Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones.
Photos: Margaret Richards.
Although I am more naturally drawn to the style of garden created by Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst or Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter, when the opportunity to visit a garden described by many as one of the finest examples of an Italian Renaissance garden designed in the Mannerist style presented itself, I jumped at the chance.
This was the Villa Lante garden at Bagnaia, near Viterbo, north of Rome. Not knowing anything about the Mannerist style, I did some research before leaving home, and was glad that I had, as it certainly enhanced my appreciation and understanding of the design. As many of you no doubt know, the design of the Renaissance garden is all about the relationship between Nature and Mankind and how the latter controls the former. The Mannerist style is characterised by using surprising effects, visual trickery and rich and elaborate decoration.
The villa was initially owned by the church and used as a summer residence. The garden was designed by architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573), who was working on the nearby Villa Farnese, and is based on the archetypal themes of man’s fall from grace and his redemption – told in a sequence of terraces, each being perfectly proportioned and richly detailed. Water – flowing downhill through numerous fountains and water features – is the main ‘character’ of the garden. The hydraulics still function perfectly after over 400 years. The Water chain linking two of the fountains is regarded as the best and earliest example of a stepping cascade. Water bubbles out from the gills of a shrimp – the emblem of Cardinal Gambara, who originally commissioned the garden. A large long stone table used for alfresco dining, has water flowing through a central channel – apparently to keep the wine cool!
So where are the plants I hear your cry? Box hedges are a notable feature and are clipped into geometric forms creating decorative patterns around the fountains and sculptures. Woodland trees and swathes of rhododendrons enhance and form a backdrop to the wonderful stonework. Flights of stone steps embellished with urns and balustrades climb up the terraces to different levels. Moss-covered stone statues of river gods, dolphins and other curious and intriguing creatures enhance the overall design.
The sense of serenity and calm created by this elegant 16th century garden is extraordinary. No doubt the feeling was accentuated by the fact that apart from a few gardeners cleaning the fountains, we had the garden to ourselves. What a delight after the frenzy of Rome, where every tourist seemed intent on recording their presence in front of every possible Roman sight with the aid of the ubiquitous selfie-stick!