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Italy's Edens

The gardens near Rome are more than green oases for those seeking escape from the city hustle and heat. These pieces of paradise marry stone, water, flowers and trees in a burst of Renaissance artistry.

October 12, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

BAGNAIA, ITALY — I know how to get to paradise -- in this life, anyway.

It lies atop a hill about 60 miles north of Rome where a gentleman-cardinal built a garden in the 16th century. His architects created it from water and stone, green leaves and vine. But the result is more than the sum of its parts. Villa Lante embodies the humanist ideals of the Italian Renaissance.

In a way, all gardens, from the lowliest patch of zinnias to a sophisticated jewel of landscape design such as Villa Lante, are postage stamps from Eden. So it is no wonder that soon after I moved to Rome last spring, I began seeking them out.

I took a Vatican Gardens tour to see the pope's beautiful backyard and saw the ingenious fountains at the Villa d'Este about 20 miles east of Rome. I found secret havens in the city -- the rose garden on the Aventine Hill, for one -- and tagged along with a group of architecture students from Yale University to visit Villa Madama, in the hills northwest of town. While the students sketched its elephant fountain, their professors told me about other gardens in the region of Lazio around Rome that attest to the evolution of garden art in Italy. Many are attached to country villas where counts and cardinals took refuge from the summer heat.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 15, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Italy's gardens: An article in Sunday's Travel section on gardens near Rome misidentified a plant used in the clipped globes of the Orange Garden at La Landriana near Anzio, Italy, as crepe myrtle. The globes contain cape myrtle, or African boxwood.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 19, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Italian gardens: An article in last week's section on gardens near Rome misidentified a plant used in the clipped globes of the Orange Garden at La Landriana near Anzio, Italy, as crepe myrtle. The globes are cape myrtle, or African boxwood.

When that heat settled in, I fled the city almost every weekend, navigating my rental car to the Grande Raccordo Annulare, the ring road that encircles Rome. From there it was easy to find cool, green, consummately beautiful pieces of paradise.

Bomarzo and Villa Lante

In 1578, Cardinal Giovanni Francesco Gambara was suffering an attack of gout when Pope Gregory XIII arrived at the Villa Lante. When the pope saw Gambara's exquisite but obviously costly estate above the hamlet of Bagnaia, he canceled the cardinal's allowance.

It couldn't have been a good day for Gambara, but when I visited Villa Lante I was blessed in every way. On the drive from Rome I followed the path of the Tiber River, lined by fields of golden, just-reaped summer hay.

I turned off the highway near Orte into a landscape of volcanic hills, crater lakes and strange, eroded canyons. A winding country road took me to L'Ombricolo -- which means "the little shady spot" -- a bed-and-breakfast inn that occupies a tile-roofed farmhouse, surrounded by sunflowers.

With its vine-covered verandas and long vistas, L'Ombricolo turned out to be an Italian country idyll. Once I settled in, inn proprietor Dawne Alstrom gave me directions to Bagnaia and Bomarzo, a garden as remarkable as Villa Lante in its own weird way.

I found Bomarzo, a privately owned "garden of monsters," as it's called, in a narrow, wooded valley about a 20-minute drive from L'Ombricolo. From the parking lot it looked like a cheesy tourist attraction featuring monumental statues of dragons and sphinxes set among the trees, with no flowers to speak of.

But once I ventured in, I realized something profoundly strange was going on in the woods at Bomarzo.

Stone colossi wrestle to the death in the dell.

An elephant pinions a Roman legionnaire in its trunk, and a precariously tilted house seems to totter at the edge of a terrace.

Around the bend an ogre's head rears up, its wide-open maw revealing a tongue in the shape of a stone table where visitors can picnic while being devoured.

Art historians attribute the bizarre stone gallery, created circa 1570 by Vicino Orsini, to the rise of the Mannerist style of art that evolved after the High Renaissance. But psychology might also explain it.

Orsini was a papal soldier who retired, disillusioned, from the wars that wracked the Italian peninsula in the 16th century. At Bomarzo, I like to think he used his still-intact prankish sense of humor to vanquish his demons. Even his ravenous ogre and rampaging elephant have a benign air, inviting kids to play amid scenes of pillow-fight carnage.

I drove on to Bagnaia, set among rolling hills and vineyards. I parked by the train station, then climbed to the gate of the public park that buffers Villa Lante from the village below.

The villa began taking shape in the early 1500s as a hunting preserve entailed to the bishops of nearby Viterbo. But when Gambara gained possession in 1566 he put his own stamp on the property, creating a series of terrace gardens on the hillside. On the first level he built a pavilion out of local, whitish-green Pepperino stone. The next proprietor, Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto, gave Villa Lante its symmetry by adding a twin pavilion to Gambara's original. Painters to fresco the little palaces -- or palazetti -- were borrowed from a construction site in nearby Caprarola, where Gambara's friend, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, was building an even grander villa.

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