don hardhats with LD lights to descend the rough stone stairway into pitch darkness. We saw one place where a stair led down to an even deeper level. I felt a bit claustrophobic; it was really a relief to get back up into the crypt!
From Vignanello we followed beautiful rural lanes to Bomarzo, alternately referred to as a “sacred wood” and a Monsters’ Park. Created in 1552 by an eccentric Epicure (more about this soon) named Vicino Orsini on his remote estate, these sculpture gardens were neglected and forgotten until visited by Salvadore Dali in the 20th century and consequently restored and opened to the public. The paths allow one to wander through woods and valleys and to come upon fantastic sculptural groupings – giants in combat, a huge tortoise with a lovely nymph on its back, a leaning house that disorients, an assortment of creatures of mixed ancestry – aquatic, celestial, and earthly all together.
We had a lengthy discussion of Epicurean philosophy, thanks to Lisa’s and Katharina’s knowledge of the subject.Epicures of the Hellenistic period, such as the poet Lucretius, wrote about the importance of being fully “present” to savor the here and now, the atomistic and changeable nature of all forms, and the idea that happiness is a good thing if it harms no one. Epicures were atheists and did not believe in an afterlife. Needless to say, these ideas were not admired by the Christian church. In some cases (Galileo’s for example) it could be very dangerous to be associated with Epicurean poetry and thought. So Orsini was definitely not main-stream. His grief over the death of his beautiful and beloved wife, Julia Farnese – their story is indeed a painful one – apparently led him to ride his horse for hours through his gloomy garden alone. It’s no wonder that, after his death, it became abandoned, the stuff of legend and rumor.
After Bomarzo we drove on more winding, scenic roads to the medieval hill town of Bagnaia. After parking, we climbed up winding stairways to move between street levels and arrived at a charming restaurant, where we drank simple (and wonderful) vino bianco and ate a hearty lunch. From the restaurant it was a short walk to another amazing palatial garden complex: Villa Lante.
At this site the twin buildings, each topped with a lantern – a square viewing pavilion – serve almost as foils for the main act: the garden itself. This is a garden with hydrodynamics! The ingenuity of how the water flowed and spewed and ambushed and trickled down through each level from the high entrance to the bottom! Plants play a support role in this garden. The sculptures and pseudo-grottoes are the prominent features, the staging for the precious and spritely water itself.
When we entered the first of the palace buildings we encountered a minor road block. A film crew was in the midst of filming a period piece and actors stood around in 16th c garb, waiting for their cues. We were able to enjoy the frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the entry logia, but could not enter to see other rooms.
A small church in the piazza of Bagnaia is dedicated to Ss. Antonio e Rocco. Its sober architecture bears not a trace of the Baroque. We chatted with an elderly lady who keeps a museum for the Confraternity there. She told us that on Jan. 16, the eve I believe of St. Anthony Abbot’s day, a huge pile of wood, taller than the church, is ignited in the Piazza. The fire is thought to dispel the “Fog of St. Anthony” that makes many people ill that time of year. The next morning at 10:30, a special ceremony for blessing animals is held – all kinds of animals. At noon, cars, tractors and other vehicles are blessed. This lovely lady also showed us the figures and lanterns that members of the Confraternity carry through the streets on feast days, as well as their gold-trimmed red and white robes.
Over more breathtakingly beautiful mountain roads – and past Lago di Vico, a legendary volcanic lake among the Crimini Hills supposedly created by Hercules – we arrived at Caprarola, certainly the most magnificent (by a long shot) of the palaces we visited. Here the Palazzo Farnese looms above the twisting streets of the old town.
The scale and the quality of the fresco paintings here are mind-boggling. Every surface of wall and ceiling is painted – with ancient Roman-style grotesques, with historic scenes, and with trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye” or illusionistic) paintings that seem to go up into the heavens. I was fascinated by panels that appeared to be inlaid colored marble, veined and evocative, and then by other panels that made me do a double-take: veined marble or mythic scene? Both were fresco painted, but I was struck by the pleasure the artists seemed to take in creating an uncertainty as to which were “natural” and which man-made. We walked up a grand circular stairway designed so that the pope could ride up it on his horse, all the way to his bedroom.
Here another branch of the same film crew was at work. Cardinals, dukes and ladies in period dress smoked cigarettes, checked cell phones and drank coffee between scenes. For us, their presence, even if ironic, was evocative in these rooms. For them, our presence was pretty surely an inconvenience. After a last look from the windows, out over the vast, once Farnese-owned lands, we left the palace and headed back toward the train station at Orte in the gathering darkness.
What a perspective on the histories of Rome and the papacy from these remote power-broker retreats and hideaways! The train ride back to Termini was, for me, a sort of lucid dream of another time in this place.