Modern Landscaping Lessons from a Historic Italian Garden


It seems I’ve always known about Villa d’Este, the famous Renaissance villa and adjoining gardens in northeast Rome, but until this spring I really didn’t know much about it. I was dimly aware of the complex’s influence on landscape design, particularly the fountain-rich terraced gardens behind the frescoed house, but I couldn’t quite make up my mind. Then, on a trip to Rome this spring, I decided to find out what it was all about and called a taxi on Via Veneto in the morning traffic.

Located in Tivoli, a playground for ancient and Renaissance Romans about 20 miles from the Colosseum, Villa d’Este was the brainchild of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (1509-1572), son of Renaissance art patron and Duke of Ferrara Alfonso d’Este and his controversial wife, Spanish-Italian power actor and putative poisoner, Lucrezia Borgia. These days it’s only reached after a rather daunting journey through the eastern suburbs and faceless suburbs of contemporary Rome, which might as well be outside of Rome, NY Even the entrance to the complex is a bit sad, in a small town square with a curious menacing piece of public art. But then the breathtaking splendor begins.

The majestic villa, whose entirely frescoed interiors are spectacular enough, is perched above the gardens, which drop down to countless levels, criss-crossed by skyscraper staircases and punctuated by some fifty fountains. sculptural buildings that run the gamut from tall to immense buildings. Cut.

An engineering marvel in its time – and a Unesco World Heritage Site and Museum today – the 11-acre site’s Sunken Gardens use gravity to turn the local River Aniene into a constant powerhouse for fountains, pools and dozens of artificial waterfalls. The Villa d’Este draws on the basic elements of Renaissance garden design – evergreens and Italian stone – to frame and shape the gurgling, rushing and sheer humidity of all that water. , which is not only meant to be seen but heard, felt. and even endured, splashing in your face when you least expect it.

The gardens begin with… a pause.

Between the house and the slope of the garden is a quiet place vialone, or walkway, bordered by a low wall and punctuated by raised ceramic pots. It allows the mind to catch its breath between the fabulous frescoes and the watery wonderland below.

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I heard water falling before I saw it, then my eye moved to the right, to the so-called Hundred Fountains, an alley along which grotesque masks squirt water into a trough . Then I descended to the Cypress Rotunda, a giant display of twisted trees, some dating back to the 17th century.

I descended to the long array of fish ponds or reflective decorative basins that lead the eye to the Fountain of Neptune and beyond to the Fountain of the Organ, which uses water from the river to feed a real organ.

Then I went up to the piazza-fronted oval fountain, whose gigantic cascade of water suggests a shimmering curtain of glass, and back down to the Fountain of Diana, a surreal multi-breasted symbol of fertility. I was growing tired, I was hot, and after inhaling the intoxicating scents of the rose garden, I stopped in the cool darkness of the Caves of the Sibyls.

In the end, I was supposed to tire myself out, said Michael Lee, a professor of the history of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia and a fellow this spring at the American Academy in Rome. The gardens are dense with mythological imagery, and the need to climb up and down was meant to “re-enact the Labors of Hercules”, he said. I was expected to be tired, wet and hot and notice the sounds of the fountains go from almost musical to almost deafening.

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“The Villa d’Este is meant to be immersive,” Professor Lee said, engaging all of our senses, as later Western garden design, from the French formal variety to the English landscape version, became increasingly popular. more visual.

Later, I asked landscape designer Adam Woodruff in Marblehead, Massachusetts, how a gardener of more modest means and area could make a plot immersive. In his own prairie-style garden, he converted a circular zinc planter, about 3 feet in diameter, into a reflecting pool. By adding a little black dye formulated for this purpose, he made the surface mirror-like, so the sky and flower stems resonate beautifully against the water. Thirsty birds regularly provide birdsong (and bird-safe mosquito larvicide prevents insects from breeding there). The simple vessel serves as a strategic focal point in the loosely structured garden, which includes a number of grass species.

Feeding all the senses was just one of the lessons that Villa d’Este offers the home gardener. Others include creating a buffer between your house and your garden. Don’t be afraid to add humor, or even a bit of the grotesque. Save a spot among the plants for rocks, water, a statue or two, or even an entire fountain.

The spring morning at the resort had turned into an almost summer afternoon, but now the weather was turning overcast and slightly autumnal. It was time to return to Rome, wetter and wiser, with a reminder that the grand design – in a garden, as in a home – is to be lived rather than simply watched.

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Write to JS Marcus at [email protected]


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