The main reason I travelled to Viterbo was to visit the Villa Lante in nearby Bagnaia. I first read about it in Monty Don’s Great Gardens of Italy book, and it sounded enticing. It was commissioned by Cardinal Gambara in the mid- sixteenth century while he was Bishop of Viterbo, and Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, the architect of Palazzo Farnese di Caprarola, is presumed to be its designer. Many books and web sites describe it as a “garden of surprise”, and I certainly had several surprises as I explored it!
When I walked through the gateways into the villa, I first saw a statue of Pegasus, the winged stallion from Greek mythology. He is standing in a large semi-circular pool surrounded by muses who are jutting water from their mouths. This made me feel like I was entering a sort of mythical world.
In Monty Don’s book, he says ideally you would have started a walk through the gardens from the top to the bottom, but I was shown it in reverse. I started at the ground level, where box hedges sculpted into ornate patterns surround the “Fountain of the Moors”.
This first garden stands in front of the ground floor arcades and loggias of two houses, or casini. These arcades are covered in pretty frescoes and grotesque-style decorations. Some of the paintings depict scenes of hunting, a pastime the cardinals were fond of. Cherubs and angels cover the ceilings.
I was able to peek into one of houses, the Casino built by Cardinal Alessandro Peretti di Montalto after the death of Gambara. It has more wonderful frescoes inside, many depicting the lion symbol of Viterbo. My guide told me the house and the gardens are often used as the setting for films about the Vatican, because of the similarities to the Vatican gardens.
In front of this was a long stone table with a canal of water flowing through its centre, where my guide said cardinals used to dine al fresco. Apparently the water served to keep wine bottles and other food and drinks cool. Foreign ministers from the European Union also enjoyed an outside meal here in recent years.
After going up the steps past the giants, I came across the “water chain”. You can walk up further alongside this feature and watch the water gush through. I think this is the part I would have liked the most when I was a child.
At the top of the chain you pass the “Fountain of the Dolphins” which is quite a heavy and dark fountain, not one of my favourites. Behind it you come to a grotto-like feature, full of green algae, which is flanked by two pretty summer houses, one of which contains faded frescoes.
My favourite “surprises” in the Villa Lante were the funny gargoyle faces I spotted on stone vases perched on the walls in the gardens. They were all different, and added to the mystical feel of the place. I think it would be a great day out for imaginative children.
After you’ve enjoyed the gardens, you can stroll into Bagnaia, and have a cappuccino and biscuits or lunch in Il Borgo restaurant. There is also a castle, and a church dedicated to Sant’ Antonio Abate, a saint the town holds a big festival for in January, when they light a “sacred fire” in the central square. Local Viterbo bus 6 goes to and from Bagnaia relatively frequently and Cotral buses also pass every so often, for when you are ready to head back.