Lazio, the region around Rome, is full of villas built by wealthy cardinals (the princes of Renaissance Italy) who wanted to create an out of town getaway and garden oasis to hang out in and throw seriously epic parties in because… who doesn’t love an epic garden party?
Luca and I visited the Villa Lante garden in June of 2020 and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for off the beaten track places to explore outside of Rome. It could easily be combined with a visit to
History of the Villa and Gardens
In the center of the gardens there are two nearly identical houses built thirty years apart by two different owners. The first is Cardinal GianFrancesco Gambara who owned the villa between 1568-1587. The word for shrimp in Italian is “gambero” and I was delighted to see that this cardinal’s personal symbol is in fact a large shrimp (!) that can be found all over the garden in various sculptural forms. After his death in 1587, the villa was inherited by the 17 year old nephew of Pope Sixtus V, Cardinal Alessandro Peretti di Montalto – a very important sounding name that is not as catchy as Gambara but… it will do. He owned the garden from 1590-1623 and it was this young lad who built the second house and finished the garden.
After the death of the cardinal the garden came into the ownership of Duke Ippolito Lante (aha the name finally makes sense) and was even lived in for awhile by an American heiress. Although the garden and house were heavily bombed by the Allies in 1944 during World War II, Dr. Angelo Cantoni worked to restore the garden and villas to their original splendour.
The houses are currently not visitable but the gardens are. So without further ado, let’s get to the gardens.
The Storytelling Garden
To tell the story correctly, you must start at the beginning at the very top of the garden so I’ll be going in order from the top grottos down to the bottom topiary maze beside the houses. The theme of this garden is water, starting with one source of water at the top that flows downhill into every subsequent layer and fountain. This was achieved by the incredible hydraulics engineer from Siena: Tommaso Ghinucci. The flow from the upper fountains to the lower still works with Ghinucci’s original mechanisms.
Chapter One: The source (Top, terrace)
Water bubbles out of its natural source in this quiet grotto-like space. In terms of symbolism, rain is considered the source of water which is why this grotto is meant to recreate the sounds of rain falling into the mossy pool below. There are two loggias that offer a theatrical backdrop to the scene where guests of the villa could hang out and relax. These loggia allegorically allude to the peaks of Mount Parnassus emerging from the waters of the Deluge and contain statues of muses. It’s a true Theatre of Water.
Chapter Two: The Dolphin Fountain and the Sea
On the next terrace down, we find the dolphins and the sea, the vast body of water on earth. Which leads to:
Chapter Three: The chain of Water
Seen in many other 16th century villas and gardens including the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola, this is called a gioco d’aqua in Italian – a “water game” in which water runs from one small basin into another, rippling down in a cascade of sounds.
Chapter Four: The Fountain of the Giants (Third Terrace)
This fountain represents fresh river water, no longer from its initial source in the grotto above or the fountain of the sea. These giants represent The River Arno and the River Tiber (remember, half naked reclining male nudes are usually river gods) – the symbol of the two souls of the Tuscia region. These guys are impressive but the best part of the fountain is the pipe at the top of the waterfall where water passes through the gills of a huge shrimp (remember Gambara – the legend!).
The giants are similar to the ones on the Capitol Hill in Rome, the Fountain of the Ovato in the Villa d’esme in Tivoli and the river giants in the garden of Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola.
Chapter Five: The Banquet
This is where I really start appreciating the cardinal’s style with a massive outdoor peperino stone table with a basin of water running down the middle in which… wait for it… they chilled their wine. Yes. We love them. Sipping on chilled white wine in your own fountain table, inspired to act like gods by the stone River God giants above you. Life was good.
Chapter Six: Fountain of the Lamps
Fountain of the Lamps surrounded by smaller fountains that imitate Roman oil lamps spouting water so that the light will shine through it like a flame.
Chapter Seven: The grand finale: The triumph of the Human Mind over Nature
And here, at last, the water comes to rest in these fountains that serve as reflecting pools. Tamed, subdued, calmed. The final fountain is located in the centre of a maze of carefully cultivated box hedges that represent the ordered, rational, human mind. The fountain is an allegorical allusion representing the one element that dominates over all others (you can guess… water!). Air is represented by the star spurting jets of water in all directions (therefore representing the infinite directions of space), fire in torches that would have been lit for the epic parties thrown here and earth by the hedges. This fountain also once produced acoustic vibrations and sound effects much like Tivoli’s Villa d’Este fountain garden.
The fountain is now known as the Fountain of the Moors for the four boy sculptures possibly created by Giambologna (who created Piazza della Signoria’s statue of Cosimo I de Medici in Florence among others).
Gambara’s shrimp “logo” make an appearance here on the balustrade of the fish pools as do the hills and star symbol of Cardinal Montalto.
Visit the town of Bagnaia
Don’t miss a visit to the town of Bagnaia itself. It’s very tiny but we thoroughly enjoyed strolling through it, checking out the little fortress, grabbing an espresso and perusing the little box of “missing objects” we found on the side of the road.
Where we stayed
On our little Tuscia road trip, we stayed the night in a little apartment which turned out to be across the street from Villa Lante, From our window we could see over the wall and into the garden! It was perfect. Simple, clean, nice people and a kitchen. Perfect for couples or single travellers.
To book you can write Romina at : Lantehouse@libero.it.
What else to see in the area
- Combine Villa Lante visit with Palazzo Farnese in nearby Caprarola
- Check out my post on 4 eerie & beautiful places to visit in Tuscia
- Visit the Villa on a road trip on your way to Orvieto or up north to Tuscany