The World at Villa Lante

We visited the gardens of Villa Lante, at Bagnaia on the 21st of September, on our way to Rome. It is laid out around two cassini, which were built by different owners, about thirty years apart. The first was built by Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara. This is the one on the right hand side in the image below, which is taken from a fresco within the casino itself. The second building and completion of the gardens was carried out by Cardinal Alessandro Peretti di Montalto, who was the nephew of Pope Sixtus V and only 17 when he succeeded Gambara. The arms of Gambara and Montalto can be seen all over the site – acorns for Montalto (they can be seen at the top of the fountain in the header image) , and lobsters for Gambara, which are much more interesting and worked into the water features of the garden in all sorts of creative ways.

The buildings and gardens are in the Mannerist style. This comes from ‘la maniera‘ or manners, and was defined by John Shearman as ‘the stylish style’. Mannerism developed in the post-High Renaissance. More on Mannerism later… I will focus this post on the garden and thought about nature during this period.

The fresco image below shows a plan of the layout of the garden. On the left, running between the casini and along this axis, is the formal garden, and on the right is the boschetto, or ‘little wood’. Much of the interest in the garden arises from the interplay between these two contrasting areas and the ideas they represent. In fact people during the period considered there to be three aspects of nature:

  • the untamed, wild, unused ‘wilderness’;
  • farmed and cultivated agricultural lands; and
  • the garden.

Where gardens have sometimes been seen as a triumph by humans over nature (perhaps influenced by Enlightenment thought), according to Dr Luke Morgan, during the sixteenth century gardens were viewed differently. Nature was regarded as God’s creation and intrinsically perfect. Gardens therefore were about revealing nature’s perfection or concealed order.  The parterre, with its regularity and order, it was thought, comes closest to achieving this. It is therefore the culminating ‘landscape’ within the Lante garden.



A garden was also thought of as a place for relaxation, refreshing the spirit and inspiration, closely linked with the arts. The tone for this is set at the entry of the garden (which is by the white gate, in the bottom right of the above plan. Beyond the gate is the Fountain of Pegasus (the round white area above the gate, or in the image below). Pegasus is depicted stamping his hoof on Mt Parnassus, the home of Apollo, and releasing the spring of inspiration. The fountain is flanked by the Muses. (Two pavilions flanking the Fountain of the Deluge, at the top of the formal garden are also called the ‘Houses of the Muses’.)

Fountain of Pegasus

After the fountain one is in the boschetto, the woodland area outside the formal garden. To climb gently up to the top of the formal garden, one would probably want to go through the boschetto, and doing so takes one through the garden in accordance with a schema derived from Ovid. In this, the boschetto represents an Edenic golden age, before the ‘fall’.

The boschuetto
Perhaps relics of a golden age in the boschetto?

After the boschetto one enters the formal garden at the top, in the background of the plan above. At this point the essential water source for the garden is brought into it, and it is demonstrated in the Fountain of the Deluge, within a grotto. The fountain represents the cleansing of the earth after the fall, and from there begins a process of reconstruction or striving towards the perfection of the earth that was lost.

Fountain of the Deluge
This is the second fountain, after the Fountain of the Deluge, which can be seen behind it, at least the wings of two pavilions (the Houses of the Muses) that enclose the grotto between them.


The next water feature is this ‘caffena d’acqua’ (I think), a water channel. Beautiful how the scrolls at the edges roll in the direction of back eddies.


The caffena delivers water to this fountain, flanked by immense river gods. You can see the claws of a ‘Gambara’ lobster at the top of the fountain, which are the culmination of the caffena.
The river gods watch over this unique garden accessory – a dining table complete with channel down which the dishes would be floated. It is the last point before the parterre and located just above the cassini, as you can see below.
Little fountain where the waters step down to the parterre.
Closer view of the parterre, its Fountain of Four Rivers, and the village and landscape beyond.
Looking back up from the Fountain of the Four Rivers, with Montalto acorns on top.
Mock naval battles are thought to have been fought in the fountain, perhaps represented by the boats.
Not all of the four ‘rivers’ are so clean…


And this is the way out…

But, before you go, these are some more of the frescos in the older casino. Notice the Gambara lobster again on the top left one, of Hercules and the Hydra I would say.

And this is a view of the town from above the gate. As you see, there’s a little castle too.

And of course, you know me, there’s always more, should you want to stick around a bit longer… The pictures are clickable, if you want to see them bigger.


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