The countryside around Rome has long been the playground of the privileged, but it was in the sixteenth century that the region of Lazio took the lead in garden design. The wealthy families of popes and cardinals such as the Farnese and Este commissioned villas and gardens in the campagna romana to escape from the noise and worldly cares of the capital to places of tranquillity and repose. Vasari wrote of Caprarola in the sixteenth century that it was ‘marvellously situated for one who wishes to withdraw from the worries and tumult of the city’.
But Renaissance gardens developed to offer more than a haven of peace and a chance for contemplation; they also provided the patron with the opportunity to vaunt his knowledge of the antique world. Garden design and ornamentation were steeped in references to classical mythology. Gardens also became places of entertainment, whether formal or frivolous. The use of water tricks or giochi d’acqua – allowing the owner to ‘drown’ an unsuspecting visitor at the pull of a hidden lever – is a prime example of the latter.
The towns, villas and gardens to the north of Rome are set against a backdrop of an almost fantasy, surreal landscape: villages perch high on volcanic outcrops, villas and gardens are carved out of purple tufa. To the west and south of Rome this often extraordinary scenery gives way to more classically pastoral scenes, offering glimpses of Claude Lorrain’s inspiration for many of his depictions of the campagna romana, which in turn became the foundation of the landscape style of gardens in eighteenth-century England.
Some of the gardens can only be visited by special arrangement and it is possible that the order of visits will change from that listed here.
Fly at c. 10.40am (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Rome Fiumicino. Drive to the countryside near Viterbo where the first two nights are spent.
Bagnaia, Caprarola. The Villa Lante at Bagnaia, designed by Vignola, has been universally admired since its creation: the twin casinos are subordinate to the design of the delightful terraced gardens with restored giochi d’acqua and fountain by Giambologna. On a hilltop at Caprarola, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had an imposing pentagonal villa built by Vignola, with an extensive park adorned with fountains, walled gardens and a casino.
Bomarzo, Vignanello. Vicino Orsini created a Renaissance ‘theme park’ at Bomarzo of extraordinary grotesque animals and statues based on figures from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Visit the Renaissance Castello Ruspoli and its enchanting gardens (by special arrangement). First of three nights in Grottaferrata, near Frascati.
Tivoli. Spend the morning at Hadrian’s Villa, designed entirely by him and inspired by sites he visited during his travels in the Empire, undoubtedly the richest building project in the Roman Empire. Lunch is in a good restaurant with astonishing views. The vast garden at Villa d’Este became one of the classic visits on the Grand Tour.
Ninfa, Torrecchia Vecchia. Drive to Ninfa, one of the most famous and best-loved English gardens abroad, where the ruined buildings of a mediaeval town have been transformed into a place so extraordinarily beautiful that it has long been a place of pilgrimage for gardeners. Continue to Torrecchia Vecchia, a 15-acre Romantic garden also within the crumbling walls of a mediaeval hilltop village, designed by Dan Pearson.
Castel Gandolfo. Visit the Pope’s gardens, overlooking the lake of Castel Gandolfo and only recently opened to the public (by special arrangement). Fly from Rome, arriving Heathrow at c. 5.00pm.
Dr Katie Campbell
Writer, garden historian and lecturer. She has taught at Birkbeck, Bristol and Buckingham Universities, writes for various publications and leads art and garden tours. Her most recent book, British Gardens in Time, accompanied a BBC TV series. Other books include Paradise of Exiles, Icons of 20th-century Landscape Design and Policies & Pleasances: A Guide to Scotland’s Gardens. She is currently working on a book about how the Medici Villas reflect the changing ideas of the Renaissance.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,480 or £2,210 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,720 or £2,450 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 319); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 3 lunches and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Alla Corte delle Terme, near Viterbo: a comfortable 4-star in the countryside outside of Viterbo. All rooms are suites. Park Hotel Villa Grazioli, Grottaferrata: a 4-star hotel overlooking Frascati and Rome, in a 16th-century villa containing frescoes by Ciampelli, Carracci and Pannini. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
There is quite a lot of walking, much of it on rough, uneven ground in the gardens. The tour would not be suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking and stair climbing. Average distance by coach per day: 60 miles
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'We saw the most extraordinary gardens, all never to be forgotten.'
'Absolutely right - exactly the gardens I should have wished to visit, with the right amount of time allocated to each.'
'I thought the itinerary was very well chosen with an excellent balance in the selected gardens.'
'Our lecturer was an excellent guide – full of enthusiasm for the cultural heritage of Italy.'