A splash in Italian waters
The heat wave has had me thinking of the ways water cools a garden – the sound of it, the look and feel of it, and the actual impact that water has on the air temperature of a garden. Which set me thinking about my last tour of Italy and the clever ways water was used by the great designers of the Italian Renaissance to astonish and inspire awe – and also simply to cool.
This is the dramatic water staircase or cordonata at Villa Lante in Bagnaia, north of Rome. It’s a waterfall, a cooling sound, a splash on the toes – and also a joke. It’s sculpted so that the water swirls around stone volutes moulded in the shape of crayfish, a pun on the name of the original owner Cardinal Gambara, whose name sounds like crayfish (gambero).
The garden is a series of terraces built into a volcanic ridge, and water is used in the garden as a metaphor to describe mankind’s progression from the chaos of pre-Christian pre-history to the order and harmony of the Catholic Renaissance world. At the top of the garden a natural spring bubbles from a mossy grotto and is controlled as it descends through terraces that feed a series of fountains before it comes to rest in a formal water parterre at the bottom of the garden.
Metaphor is one thing, comfort is another: when the water reaches the terrace of the Cardinal’s Table it glides along a runnel cut into the stone table surface to cool wine for the cardinals. Then it runs in a channel around the base of the table to cool the feet of the cardinals before escaping to the terrace below.
Water is also the medium of the garden at Villa d’Este, built by another cardinal, Cardinal d’Este. The garden is constructed as a series of terraces on a steep hillside in Tivoli. Water here is used scientifically – and extravagantly! An aqueduct was built to supply the garden but this proved inadequate so a tributary of the River Aniene was diverted and channeled. Much of Tivoli was destroyed as a result.
The triumph here is the Avenue of a Hundred Fountains, a murmuring, moss-covered stone wall of water spouts,. There are three tiers, with water jets thrusting water upward and gravity pulling it back down into three narrow channels. It’s a delight to walk this 130 metre avenue on any day, but on a hot afternoon it’s a special treat
The most romantic of all Italian water gardens though is surely at Ninfa, an abandoned town that has become a garden.
Water is at the heart of this medieval ruin. Water from the lake is diverted into rivulets and channels and cleverly manipulated with rocks to create different sounds. It was imagined as a song. And that’s what you hear in the still quiet spaces, bird song and water song. We’ve all been lucky that subsequent owners have carefully guarded the fragile artistic sensibility of Ninfa, so we can experience scenes like this one.
From the power of nature, to the power of man, or specifically, the Medici family. Boboli is the most famous garden of the Medici. It sits above imposing Palazzo Pitti in Florence. The garden stretches along a wide cypress avenue that forms a cross axis and leads to the Piazzale dell’Isolotto, shown here.
An island with decorative terracotta pots of lemons set along the balustrade is reflected in the still water of a circular pool. A picture of calm control – just what the Medici ordered. For those of us not under the thumb of the Medici though, the temptation to dangle bare toes into that smooth water is almost irresistible!
Photos: Sandra Ross and Robin Powell