Words by Carla Passino
Some, like the New York Times, call it a secret garden, because it is so hard to find. Others say it is a corner of English landscaping in the heart of Lazio. Gardener and author Charles Quest-Ritson, simply names it “the most romantic garden in Italy.”
And it is all true.
The historic garden at Ninfa is tucked away at the foot of Monti Lepini, south of Rome, among the ruins of a medieval village. Although it has belonged to an aristocratic Italian family, the Caetani, since 1298, it was heavily shaped by an Englishwoman, Ada Bootle Wilbraham, who, together with her sons Gelasio and Roffredo Caetani, set out to turn Ninfa into a romantic, rose-strewn English style garden.
Or rather, in Quest-Ritson’s words, into Italy’s “most beautiful and romantic garden.” Quest-Ritson was so smitten with Ninfa, which he visited when he wrote his 1992 book on English gardens abroad, that he thought it deserved a whole tome of its own. And so Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World came to be.
In his pages, Quest Ritson gives a historic, as well as a gardening account of Ninfa’s evolution. So the first chapter plunges us into the intricate, dangerous politics of the Italian Middle Ages, when Pope Boniface VIII - Dante Alighieri’s nemesis - seeked to aggrandize his family’s power by acquiring the strategic lands along the Via Pedemontana that linked Rome to Naples, and gifting them to his nephew, Pietro Caetani.
Boniface made many enemies, chief among all the French king Philip IV of France, who objected to the Pope’s claim of papal supremacy over temporal powers. The king won and, after Boniface’s death, this lead to the papal seat moving out of Rome into Avignon and to the schism within the Catholic Church. A side effect of all this was that the Ninfa holdings were repeatedly sacked both by enemies of the Caetani and, worse, by feuding branches of the family, which supported opposing popes during the schism. This eventually caused the town to be razed to the ground and burned in 1381. The devastation was such that Ninfa was never rebuilt, and more than 500 years later Prince Gelasio Caetani reported finding “an astounding quantity of human bones” when gardening.
Ninfa was forgotten for a long time, but the Caetani eventually returned to it in the 20th century when Duchess Ada, wife of the then Duke, Onorato, and two of their sons, Roffredo and Gelasio, decided to create an English style garden amid the ruins of the abandoned town.
Quest-Ritson retraces the story of the family as much as the planting - Leone, the Duke’s heir and a distinguished Islamist, who had an unfortunate marriage and eventually moved with his mistress to Canada, where was finally able to give his name to his illegitimate daughter; Livio, the diplomat who defended the Italian legation in Beijing (then Peking) during the Boxes revolution, and later became a soldier only to die by pneumonia in a hotel in Padua; Roffredo, an accomplished musician and the first Prince of the Caetani; and Gelasio, engineer, ambassador, senator and the foremost force behind the restoration of Ninfa, which he loved from an early age.
Roffredo’s wife, Marguerita Chapin, also played an important part in shaping the garden, which she envisioned as a “wild, unkempt landscape.” Botany was her passion and, writes Quest-Ritson, she had “the remarkable ability to shut herself off from others and concentrate on her work.” She lavished time and plants on Ninfa - only in June 1940, the year Italy entered the Second World War, she bought some 1,000 Russell lupins, 300 Dianthus barbatus and 250 Dianthus lacinatus.
But is was Lelia Caetani, Marguerite and Roffredo’s daughter, who made Ninfa the garden that it is today. She planted it, shaped it, even painted it (and drew landscaping inspiration from her own paintings).
Lelia shared with her uncle Gelasio “the desire for a garden that would grow up and create a degree of privacy” and with her mother the intensity and power to make her vision happen. She “set out to cultivate the image of a garden on the verge of collapse, of Nature just about to gain the upper hand – even though these appearances of naturalism were a carefully constructed illusion.”
The magnificent photographs in the book show just how well she succeeded.
Ninfa is a fascinating garden with an extraordinary history, and Quest Ritson’s book does them both justice. It makes for a great read whether you are interested in gardens or just riveted by the passions that moved one of Italy’s most notable families.
The garden at Ninfa is occasionally open to the public. For dates, see http://www.fondazionecaetani.org/visita_ninfa.php