The great garden lover and novelist Edith Wharton reckoned that Villa Lante was perfect. “So far does it surpass, in beauty, in preservation, and in the quality of garden-magic, all the other great pleasure-houses of Italy, that the student of garden-craft may always find fresh inspiration in its study.”
Villa Lante is the 16th century garden of Cardinal Gambara, who was friends with the two great rivals of the time, Cardinal Farnese and Cardinal d’Este. These two men played serious power politics with their gardens: the massively complex Villa d’Este and the simply massive Caprarola. Gambera, with help from archietect Vignola, chose a smaller scale for Villa Lante, but as Edith Wharton noted, it is perfectly formed.
The garden is in two parts – a wild bosco (woods) and a formal garden of three terraces, all linked by water. Water pours from the Fountain of the Deluge on the top terrace, and gathers in the Fountain of the Dolphins. It is then channelled into a water ‘chain’. This chain is designed as an elongated prawn, with a head at the top, and a tail at the bottom. This is a pun on the name of the Cardinal; Gambara being similar to Gambera, the Italian for prawn. It’s a sense of humour you don’t expect in a man as a pious and correct man as the Cardinal. But he seems to have let his sense of play out in his garden.
The water chain sparkles with light, sounds like a rushing stream and cools the air by suggestion if nothing else. The water falls into the Fountain of the River Gods. On either side of the gods are niches containing statues of Flora, the goddess of flowers, and Pomona, the goddess of fruit and the harvest. This is another little joke as Pomona’s harvest is all for the Cardinal. It appears on the Cardinal’s Table, which is where the water turns up next, and which is where the Cardinal liked to entertain al fresco. Wine could be kept cool in the canal that runs along the centre of the table.
The water next turns up as the calm and reflective centre of the parterre on the bottom terrace of the garden. The twelve compartments here were originally filled with herbs, but their sharp edges now contain only gravel. In the four quarters of the pond are little stone boats containing men playing trumpets from which water spouts.
The flow of water is an allegory of civilisation. The wildness of nature is channelled through reason and order to a harvest of plenty, and ultimately to a serene world of high cultural achievements. The Cardinal’s contemporaries would have read all of Lante’s allegorical meanings and its references to mythology and literature. We might not get all the details, but visitors three and half centuries later are still struck by the garden’s wonderful proportions and the emotions it generates.
I especially like this view: the Cardinal’s epitome of civilisation, hemmed in by the everyday contemporary reality of washing on the line and tv antennas on the roof!
Villa Lante is on the itinerary for the Gardens of Italy tour this September.
Photos: Robin Powell