Daytrip: Villa Lante in Bagnaia
In the province of Viterbo in the town of Bagnaia there is Villa Lante, one of the most famous Italian Mannerist gardens dating back to the 16th century. It consists of two symmetrical houses and a garden characterized by water features, waterfalls, fountains and dripping grottines. In 2011 the Villa was voted as the most beautiful garden in Italy. Also this Villa has been used to shoot scenes of the Vatican Gardens like those that portray the cardinals walking, praying and conversing.
Villa Lante in Bagnaia, a suburb of Viterbo, is, together with Bomarzo, one of the most famous 16th-century Mannerist style surprise gardens.
The Villa, owned by the Italian State, since December 2014 is managed by the Polo Museale of Lazio.
Despite the lack of contemporary documentation, its design is attributed to Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola. For those who arrive after having just visited Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola the first notable impression is the difference between the two villas of Vignola, although erected in the same area, in the same period, and in the same architectural style: the similarities between the two monuments are few .
In 2011 she was voted “the most beautiful park in Italy”. In 2014, a commemorative silver coin with a nominal value of 5 euros is included in the series “Villas and Gardens of Italy”.
Construction began in 1511, but was completed around 1566 by commission of Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara. The villa is known as “Villa Lante”. However, it did not acquire this name until when, in the seventeenth century, it passed into the hands of Ippolito Lante Montefeltro della Rovere, I duke of Bomarzo, when the building was already 100 years old.
The monumental entrance to the Villa, not used today, was already present in the initial project, as shown by the visible fresco in the Loggia of the Palazzina Gambara. Over the centuries it has undergone several changes including the location on the façade of the emblem of the Lante della Rovere family, who had in emphyteusis the Villa since 1656.
Once placed behind the ancient entrance, in front of the visitor’s eyes opens the overview of the Villa.
From here begins the physical and spiritual path that lies axially along the natural slope embellished by numerous fountains.
This ascent presents a fascinating correspondence with the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and in particular with the dictates of the First Annotation.
The two messes
From the plain piazza at the top end of an unpretentious village, a flight of curved steps leads to a heavily rusticated arch. The buildings of the square show, in their ancient facades, papal coat of arms and cardinalices in stone worn down by time. Passing through the arch meets the first surprise: there is no villa.
In fact, Villa Lante consists of two houses, almost identical, even if built by different owners in different periods, separated by 30 years.
The two square buildings have a ground floor with ashlar arches, or loggias, which support the upper floor above. Each façade, on this floor, has exactly three windows, alternating curved or pointed gables. Each window is divided by pairs of pilasters. An upper floor is just mentioned by small rectangular windows, of the mezzanine type, which open in a position corresponding to those of the main floor.
Every mess is surmounted by a small tower or lantern, which stands on top of the sloping roof. This elaborate square lantern has two pilasters, and some windows, both real and blind.
Each of these messes, in their severe mannerist style, was built by distinguished and disconnected owners. Villa Lante was first commissioned by cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara who gave his first name at the first casino.
It seems that construction work started in 1566, of the casino that meets on the right as you enter. It is thought that Gambara commissioned Vignola the project (the villa is attributed to him only), the start of the works and the design of the gardens that have made it justly famous. The first casino and the upper garden were soon completed, but the works remained suspended for the rest of the life of Cardinal Gambara.
Inside it preserves wonderful coffered ceilings, stuccoes and precious frescoes, some representing Villa D’Este, Palazzo Farnese di Caprarola, Palazzo di Capodimonte and Villa Lante as it was originally.
After Gambara’s death in 1587, he succeeded him as apostolic administrator of Viterbo, the seventeen-year-old nephew of Pope Sixtus V, Cardinal Alessandro Peretti di Montalto. It was he, little more than a child, to complete the project in Bagnaia and build the second casino.
The two messes differ a lot in the frescoes: landscape painting in the Gambara casino, while the frescoes of the Montalto casino, made by a later artist, are in a more classical style.
In the Gambara casino, the frescoes of the vaulted loggias exhibit a profusion of color that emphasizes the architectural detail, while in the Montalto casino the main reception area is decorated with a combination of frescoes and patterned plaster, almost a trompe-l’œil.
The extraordinary peculiarity of Villa Lante is inherent in the predominance of the garden compared to the architectural work: the two houses are symmetrical with respect to the central axis of the garden that dominates the entire composition through the water path.
The architecture of the casinos built symmetrically on the hill at the end of a terracing inside Villa Lante is much more elegant and simple than the contemporary villa d’Este and Palazzo Farnese di Caprarola and reflects the Bramantesco model of the Belvedere from which Vignola evidently direct inspiration from the previous experience of Caprarola some elements of the Casino del Barco but leaving much more space to the garden that plays the role of protagonist in Bagnaia.
The interior decoration was finished in time for the visit of Gregory XIII in 1578, the program and the direction of the works is attributed to Raffaellino da Reggio, already present in the Farnese palace of Caprarola.
This dependence of Cardinal Gambara from the much more powerful Farnese family is underlined by the whole realization of his residence of Bagnaia and returns expressly on the walls of the first floor loggia where landscapes of Caprarola are represented with the Farnese palace and the villa of the Barco together with a view of Villa d’Este and Villa Lante in Bagnaia.
The paintings of the vault that represent the birth of four constellations according to the astronomical poetics of Igino and in relation to the three families mentioned above are linked to the celebration of the families of Farnese, Este and Gambara: above the view of Villa d’Este Ercole and dragon in the garden of the Hesperides depicts the birth of the constellation of the snake; above Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola Orione and the scorpion are both linked to a constellation; above the Barco Giove defeats the giants accompanied by the eagle (a Farnese enterprise was constituted by the thunderbolt with which Jupiter killed the Giants); finally over Villa Lante Ercole kills the Hydra and with it a crab come to the aid of the monster (in reference to the constellation of cancer but also to the crayfish, symbol of the cardinal).
As a whole, therefore, the interior decoration of the Loggia di Bagnaia seems to be entirely based on the previous models of the living room of Villa d’Este and the room of Ercole in Caprarola, but the exterior differs in a greater spatial order that pivots on a central axis underlined by a cordonata from which the water descends, from a marble table and finally from the fountain with a large basin placed at the center of the first terracing and designed according to ancient models as a sort of pond with a central island.
Cardinal Giovan Francesco Gambara, descendant of a noble family from Brescia, thanks to the protection of the Farnese family (his mother was the widow of Ranuccio Farnese), obtained the title of Bishop of Bagnaia in 1566 but took possession only in 1568 and immediately planned the realization of the his Villa Lante in Bagnaia demanding the Farnese service from their architect Vignola. Already in 1573 the cardinal could reside there but the work continued until 1578 (as recalled by the date on a frieze of the casino called Palazzina Gambara), date of the visit of Gregory XIII.
Graticola of San Lorenzo
The image of the grill is carved in the keystone of the main portal of the Palazzina Gambara.
San Lorenzo, one of the protomartyrs of the Christian Church, was burnt on a grid because he refused to give the money of the Christian community to the prefect of the city of Rome.
His martyrdom is usually proposed as an example of fidelity to the Church. These events are frescoed in the Chamber dedicated to him on the first floor of the Palazzina Gambara and are accompanied by those of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The celebration of the life and martyrdom of the two Saints, as prime examples of Faith, is a theme that Cardinal Gambara had also wanted to express in the Fountain of the Square or the Moors, at the beginning of the physical and spiritual journey that takes place in the external gardens . The grating is, therefore, the symbolic image that alludes to the figure of an exemplary Catholic, faithful until death to Christ and his Church.
Cardinal Gambara, particularly devoted to Saint Lawrence, will promote the restoration of the Cathedral dedicated to the Saint in the city of Viterbo and will have a testamentary legacy for the church of San Lorenzo in Panisperna which rises in Rome on the site of martyrdom.
The water comes from a triumph of geometries designed by evergreen hedges and peperino statues and follows a path that creates particular basins and water features.
Also worth noting is a peperino table with a fresh stream running through it to keep fresh fruit and vegetables during the meals of the ancient owners (called the cardinal’s table).
The Garden of Villa Lante is thus an enchanted place created and wanted by a powerful cardinal in the name of the supremacy of man over nature. Closed in a rigorous geometric labyrinth by the architect Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, Villa Lante was built in the second half of the sixteenth century at the behest of Cardinal Gambara, close to a forest already hunting reserve.
The Villa is crossed longitudinally by a stream that gushes up from the rock and follows the slope of the land, taking advantage of the differences in height and connecting them with terraces and fountains until it subsides in the square of the Moors fountain.
The gardens of Villa Lante
Above the main parterre the visitor can climb through oaks, holm oaks and plane trees, seeing fountains and sculptures that open up through unexpected glimpses, and revisiting them again in unexpected contexts.
You then arrive at the first of the upward-facing terrace gardens: here, housed between two stone staircases, there is the Fontana dei Lumini, a circular stepped fountain; on the balcony of each step, small fountains of water gush out from smaller fountains in the shape of oil lamps. Flowering shrubs of camellias, and other ericaceous plants, added in the nineteenth century, shine in the shade of this terrace.
On the next terrace, there is a huge stone table with flowing water in its center. In this place, Cardinal Gambara entertained his guests with a picnic. On the terrace there are still other fountains, which reproduce river deities.
Above there is another terrace, containing the water chain, a play of water that Vignola added to many 16th century gardens. Visible also to Villa Farnese and Villa d’Este, this cavity stream falls in cascade in the middle of the steps to end at the bottom of the terrace.
On the next upper terrace there are still fountains and grottines, and two small houses that frame other fountains completing a composition known as ‘theater of the waters’.
These small houses, like their larger counterparts on the lower terrace, have a particular design, probably also by Vignola, with open loggias supported by columns of the Ionic order. They hold the name of Cardinal Gambara carved on the frame.
One of the houses gives access to a small secret garden, a garden of hedges and topiaries, with a line of columns that gives it an almost melancholic atmosphere.
A prospective plan of 1609 shows a wooded area with paths and views towards the obelisks, and a labyrinth.
The fountain of Pegasus
The gardens are the main attraction of Villa Lante, especially water games, from waterfalls to fountains to dripping grottines. This harmony of water and the perfection of its flow was achieved only when the architect called to himself, from Siena, a specialist in hydraulic architecture, Tommaso Ghinucci with the task of overseeing the hydraulic project. The well-known garden architect Pirro Ligorio was also consulted, but he is the genius of Ghinucci who flows and still lives in his gardens.
Entering from this rusticated arch in the village square, leaving behind the dusty and parched plaza, you enter a different world, fresh, clean and green. The first comparison is the Quadrato, a perfectly regular parterre, made a generation before the first French parterres at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye and that of Fontainebleau: the contrast between the lower village square and the view on the new parterre was to be, in the past, even more astonishing than today.
The twin houses are on one side only while the other three sides of the garden are bordered by tall box hedges. In the center, the small boxwood shrub is shaped and shaped to form decorative motifs that surround small fountains and sculptures. The most characteristic feature of this parterre is the complex fountain at its center, formed by four basins, separated by transennial paths, with parapets decorated with stone pine cones and decorative urns that intersect the water.
The arquebusiers, initially aimed at watching and throwing water towards the pyramid, symbolized both the attacks of the Protestant doctrine of the Church of Rome and those of the unfaithful Turks defeated in the Battle of Lepanto by the Venetian fleet in which some members of the Gambara family militated.
The position of the ships over the centuries has been modified and currently the sprayers of arquebusiers are turned towards the hedges of the garden.
Some sources report that in the pools of water, Cardinal Gambara has included sculptures similar to sea dragons on the occasion of the visit of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni whose coat of arms depicts a dragon. It is believed that these sculptures have been removed and replaced in the Fontana del Pegaso after having been modified with angelic features.
Fountain of the Moors of Giambologna
At the heart of the complex, a central basin contains the famous Fontana dei Mori of Giambologna: four moors, in real size, arranged to form a square around two lions; keep up the heraldic mountain surmounted by the jet of the fountain in the form of a star, the Montalto coat of arms.
This is the focal point of this unusual arrangement of messes and parterres. The Moors delimit the space that one would expect to see occupied by a large building flanked by the two houses. It is only here that we realize that the whole complex is, in fact, a perfectly planned composition without ostentation.
Here the garden is not conceived as a mere appendage or, at most, a complement, but it is an integral part of the original concept of the villa as a whole.
The Fountain of the Moors, also known as the Fountain of the Square, stands out majestically in the center of the parterre and was designed to be the symbolic fulcrum of the route.
The four figures of athletes (called Mori for the dark color taken by the peperino over time) that support the pears and mountains dominated by the star, symbols of the House of Peretti Montalto, were introduced on the occasion of Pope Clement VIII’s visit in 1597 from then owner Alessandro Peretti Montalto.
The addition of the four Moors and the symbols of the Peretti family changed the meaning of the structure, originally linked to the early Christian Church, and from that moment devoted exclusively to the celebration of the Peretti family.
The gaze is inevitably captured by the small box hedges symmetrically arranged to give life to the intricate design of the labyrinth. In this case, the splendid Italian garden unfolding before the eyes of the visitor wants to be re-proposed, in larger and more passable dimensions, of the symbol of the San Lorenzo gridiron reproposed in the decorative strip in the attic of the Gambara building.
The intertwining of the hedges of the garden, which refer to the grid as an instrument of the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, and the circular structure of the fountain, inspired by the architecture of the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome, are used in the physical and spiritual path imagined by Gambara, as symbols of the extreme witness of Faith and as a key to access to a life of Grace. Even the water that gushes from this complex architecture is used as a metaphor for a path of purification that at the end of the journey will lead the visitor to the heavenly Jerusalem and to salvation.
The fountain of the chain
A large quantity of water flows and falls tumultuously through the Fontana della Catena, hopping in the enveloped and chained envelope of the claws of a crayfish (emblem of Cardinal Gambara) as to form a chain of crystalline water and flowing into the Fountain of the Giants, representing the rivers Tiber and Arno (ie the good relations between the papacy of Rome and the Medici family of Florence) is the age of reason (or Jupiter), in which man is called to fight with his forces to dominate the nature.
The chain is formed by a cascade of water that flows from a crayfish and flows between two edges of peperino that are knotted in volutes hooking each other, multiplication of the claws of the crayfish.
The chain of water inserted in Villa Lante for this peculiar shape is even more original than similar fountains usual in the gardens of Renaissance villas, as evidenced by the water chain that was inserted in the high gardens of Caprarola.
The desire and desire of Cardinal Gambara to experiment and celebrate himself in the physical and spiritual journey of ascent to the mountain towards the Fountain of the Flood is underlined by placing as a source of the Chain such a manifest reference of himself and his family.
Fountain of the Table (or Table of the Cardinal)
How to create, for a refined play of shapes and transparencies, a table with crystalline tablecloth.
The fountain called Tavola del Cardinale looks like a long rectangle of hollowed peperino at the center in order to receive fresh water to immerse food and drink; in fact, the fountain was used as a table for outdoor banquets.
Jacopo Barozzi, known as Vignola, an architect at the service of Cardinal Gambara, invited Pirro Ligorio to create a project for this fountain; the Ligorio in making it was inspired by the classical tradition proposing an architectural form already present in the villa pliniana of Castel Fusano.
Fountain of the rivers
The Fountain of the Rivers, also called the Fountain of the Giants, is offered as a spectacular backdrop to the fountain of the Cardinal’s Table.
The same effect of a monumental theatrical backdrop that certainly aroused the amazement of the guests at the table of the Cardinal still provokes the visitor.
The powerful figures placed in the typical pose of the river deities, although they do not present specific attributes except the cornucopias, proposed as symbols of the abundance caused by water, in the inventory drawn up in 1588 on behalf of the Apostolic Chamber which at the time became the owner of the villa, they are identified as personifications of the Arno and the Tiber rivers.
In the complex symbolic route the presence of the Tiber, river of Rome, and the Arno, river of Florence, finds its motivation to underline the political link of the Gambara family with the Church of Rome and with the family de ‘Medici who in sign of friendship contributed to the realization of the project of Cardinal Gambara giving firs for the barco.
Fountain of the Lumini
The water then resumes its run and gushes into the Fountain of the Lumini, as if to form many flames of silver candles.
The fountain is made up of three steps placed in semicircles above which seventy sculptures in the shape of little lights throw jets, illuminating not of fire but of water. In front of this evocative hydraulic work we are invited to reflect once again on complex symbolic meanings: the «water boils» evoked by Fabio Arditio compare the purifying power of water with that of fire.
On the sides of the fountain there are lodges and caves, one dedicated to Venus and one to Neptune, which lent themselves well to pauses and moments of reflection during the ascent path.
The Fountain of the Dolphins
The water gushes and takes various forms in the Fountain of the Dolphins, a marvelous set of degrading tanks connected by sculptural elements, masks, vases and reliefs that represent the kingdom of Neptune and therefore the representation of the dominion of the waters on the Earth during the Deluge.
The Fountain of the Flood
The fountain of the deluge (or Rain Mountain) drops its waters, bubbling and roaring among rocks, caves and vegetation, from a summit that refers to an archaic harmony between man and nature that inside Villa Lante in Bagnaia finds a perfect symbiosis.
The mass of water transported by an aqueduct from the Cimini Mountains falls from the natural slope, hidden by fake rock arches, in the basin where dolphins swim in peperino and from here it is channeled into the plumbing to feed the other fountains of the villa.
Two lodges close the scenographic stage: the name of Cardinal Gambara bears on the front with very clear characters and are frescoed on the inner walls with images of the Muses.
At the source of the purifying water there is also another source, that of Poetry evoked by the inspiring Muses.
How to get here
Bagnaia is well connected to the surrounding area. You can reach it:
An old railway line links Bagnaia to Rome: Viterbo – Roma Nord.
The train journey takes 2 hours and 30 minutes: it starts from Piazzale Flaminio passing through pleasant and interesting villages in the province of Rome and Tuscia. Arrived at the gates of Bagnaia from the train you can enjoy a very special view of the village and slowly discover the beauties that once you enter Bagnaia you will see close up.
The train is definitely the most suitable means for those who want to take a break from the bustle of the city and immerse yourself in haste in landscapes that change with the changing of the seasons while remaining full of charm.
Cotral Bus connections
There are several bus lines that stop at Bagnaia. Certainly the one that starts from the square in front of the railway station of Orte is the most convenient for those coming from the capital. Bagnaia is also easily accessible from the villages of Tuscia such as Bassano in Teverina, Bomarzo, Gallese, Soriano nel Cimino, Vasanello.
An advice: it is good to check the timetables (Line Orte – Viterbo) because they are subject to change.
“Francigena” Urban and extra-urban transport connections
La Francigena, Viterbo’s urban line, makes Bagnaia easily accessible. The bus number is 6 on weekdays while on holidays is 96F. The terminus of Viterbo is at the Shrine but the stops to take these lines are also at P.zza Verdi, Viale R. Capocci, Viale Trieste, La Quercia, Viale Fiume.
You can take the Cassia bis out and once you get to Monterosi you can choose between the traditional route along the S.S. Cassia and the panoramic itinerary taking the S.P. Cimina, follow the signs for Viterbo and then those for Bagnaia.
Once you have left the A1 Roma – Firenze motorway, take the SS 675 towards Viterbo and exit at the Bagnaia – Montefiascone junction towards Bagnaia. Journey time 25 minutes.
Admission to the park is free. Entrance to the part of the gardens and water games is at the ticket office at the entrance. Open every day except Monday. However for confirmation and for information tel.0761-288008 (ticket office of Villa Lante).
Your Next Home in Rome is Rhome Guesthouse! Open since April 2017, Rhome Guesthouse aims to provide the warmer accommodation in Rome. We’re set in Prati, just next to Vatican Museums. Come visit us!