Wednesday, June 05, 2013
Ninfa: the most romantic garden in the world
My excuse for writing about the garden at Ninfa – which I was lucky enough to visit last week – is that it’s been called the most romantic garden in the world. It may well be true; I found it magical.
It wasn’t always so; Ninfa’s early history is violent and bloody. It’s first recorded in 750 AD when the Byzantine emperor Constantine V gave it to Pope Zacharias. It was strategically important in controlling the Appian Way and the coastal plain, which made it a target for 9th century Arab invaders. Subsequent popes fortified it and, by the middle ages, it was a walled city with towers, churches, and a castle. Two popes were crowned there: Pope Alexander III and the Anti-Pope Victor IV. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa sacked it in 1171.
When the Arab threat receded, Ninfa changed hands again and was owned by a succession of powerful Roman families. Eventually, in 1298, it was bought by the Caetani. They were a quarrelsome lot and in 1382 a family feud led to a war which virtually destroyed the city. Somehow, it stumbled on for another two and a half centuries but, in 1680, it was abandoned, fell into ruin and was soon lost amid the vegetation.
Fast forward to 1920 when Gelasio Caetani decided to turn the ruined city into a garden. He began by restoring the castle and stripping excess vegetation from the half tumbled-down city walls, churches, and numerous towers built by various wealthy families. He rebuilt them just enough to make them safe, leaving them as romantic ruins and a haven for wild life.