Posts Tagged ‘Villa Madama’

Sometimes the most poignant qualities of a site come not from what is actually there, but from what is connected to it, through time and space, by our recollections and hopes.

The Poetics of Gardens

It is all too easy to think of gardens as consisting simply of physical stuff — of plants and paths, walls and terraces.

But increasingly landscape historians are focusing not on the fabric of a historic garden, but on its essence. Some call this value, or genius loci, or sense of place, or character; Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter talks about atmosphere or spirit. I’d define it as the distinctive elements that make a garden special.

Recently I undertook a piece of research on the impact of sustainable practices on the character of historic gardens. As part of this, I sought to identify the essence of four gardens over time — using archives, memoirs, descriptions, images, surveys and interviews.

As you might expect, I learnt that the creation of character in gardens is complex. It does not come simply or quickly from the choice of plants or other materials, or just from the way the garden looks, and it develops through the engagement and appreciation of visitors over time. In my research, I found that a sense of place had been created variously by memories and stories about a garden’s history, by the experience of movement and change, by contrasts and context, by views, by perceptions of refuge or dominion, by sensory qualities (touch, sound, smell), and by an understanding of the garden’s importance and influence. It became clear to me that a sense of place is possible to preserve, despite deliberate change, as can be seen at Great Dixter, and possible to damage — for instance, with the seemingly innocuous substitution of a single tree species at New York’s Lincoln Center. The research left me optimistic that even major, unexpected events and significant alterations to fabric need not destroy a historic garden’s essence.View of gardenOne of the case studies in my research was Vaux le Vicomte, the extraordinary Le Nôtre garden southeast of Paris. Created in the mid-1600s, it was a garden full of wonders and pleasure, launched by its owner (the financial secretary to the king) at a spectacular fête that was to lead directly to his downfall and disgrace. My research showed how visitors can still feel the resonance of the single day in 1661 on which the estate became a legend, all the developments and intrigue that led to the fête, and the political and cultural repercussions that have flowed from it down the centuries. Still strong is the memory of the ambivalent figure of its first owner—misrepresented hero or scurrilous villain—and the myth-making that surrounded him. People also consistently recognise Vaux, not just as a great illustration of the genius of André Le Nôtre, but as the first example of his work, the kernel that went on to produce Versailles and that extraordinary array of classical gardens that so influenced garden-making across Europe.

It was surprisingly easy for me to trace over time the essential components that define the character of this garden: elements of surprise and delight, a powerful feeling of movement, of being drawn though contrasting experiences, a sense of mastery imposed upon the landscape, with its grand views and prospects providing a sense of dominion and power. Yet there is also a strong perception of informality and playfulness among all the geometry, a sense of the heroic, swashbuckling, almost preposterous magic of the place.

Gardening Gone Wild is currently running a photo competition for images that capture the spirit of a garden. It is difficult to imagine one photograph that sums up the essence of Vaux le Vicomte. My image here expresses something of the garden’s dominion over nature: see how the trees on both sides are kept pinned back by the tightly clipped hedges; how the grand terraces are imposed on the undulating land. The photograph also shows something of the wondrous beauty of the garden, with its restrained palette of cream, green, grey and twinkling pale blue, the vastness and geometry of its layout, the perfect relationship between house and garden. But no photo can capture the delight and surprise of moving through this garden, with its almost mischievous changes of perspective and sudden introductions of sounds and sensations. Nor can an image give any sense of the legends and stories that have always swirled around Vaux le Vicomte.

It is hard to think how any photograph might capture a garden’s essence, given that—as my research showed—atmosphere comes not just from visual impact, but from other sensory qualities, from knowledge and feelings, from memories and associations. Looking through images of the many gardens I have visited, I could only find one shot that came close to expressing the atmosphere of a place. It was a photograph of the Villa Madama near Rome, a magical garden I have written about elsewhere in this blog. The image shows something of the early Renaissance style of the garden, with its terraces, water features and little putti statues. But the viewpoint is unusual, with the photograph taken from behind the water feature, as if I was an interloper in this venerable space. And the moss, quiet light and signs of rain on the water’s surface express something of the yearning melancholy of the garden, long abandoned and abused, and now only partly reclaimed. The photograph reminds me vividly, viscerally of my experience of being there.

French garden philosopher Jean-Pierre Le Dantec argues that we should stop ‘embalming’ historic gardens in the bandages of traditional conservation. We should cease the relentless conservation and recreation of physical fabric, and instead let them erode gently into oblivion—their essence perpetuated only in our daydreams, as Vaux le Vicomte and the Villa Madama are in mine…

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TerraceWe were recently fortunate to visit the glorious sixteenth century Villa Madama, just north of Rome. Designed by Raphael, it was one of the finest Renaissance villas with its classically simple façade, vast windows and monumental courtyard. Inside are beautiful stuccoes, friezes and painted lacunar ceilings by various Italian masters, including (it is said) Raphael himself.

raphael loggia

Villa Madama

painting of Margaret of Austria from bildindex.de

The history of the place features two extraordinary women. The first was Margaret of Austria (1522-86), the ‘madama’ after whom the Villa is named. The bastard daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Margaret was engaged at age 5 and married at 10 to Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, illegitimate son of a Pope and a black servant. It was through him that Margaret became mistress of the sumptuous villa created for his father, Pope Clement VII. After the Duke was assassinated in a foolish tryst with another woman, Margaret married Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma, himself the grandson of another Pope. Only 13 when they married, the bridegroom was apparently overawed by his experienced, older wife (she was all of 15) and there are tales of dramatic bed-wetting and general reluctance to consummate the marriage. But Margaret managed to turn their union into a happy one, and later demonstrated her intellectual and diplomatic skills when she was appointed as Governor of the Netherlands for eight years.


Photo of a dilapidated Villa Madama from “Romance of Roman Villas” by Elizabeth Williams Champney, published 1908.

After Margaret’s death, the Villa passed to the Farnese family and then to the kings of Naples. It gradually fell into disrepair and was for a time used as a farm, with animals herded into Raphael’s exquisite loggia.

Henry James visited in 1873 and wrote “The place has become the shabbiest farmhouse, with muddy water in the old pièces d’eau and dunghills on the old parterres…. Margaret Farnese was the lady of the house, but where she trailed her cloth of gold the chickens now scamper between your legs over rotten straw.”

Villa Madama

Photo of Dorothy with Gary Cooper, from themave.com

The second woman prominent in Villa Madama’s history is the American socialite and heiress Dorothy Caldwell-Taylor (1888-1954). Impossibly rich, stylish and flamboyant (and by some accounts a spy), her many lovers included Hollywood film star Gary Cooper and gangster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. Her first, brief marriage was to British aviator Claude Grahame-White. Subsequently she wed the Italian Count Carlo Dentice di Frasso, very much her senior, and in the 1920s used some of her inheritance to purchase and restore Villa Madama, using plans by Marcello Piacentini. In 1929, socialite and garden designer Norah Lindsay (best known perhaps for her work with Lawrence Johnston at Hidcote Manor) was commissioned by the Di Frassos to add herbaceous garden plantings to the garden. For many years Countess Dorothy threw lavish parties at the restored Villa for her friends from Hollywood and the Italian royalty, before it was appropriated by Mussolini in the early stages of World War II. Today it is used by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive foreign dignitaries, and is not usually open to the public.
Giulio Romano ceiling

The gardens today

The grounds are a shadow of the original plans for the Villa. Raphael had originally intended there to be a vast series of terraces running down from the Monte Mario to the banks of the Tiber, but geological instability, a lack of sufficient funds and the 1527 sack of Rome curtailed the scope of the project. More was lost when the estate fell into decline in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while Mussolini appropriated the estate’s hippodrome as the site for the Fascist Stadio Olimpico.

GardenOn our recent visit, we entered the estate via a switchback road that gave a glimpse of the east side of the building and the car park that has subsumed one of the original garden terraces, before bringing us to the curved south entrance. Having admired the staggeringly beautiful painted ceilings inside the Villa, we entered the garden terrace adjacent to the loggia. This was green and dramatic, with tall, clipped box parterres, ivy covered walls, a rectangular stone water feature, and The Giants, a pair of sculptures by Bandinelli that stand either side of the gate through to the rustic garden. From the east side of the terrace, there were fine views over the river Tiber below.

Elephant tombThis area contains perhaps the garden’s best known feature, the curious Raphael-designed elephant tomb, which commemorates Annone, an Indian elephant given to the Pope by the King of Portugal in 1514.

While the parterres are an early twentieth century design, the essential layout of the terrace remains as it was in the time of Margaret of Austria, and the fountain, stone portico and vast plaster figures are all original features.

Through the gate, we entered the rustic garden, which is long and narrow, with simple box-edged beds in grass.

Villa Madama paeoniesIt is clearly a restoration work-in-progress, with stonework being cleaned and rebuilt. There were some simply-planted pots and urns, and the overgrown cypress was being (re-)trained into attractive arched screens. Near the circular end were some paeonies in flower among the box.

It was lush and pleasant rather than being spectacular, but there was a sense of this part of the garden being gradually recovered and re-used.

Madama water featureAt the end of this walk, we were led down a small path to the left, where the source of the gardens’ water emerges from a handsome stone grotto. This little valley among the trees is marked by a charming rectangular pond, and a further, rather overgrown, water feature with six playful stone putti. Often associated with amorous liaisons, these little figures seemed a fitting symbol of the history of the Villa.

There was much we did not see, and some we did not understand (we speak English and some French; our guide spoke Italian and some Spanish) but we still felt the palpable history and splendour of this place.

Madama putti

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