The Papal Villas of Latium
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Perhaps not as well-known as those in Tuscany or Umbria, the villas of Latium are often just as breathtaking, combining peace and quiet with architectural harmony. One must remember that until little over 100 years ago, Rome was not only the center to world Catholicism but also the capital of a sovereign state that was very much concerned with the temporal world. This state was governed by an autocrat, generally of noble birth. But unlike other monarchies, this one was not hereditary, and the scepter of power passed from one aristocratic family to another. Due to the advanced age of most pontiffs at the moment of election to the throne of St. Peter, often after only a few years of rule it was time to elect a new sovereign. This frequent alternation allowed each of the papal families a moment of power and glory. For the Italians, one of the most typical manifestations of that power, from the early Renaissance to the 19th century, was the construction of a sumptuous city dwelling (palazzo di città) and/or a villa in the country. Virtually all of the major villas in Latium were built either by the popes or some intimate family member (nephew, brother, sister, even offspring), or by high-ranking ecclesiastics.
Two of the most beautiful examples are the Lante della Rovere Villa at Bagnaia and the Farnese Palace in Caprarola. Although both exalt the glory of their owners, each does so in a different way, representing contrasting concepts of the villa, despite their having been built within 10 years of each other by the same architect. The Farnese Palace in Caprarola is definitely a residence of the powerful transplanted into a rural setting, whereas Villa Lante is the archetype of the Italian garden (geometric, regular forms where nothing is planted by chance), an expression of the "back to nature" philosophy that became very fashionable among the upper classes in the Renaissance.
shaped like a pentagon. In 1559 Alessandro II Farnese, cardinal and nephew of Pope Paul III, commissioned the great architect Vignola to transform the existing estate into a more amenable country residence for the Farnese family. The original structure had been designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger as a fortress, very sturdy and ready to withstand marauding forces but no longer appropriate for a Renaissance court's needs. Some of the best known artists of the day worked on its decoration, including the Zuccaris, who painted the famous series heralding the feats of the Farnese family (Fasti Farnese).
||Positioned at the top of a hill, the villa dominates the town that cringes at its base. And there's no doubt where the town leaves off and the villa begins, either. To reach the main entrance of the palace, one must climb a double set of circular stairs and cross open forecourts. While approaching the façade, it is not difficult to feel insignificant. Even though there is a gorgeous park behind it, the main attraction of Caprarola is the palace itself. The park is secondary, a mere decorative element hidden behind the monumental façade that is majestic and distant.
The Villa Lante in Bagnaia is the exact contrary, inasmuch as the essential element is the giardino all'italiana. Nature has been molded to suit man so that he can rest his soul and refresh his mind. The twin structures, Palazzo Gambara and Palazzo Montalto, are little more than pavilions. Though beautiful and superbly decorated, they are almost superfluous in the midst of such natural wonders.
Villa Lante began to assume its present form when Pope Pius V granted it to Cardinal Giovan Francesco Gambara in 1566. He commissioned Jacopo Barozzi (called Il Vignola), already working on Caprarola, to complete the project. The grounds, roughly divided into three levels, form a long rectangle. The play of water as it trickles from one ingenious fountain to the next is a joy to the eye and the ear. Its journey starts at the Fountain of the Deluge, an enormous grotto flanked on each side by the Muses' Loggias. From there it splashes down to the Dolphin Fountain, rippling along the chain fountain that slides down the center of a long flight of not very steep stairs connecting one level to the next. This clever idea was used by Vignola in Caprarola as well. Then comes the Fountain of Giants, representing the Tiber and Arno rivers, followed by the lamplet fountain, whose 70 jets of water bathe tiny stone wicks.
Between these last two stands the famed Fountain of the Cardinal's Table. Basically it is a massive stone slab with a small trough down the center that gurgles with rippling water. In summer food and beverages were served on the table and kept cool by the water. From here the water sinks to the lowest level, reaching its crescendo in the magnificent Fountain of Moors. Four separate squared basins surround a circular one topped by the statues of four bronze athletes, attributed to Giambologna. The fountain gurgles lazily as if the water was resting after its long journey. All this water runs along a straight line down the center axis of the villa's rectangular shape. On both sides, hedges, bushes and sculptured forms create an enchanting green habitat. Water, stone (peperino, a local kind of basalt) and vegetation (boxwood hedges, laurel, elms, lime trees, plane trees and much more) collaborate to simulate, and perhaps supersede, nature itself.
The Cardinal's Table
Michael Brouse, Rome
Palazzo Farnese is open Monday-Saturday, Nov-Feb, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; March 9 a.m.-5 p.m.: April, May and September, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. and June-Aug, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Admission 2 Euro. Tel. 011-39- 0761-646-052.
Villa Lante at Bagnaia is open 7 days a week (except May 1, Christmas and New Year's Day), Nov-Feb, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; March and October, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m., May-Aug., 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Admission 4000. Tel. 011-39-0761-288-008.
For lunch in Caprarola, try Zi' Catofio (Il Chiassosissimo). The name means "very noisy," so if you want peace and quiet, go somewhere else. But the food is delicious and it's a real bargain. There is no menu; waiters will bring you antipasto, first course, second course (mixed grill) with potatoes and salad, dessert, wine and liqueur. The address is Strada Cassia Cimina km. 18,600, tel. 011-39-761-646-111. Closed Sunday evening and Monday.
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