The Roman villa

One interesting architectural phenomenon in Italy is the Villa.  Our class had the privilege of visiting several different villas in the first month of our stay in Rome.  Having worked in a greenhouse half my life and having parents who are amazing gardeners, I can appreciate the impact that vegetation can have on a space.

That didn’t even prepare me for the gardens of these villas.  What beauty in symmetry and iconography!  What a sinuous flow between architecture and nature!  What control and precision of something as difficult to command as water!

The Villa D’Este in Tivoli

What struck me most about this villa was the loggia (the gallery at the back of the house facing the gardens), and the passage through the gardens.  The villa was high up on a hill and the garden went down in stepped terraces from the back loggia eventually leading to a gate connecting to the street.  From the loggia one can see a sweeping view of the gardens and the horizon beyond.  The paths through the garden are juxtaposed and designed in such a way to give very specific character and views to each area.  There are areas where one gets a straight view but no access, areas where there is a straight view and direct access, there are private cloisters where all one sees is a huge central fountain embedded in a wall, areas where paths wander, areas of sweeping traversal views, and the list goes on.  The amount of water used in the gardens is also astounding.  It is literally present in every corner of the garden and is constantly moving.  To  supply the fountains water was diverted from the ‘Aniene’ river about a kilometer away, brought into a cistern beneath the courtyard and channeled through what must be a very complex hydrological system to each and every fountain.

The Villa Farnese in Caprarola

In the case of this Villa it was the building more than the gardens that drew me in.  The original structure of the building was constructed to be a fortified castle and for that reason the plan became pentagonal in shape.  When the role of the building changed from a fortification into that of a villa, the architect Vignola masterfully followed the shape of the old foundations.  The movement through the rooms of the villa is like poetry.  We began in the summer apartments whose walls and ceilings portrayed paintings of significant events of the time and activities of the Farnese family, and moved to the winter apartments which portrayed religious scenes and geography.  A separate summer and winter garden serve each wing connected by drawbridges, and a beautifully proportioned circular courtyard lies at the center of the plan.  There was outside the main villa a series of outer gardens that lead to a small summer house or ‘casino’.

The Villa Lante in Bagnaia

The Villa Lante was all about the garden.  The villa itself was even split in two ‘casinos’ or ‘houses’ with the garden traversing between them.  This garden was all about a path of water that flowed from one end of the site to the other, often the water physically being channeled from one fountain to the next.  I found myself tracing the connections and details between each one.  There was such a beautiful play with the water and each fountain almost represented a different quality of water by the way it was handled.  Some fountains fanned it, some shot it straight up, some surprised the passer-by and got them wet, some were almost perfectly still, some channeled it and showed its speed and power.  Then at the vary bottom of the hill the water terminated at a majestic fountain and pool that stood directly below the villa in front of the main gate.  What a flaunting of prestige this must have been!

I will never quite look at a garden, a hedge, or a pool of water in the same way.

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