Place Travel: Villa Lante
January 27, 2016
Villa Lante was designed c. 1568-1579 by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola for Gianfrancesco Gambara (1533–1587) shortly after the latter’s appointment as cardinal by Pope Pius IV. You can enjoy this masterpiece of landscape design simply as a choreographed series of cascades, dripping fountains, and a water parterre flanked by a pair of small palaces whose interiors are adorned with beautiful frescoes. To think like a landscape historian, however, will bring you to another level of understanding and pleasure, for like other late Renaissance gardens of this period, Villa Lante can be interpreted as an elaborate humanist iconography filled with symbolical allusions to the cardinal, antiquity, and the well-watered fertility of the surrounding Roman landscape.
Upon entering the garden, you first encounter the Fountain of Pegasus. According to mythology, the winged horse’s hoof striking the earth generated the Spring of Hippocrene, symbol of the source of artistic creativity, an allusion reinforced by the surrounding busts of the nine Greek muses.
Instead of proceeding up one of the pair of staircases above the fountain, you should first take the path leading diagonally through the bosco—a woodland park that was once adorned with several fountains. The Fountain of the Acorns, now vanished, was intended to evoke the Golden Age of Antiquity, since acorns were, according to Ovid, a staple in the diet of Arcadian man. Another missing fountain, that of Bacchus, evoked Virgil’s description of the Golden Age when wine was believed to run freely in streams from the ground. In addition to these, there were trellis-surrounded fountains depicting unicorns and dragons symbolizing the life of virtue.
High up the wooded slope there is a gate through which you can enter the uppermost part of the garden. As you begin to descend from one terrace to another your message-encoded itinerary progresses with more allusions to Antiquity. First, you are confronted by the Fountain of the Deluge, a fern-encrusted grotto with six openings from which water drips and pours into a basin where two dolphins are swimming, their forms now almost obliterated by vegetation. This refers to Ovid's account of the destruction of mankind by flood. On either side of the Fountain of the Deluge is a pavilion with a loggia bearing the name and crayfish device of Cardinal Gambara. (The word for crayfish is gambero in Italian, and his crest is therefore a visual pun referring to his name.) Reinforcing the symbolism of the Deluge, small pipes installed beneath the eaves of the pavilions that frame the Fountain of the Deluge allowed suddenly released water to spurt from above like raindrops and drench the unsuspecting visitor, a practical joke in keeping with the humor of the day. Such water tricks—called giocchi d’aqua—were a popular feature in other Renaissance gardens.
Beyond the octagonal Fountain of the Dolphins, alluding to the destruction of the world by the Deluge as described by Ovid, a stepped ramp leads to the terrace below. A greatly elongated crawfish, its head and front claws emanating from the middle of the stairs at the top of the ramp and its rear claws hanging over top of the Fountain of the River Gods that stands on, forms a catena d'acqua, or water chain. Its linked curves both create and echo the movement of the swirling water that spills over the shallow shell-like basins set within it. Thus, out of the wreck of the Deluge, Cardinal Gambara is symbolically harnessing water for human welfare. The water spilling through the crayfish’s claws now refers to the Tiber and the Arno as it falls into the basin flanked by the two emblematic sculptures of the respective gods denoting these rivers.
Their cornucopias denote the fertility that water brings to the land, a fertility that is emphasized by the statues of Flora and Pomona standing in niches within the retaining wall near the base of the steps leading from the terrace above. In the middle of this terrace, which is framed by rows of plane trees, stands the Fountain of the Table. The stone table with its central water channel and bubbling jets provided Carninal Gambara and his guests with an experience similar to that of ancient Romans whose banqueting arrangements sometimes included pools upon which servants floated food.
The Fountain of Lights links the Cardinal’s dining terrace with the water theater below, a concentric construction of upper concave and lower convex steps. One hundred sixty small jets shoot upward from small lamps when the fountain is turned on, water pours from the sides of each step into a channel in the one below.
From the terrace of the Fountain of Lights, one gazes down upon a series of boxwood compartments framing a central water parterre.
Here, nature has been tamed by art. Cardinal Gambara’s original centerpiece of the island terrace, a water-oozing spire (meta sudans), was replaced in the seventeenth century by four bronze youths holding aloft Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto's device of three mountains and a star. The surrounding water parterre was meant to evoke an ancient naumachia, a flooded theater where mock naval battles were held. In each of its four ponds is a small stone boat holding stone arquebusiers. These were engineered to fire jets of water toward the central fountain.
Of course, this extraordinary garden should be experienced in a sensory as well as in a metaphysical manner, so after this lesson in the role of Renaissance humanism in landscape design, you should further explore Villa Lante and find a quiet spot to savor its simple pleasures of sun, shade, stone, and water.