The Landscape Guide

Frascati villas

The town villas of Rome in the sixteenth century always suffered from the disadvantage of not having room to expand in the way the grand style needs. Churches, town walls, old streets, even antique foundations, had to be considered, and it required a man with the impulsive determination of Sixtus V. to subordinate all these elements to his great garden plan. “ If you want to see anything really wonderful, go out of Rome to Tusculum (now Frascati) “: so says the handbook of Sprenger, of Frankfort. The modem Roman had rediscovered the much-praised Tusculum, where Cicero loved to stay, with its mountain slopes full of lofty vegetation and unsurpassed water, with its beautiful views of Rome and the sea. He wished to escape thither from the dust and turmoil of the great city.

It was in the second half of the seventeenth century that Sprenger visited the villas and wrote about them. Frascati must at that time have given a lovely picture, even surpassing antiquity; for from one drawing we get a comprehensive bird’s-eye view of the place. All the villas that exist to-day, though for the most part spoiled and even ruined so far as gardens are concerned, were then there in all their beauty, but mature enough to display their utmost charm both in nature and art. The oldest sites belong to the sixteenth century; but some of them, such as Villa Falconieri (called La Rufina) (Fig. 240) and the present Villa Lancelotti, were so rebuilt in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that their present condition really belongs to the latest period, both house and garden.

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Thus in all essentials the villas at Frascati belong to the first half of the seventeenth century. Here we see, even more markedly than in Roman palaces and gardens, the pride and magnificence of the Popes’ nephews at the time of the Counter-Reformation. Most of the villas were built during the reign of the Popes, and we ought to realise that at this period the garden stood next to church architecture as leader of the arts.

The town palaces in Rome were imposing for their size from the very first decades of the seventeenth century, but they became ever more and more uniform, alike in the whole and in details. Indeed there is an inexhaustible abundance of detail of the most various kinds both in the garden itself and in the decoration of the buildings, and the sculpture of the Baroque period and style grew to what it was in the garden. There is doubtless in indoor life a certain exaggeration, and also a certain oppressiveness and wean- ness. But when we get into the open air, and find ourselves allied with that world of nature which is treated more and more as the beautiful green background of the whole, the art of picturesque expression no longer offers us what is wearisome or discordant, but brings to us a feeling of wide spaces and the glowing brilliant colours of an Italian sky.

Among the villas of Frascati, Villa Aldobrandini (Fig. 241) is unquestionably the first, showing as it does the finest skill of the time in full flower.

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Taken as a whole, it is the most beautiful, and has served as a model for many others. It may be regarded as villa urbana in the ancient meaning of the term. Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, the powerful nephew of Clement VIII., had a garden on perhaps a villa in the town on the slope of Monte Cavallo, which is still in existence, though hard pressed by an ever-growing region. This garden, of no intrinsic importance, became notorious because a copy of a very famous Greek painting was discovered there, the so-called Aldobrandini Wedding. It was found in a cellar, and the cardinal had it taken up and placed in the dining-room with a wooden porch to protect it. There it was seen in 1625 by the Spanish ambassador and connoisseur, the Duke of Alcalá, who had a copy made for his own house, Casa de Pilato, in Seville. [See note on historic garden weddings]

When, in 1598, the cardinal decided to build a villa at Frascati, he was at the height of his power. The dukedom of Ferrara had just come into the hands of the Church as an inheritance from Lucrezia, the sister of the last legitimate duke; and the cardinal looked on this event as a triumph for the papal chair, as a pledge of peace that he gave to Christendom, and felt that he could not celebrate it better than by founding the superb villa at Frascati with part of the wealth that had come to his share. This is explained in a Latin inscription over the semicircle of the theatre. The likeness of the cardinal in bronze still stands on the chimney-piece of the banqueting-hall, which runs the whole width of the building and opens on both façades. His face is short, bearded, with an expression of great power and energy, but with a benevolent look also.

The cardinal employed Giacomo della Porta, a pupil of Michaelangelo—an architect who here began his last work and continued it until his death in 1604. The actual house of the Villa Aldobrandini (Fig. 242) is not one of the largest at Frascati; its width is imposing, but there is very little depth.

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These country villas have quite a different importance from that of the casini in the town; for weeks and even months at a time they were continually putting up a host of people. But not wishing to make the place look too heavy, the owner decided to use the grand terraces which extended in front of the house towards the city, and at the sides also, as domestic rooms underneath the building. The kitchen chimneys, which of course had to be close to the house, were relegated to the end of the side terraces, and there treated as ornamental turrets.

The sine qua non for a country villa at that time seems to have been the covering and concealing of all that was not really necessary, for fear anything should mar the picture of the whole place, which must be perfect. The large tract of land given up to farm produce and the kitchen-garden was planted round with hedges cut to above the height of a man, so that anyone walking or even driving with carriage and horses would fancy he was in a pleasure-park and never suspect that there were olives, vines, vegetables, nay, even cornfields, behind. These avenues were well stocked with statues, fountains, and other ornaments, consequently the eye need never weary of long stretches.

Goethe himself is surprised at the householder’s wisdom that he finds in Southerners, who do not, as Northerners do, he says, “ waste a huge expanse of good land in a park which flatters the eye with bushes and trees that are quite unproductive.” Thus we find in front of Villa Aldobrandini and between the entrance and the city, an important tract of country that was certainly at one time used for cultivated plants. It is shut in by a wall in front, made both strong and pretty by a border of stone and wrought iron. At the central door, according to Specchi’s plan, there ascends a wide path with thick straight- cut laurels, protecting the pedestrian from the sun and even from the rain. On the right and left there are avenues of firs with hedges that cross the farm region. The drawing gives an entirely festive appearance to the villa from the town side, and the stairway at the end of the middle path reminds one of Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola, though this site is better and more cheerful. The stairs are gay with oranges in pots and with fountains (Fig. 243),

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and these are also found on the terrace balustrades at the side of the house. In the middle axis as well as at the sides there are grottoes in the dividing walls with pretty water-works and fountains. The house on this side has only a sober, rather plain façade; and though the interrupted gable ought to make it more interesting, the effect is ugly.

The whole front relies on the approach, and the value of the picture is enhanced by two dark clumps of oak severely cut back on both sides of the upper terrace; here the oaks and firs do much to help out the architecture. A sunk parterre for flowers is at the side of one clump, but it is hidden away, perhaps as the only irregular feature; and a pretty ship fountain—a favourite fancy since the copy of the antique ship was set up before the Navicella—is in the central place between avenues of arching foliage (Fig. 244). The house loses one story on the hillside, so that the great reception-room with its balcony on the first floor opens on a most lovely distant view from over the little town towards

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Rome, covering the Tiber Valley as far as the sea, If one walks through the room an unexpected fairy-like view appears on the other side of the door. There is a level, semi- circular space, to which one goes down by a few steps cut into the mountain-side.

The division wall which seems to support the hill shows a row of pillars and niches, and between them grotto-rooms which are full of the familiar water devices. In the middle stands Atlas, holding the world on his back, and on each side of this fountain-piece is a ribbon with the usual inscription. A star—the family device—pours water at the top of the balustrade from its tips, and from above there plunges foaming down over wide stairs a flood from a still higher terrace, where at the side two columns stand, from each of which a single stream rises, falling again in spiral fashion round the columns and thence to the balustrade that borders the water stairway. Then, glittering in many greater and smaller cascades, the water at last seems lost in the thick growth. If one mounts from the semicircular theatre (Fig. 245)

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Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


to the terrace where it is interrupted by the wide stream of the water stairway (Fig. 246), one stands opposite to the garden façade with the gay loggia in the uppermost story. The path leads to the next terrace by the side of the stairs, and the water is connected by a fountain of tufa, and plunges in a wide current over a wall which is ornamented with niches at both sides and with figures of peasants (Fig. 247). Finally, on the highest terrace of all, a natural grotto made of tufa receives the water in cascades, after it has been conveyed for six miles underground.

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In this water system has been brought to pass what has been tentatively aimed at for long enough. From the first timid beginnings, as Bembo describes them in his Asolani, by way of the pleasant essays in Villa Lante we have come to this proud conclusion, which men of that age (who saw the streams and fountains in their undiminished force) gazed at with astonishment and rapture. This water is bordered by lofty hedges, and it seems as though from the very beginning these were made out of the dense selvaggio, which was traversed by straight formal paths, even when the hedges were not actually clipped. Moreover, in certain places there do appear to be signs of box clipped into various shapes. The idea of rising above fancies and follies to a simpler form of fountain has now been actually expressed. Following the two figures of peasants on the last terrace but one, we arrive at a fontana rustica (Fig. 248) at the top, and yet we find, until we come to the obviously “natural” forms and the close thicket in the woods, that there is a very severe style of sym metry for the buildings, the water arrangements, and the laying out of paths.

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We must once again emphasise the fact that, in spite of the use of such expressions as selvaggio, fontana rustica, or fontana di natura, everything in the Italian garden is subjugated to the firm feeling for architectural style, and that it is only much later that influences quite foreign to the Italian spirit caused the great change and even revolution to the style of the picturesque. Among the architects of this garden Domenico Fontana is named first, and one would like (after his leadership at Villa Montalto) to ascribe this place to him; but as a fact in these villas (whose speedy completion was a necessity for a nephew) there was generally a whole staff of architects employed, whose chief would probably be the architect at the palace, with several others looking after the irrigation, or the water devices and games—the grottoes, and the like.

In addition to the Villa Aldobrandini, the Villa Ludovisi, later called Conti, and now Villa Torlonia, was particularly noticed by the copperplate engravers of the seventeenth century. This villa came into existence after the year 1621, but as it is in its chief features

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an imitation of Villa Aldobrandini, it may very well be put along with it. The construction of the water-stairs (Fig. 249) above the wall ornamented with niches (which is not semi- circular in this case but straight) reminds one of the Villa Aldobrandini, though the details are simpler in the working out. The ground above the stairs is level, and has a large oval basin and fountains with well-made balustrades, and other water playing on them

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Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


(Fig. 250 and Fig. 251), None of this water arrangement is in the axial line of the house, but at the side of it in the park, and goes down by steps that are impressive and good to look at, but perhaps too large to suit well with the whole picture.

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The house stands separately in a garden terrace with fountains (Fig. 252), scarcely at all connected with the park: seclusion like that of Villa Aldobrandini is here attained only in this one way. The Villa Lancelotti, has taken the idea of the semicircular theatre without being able to imitate the water scheme. The whole place was evidently of a late erection, and only began with the rebuilding of the palace in the eighteenth century, for the architectural detail shows an unmistakable classical leaning (Fig. 253).

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Many charming spots are to be found in the small villas, each of which has its individual attractions. The garden of the Villa Muti seems to have undergone many changes, unless the general sketch we have is very incorrect. There is a plan in the house, unfortunately undated, of the garden in existence when it was made; its chief beauty lies in the pretty arrangement of terraces and steps, but there is no union of the parts to make one comprehensive whole. There is a charm almost fairylike about

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the look of the plants which have outgrown all training (Fig. 254). The lovely avenues of oak that cross the farm-land, with an olive plantation behind, show most happily the success of these rows of fine trees with their border of hedge in concealing what lies within.

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Yet another of the small type of villa may be mentioned, Belpoggio, now called Villa Pallavicini, for the place, still very attractive, is quite recognisable from the Rossi drawing. The house stands on a wide terrace (Fig. 255) with grottoes round, and is approached by a fine avenue. There are four fountains, and the symmetry is helped by two avenues of oak-trees, one on either side. Severe formality is shown in the continuation to other garden terraces, fountains in the axial line, overarching paths round and through the lowest terrace, and pavilions in the centre and at the entrance.

Villa Mondragone is by far the largest of the villas at Frascati, As early as 1567 Cardinal Marco Sitico Altemps (Marx Sitich von Hohenems) had a villa built by Martino Lunghi, but it seems to have been a very modest affair, and it first reached its present size and importance under Scipio Borghese, the powerful cardinal nephew of Paul V. The Altemps family exchanged this villa for the Palazzo Rospigliosi on the Quirinal, where even a short time before there had been very important ruins, acquired by Scipio Borghese, of the Baths of Constantine, To a man of vigorous nature, in an age of vigorous activities, such ruins were only tiresome obstacles, and he had them all cleared away, and on the top built palace, casino and garden. But scarcely was finished when he was attracted by other schemes, and he exchanged his villa on the Quirinal for the Villa Mondragone.

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A whole army of architects (always at the service of the Borghesi), Ponzio, Vasancio, Girolamo Rainaldi, Giovanni Fontana, were now summoned to make out of a little summer-house the gigantic structure with its 366 windows. In front of the house lies a terrace of enormous dimensions (3 in Fig. 256), which is really only (as at Aldobrandini) a roof for the kitchen department below, and is similarly furnished with chimneys to suit the style. The three-shelled dragon fountain stood on the central semicircular projection, where the double coat of arms of the family was held in place by four eagles above and four dragons below. From the terrace the farm is visible, traversed by avenues (1 and 2) which were once decked with very fine statues and fountains. The cypress avenue, now majestic in its age, leads to the chief entrance, and semicircular stairs enclose the end of a space immediately in front of the terrace. On the notion of the semicircle the whole of the Villa Mondragone is conceived. If one walks through the great court (6) behind the palace, which on the right hand has as a sort of winter gallery a small low building, and on the left is separated only by a wall from the flower- garden, one proceeds by way of arcades into an amphitheatre (2) cut deeply into the hillside, which rises imposingly to the view. But east of the great court, and quite shut in, there is a charming flower-garden (9 and 10), and this also ends in a semicircular theatre (Fig. 257), raised on a terrace.

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This feature shows, with niches cut deep for the sake of the perspective, the very clear connection that obtains between the garden scheme so often used at Frascati and a permanent theatre decoration. It was not long since Palladio’s Olympic Theatre was finished, a work much admired for its perspective; and all over Italy the larger towns were beginning to build great theatres. To be sure, these garden sites can hardly have been used for festival plays. The want of seats for spectators is against it, and there was generally a fountain in the middle, which would interfere with any performance. The garden theatre proper we shall soon be able to distinguish by its side-scenes cut in the greenery. In Mondragone there is also a fountain in the middle of the terrace, and water-tricks concealed all about, Steps lead down to the garden by the dividing wall, which is adorned with mosaic and graffiti, the middle marked out with niches. The garden is divided into rectangular beds with box hedges and fountains, and shut in at the side by high walls with round niches and busts on the top, the lower part hidden by hedges. The north end is made by a grand loggia (8) which is certainly Vignola’s work: nothing is left of it but the empty wreck of the garden. In the bare unplanted court pupils of the Jesuits in their ugly clothes now play about, utterly careless of the beauty that was there before them.

But great as was this house and garden, the love of building and the pride of the Borghesi could not be satisfied with Mondragone. Cardinal Scipio bought another place almost as large close by, and built a palace for his sister, no doubt simpler, but still so richly furnished that Lalande in the eighteenth century thought it was the best of them all. Both these villas are poor in the matter of water. The Borghesi, strangely enough, had always confined themselves to making beautiful special fountains, and paid no attention to the general water scheme. Villa Borghese is in strong contrast to Aldobrandini and Mondragone, being laid out in a peculiar, personal sort of way, and possibly the lady whose home it was to be preferred it so. The place, with three wings, enclosed at the back a sunk court with a remarkable nest of grottoes and stairways. At the back was a semicircular bit, originally, as Rossi’s drawing shows, a theatre like those in the other villas at Frascati. In the middle a pretty avenue leads up to the hill. Everything here is so blurred and perished that a general impression, with no picture to support it, cannot be obtained. On the other hand, the terraces on both sides of the wing in front are preserved. These are at the height of the first story as at Montalto, and lie above the porticoes like a hanging garden, the inner courts being enclosed by them.

There were always flower-beds here, as there are to-day, and also orange-trees. As flower-garden there is a well-kept giardino secreto now extant in bordered beds at the side of the villa; an octagonal basin with hedges cut to the same height, and seats, and a pergola shading the main walk and now overrun with glycine (wistaria); all these make the picture attractive and homelike, At this villa also avenues traverse the whole of the farm domain, mostly planted with oaks, which have in parts kept their connecting hedges, and accompany the visitor from the entrance gates up to the palace. The two estates were united by the Borghesi with avenues and thickets contiguous to each other, so that both combined to form one great place, the greatest of its time. This was entirely to the taste of the family, who above all things desired to make an impression of greatness and power. Their activity in Frascati was only an offshoot of what they did in Rome.