Living in Italy I am never at a loss for amazing places to visit. There are an abundance of stunning villas or gardens to tour. In fact, sometimes I get the sensation that the more I see the more there is to see. I am determined however, to persevere and try to conquer this ever growing list. When I spotted Villa Lante on a list of places to see in Lazio I was surprised. How had this top rated Italian garden never showed up on my radar before and what exactly was this place? A quick search on where is Villa Lante explained that it was close to Viterbo and that was about all, but it was close to the hotel where we were staying so I decided it was a must see-after all it is rated as one of the best Italian gardens in Italy.
On a sunny fall morning we set off to find Villa Lante. After driving around in circles for close to an hour (I had decided I needed to see the Etruscan Pyramid but after 4 different navigation attempts and following the hotels directions we still couldn’t find it so I gave up-in the name of peace and tranquility-and off we went to Villa Lante). Luckily finding it was quite easy. It is very close to Viterbo, Bomarzo and the Sacro Bosco. As I drove closer to the exit J and I both noticed this beautiful looking village on a hill, of course this can be said about almost every location in Italy, however we were a bit surprised to see this particular village on a hill as it is not often to find villas and large gardens in the middle of hilltop villages. A bit of dread set in. Was this another Etruscan Pyramid goose chase, sure to end in complete surrender and a search for the fastest way home? Bravely we forged forward, throwing our chances at a peaceful afternoon to the wind, luckily we quickly found a parking lot. For those of you accustomed to traveling by car in Italy you can imagine our pleasant surprise at easily finding a completely free, easily accessible parking lot in a small village. For those of you who have not driven around Italy, trust me it is an event worth celebrating.
Walking through the stairway leading to any Italian village/town or city is one of my favorite things to do. There is an anticipation, like opening a gift, as you approach the exit, curiosity builds over what will be found as you walk into the new place. On this sunny fall morning we were not disappointed. We had found ourselves in the village of Bagnaia, right in the middle of the main piazza. Immediately the contrast is evident. On the left is an ancient archway with a turret attached, on the right is a more modern part of the village (think 1600-1700’s) and straight ahead a food truck, parking lot and caffe’s. Villa Lante is also to the right. I however was intrigued by what was through the archway so off we went in that direction.
After all of the villages, cities, and towns I have toured in Italy and the rest of Europe I can tell you it takes a bit to surprise me. I am almost always enamored but surprising me is not easy. Bagnaia was an exception, maybe it is the contrast of the bustling piazza, the modern cars passing by I am not sure. However, as I walked through the archway I couldn’t help but mutter “Wow”. Walking through we had entered an Etruscan area village, one that has been a town in some form since 963 AD. Piazza Castello stood before us, ancient black and grey stone buildings, a beautiful fountain and tiny cobblestone streets. I know this may sound like other villages in Italy but Bagnaia is different. Piazza Castello is small, with one road leading into the rest of the town or the other leading out into a more modern world. The darkness of the buildings visually conveys the age of this town which in the 13th century was given as a gift to the Pope from the Bishop of Viterbo. Each building was similar with only the brightly colored flowers hanging out of the window boxes differentiating them. This is Etruscan living as it has been for hundreds of years.
We wandered through the quaint little streets, discovering two ancient villas before we headed up to Villa Lante. It doesn’t take much time to wander through but it is so charming I think you are missing something very wonderful if you don’t do it.
So, where is Villa Lante? From the arch it is a quick five minute walk through the other (“modern”) side of town to make it to the Villa. Again there is a contrast as you approach the Villa property, the walls and gates reflect the age and give a sense of how open it must have been when Villa Lante was built. It is as if this village popped up between the Villa Lante and the Etruscan area of Bagnaia.
Villa Lante’s construction began in 1566. It was originally a hunting lodge until 1549 when an aqueduct was added to the property. This meant the area could be changed into a beautiful garden. Cardinal Gambera saw the opportunity to transform this property into a garden that would equal or surpass the Villa d’Este, south of Rome. Gambera was interested in doing so in order to compete with his rival Cardinal d’Este. Villa d’Este had been built as a jab at the Pope who had not promoted d’Este. Luckily for all of us this was the way many Cardinals handled their frustration or anger with the church.
As you walk into the garden you are met with an exceptional Pegasus fountain flanked by a staircase leading to the villa on one side and a path leading to the open grounds on the other. One of the surprises of Villa Lante is that it is not one grand villa but two Mannerist style villas, built 30 years apart, that mirror one another in style and size. The Mannerist style of the villas is the perfect compliment for this structured garden. The simple yet elegant lines do not detract from the gorgeous gardens in front of or behind it. The view from the hotel of the manicured section of the garden with the town of Bagnaia behind is absolutely stunning. The grand fountain in the middle adds to the elegance of the manicured garden. Then up the staircases the ancient trees and another large fountain welcome you in to this stunning space. There is such tranquility in the gardens, the trees, the sound of the fountain and the vista behind. I immediately slowed down wanting to linger in each space as we wound our way to the next level.
It is here that a long “table” meets guests. The cool running water filled from the gorgeous trailing fountain above. This “table” was once used as the place wine was chilled for all guests of the gardens. The massive fountain must have been even more breathtaking when filled with cold wine. The next level of gardens leads to a stunning water feature, similar to one found in Villa d’Este in Tivoli. The slow dripping water lands onto a bed of soft green. Inside each of the three alcoves are small statues of muses. The fountain was designed to represent the nature flow of water. The effect is incredible. Flanked on either side by mythological men and two small buildings. It is a large courtyard of serenity.
Unfortunately when the Pope first saw the beauty of the gardens he decided they were too extravagant and cut the stipend of Cardinal Gambara. This stipend was given to the Cardinals whose family were not wealthy, it was meant to be used to live in the dignity of their office. In this Cardinal Gambara succeeded, he created a lavish space worthy of even the most wealthy family. As a bit of irony the garden has been used in movies like “The Two Popes” and series like “The Young Pope” to depict the Vatican garden. I hope that this wasn’t defeating for the Cardinal since he created such an incredible space for generations.
If you have the time, on a visit to Rome or to the Truscia region stop in Bagnaia, have a coffee and walk through this garden. If you want to tour the villas they are only open on certain days of the week so check the website to plan your trip.
So where is Villa Lante? Coming from Rome travel the 80km taking the Via Cassia to Viterbo, then follow signs. Similarly, if you are using public transport you should get from Rome to Viterbo, then take a local bus for the last leg of your journey. If you are driving along the Autostrada del Sole (A1) you should leave at the Orte exit.