Friday, January 27, 2012

A Wall Like No Other: Giardino Borghese

We're having quite a mild winter this year ... so far. This morning I even saw hellebore flowers emerging just outside the living room window at Federal Twist. This unusual climate is, in a way, worse than a winter of heavy snow and howling winds, which would be more appropriate and comforting. I can imagine the pleasure of a roaring fire with a nor'easter blowing outside, but these unnatural warm spells make me think even more longingly of spring. We on the Northeast coast of the US know spring won't really come until well into May.

So I'm diverting myself with memories of a spring visit in Italy almost a decade ago. And I'm finding some surprises.

I took these photos at the Borghese Gardens with my first digital camera. In looking through them, and doing a little Internet research, I discovered a garden device I've never been aware of before.

It's kind of like a three-dimensional, paradisaical, stand in for the conventional wall. A way to separate public from private space that's elegant, delightful, and gentle--no hurt feelings because you're being kept out.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese began the Villa Borghese (now Galleria Borghese) and gardens in 1605 as a kind of 17th century party palace, a villa suburbana on what was then the outskirts of Rome. His uncle was Pope Paul V, so he had status, money, good connections and, I imagine, many "friends." The building was designed more to display his artworks (he was a patron of Bernini) than as a residential retreat. He had many other residences for that purpose.

So it was intended as a kind of spectacle, a place for display of art, good taste, the prizes of wealth, and appropriately, a good deal of attention was given to creating a rather spectacular garden setting, something to dazzle the Roman glitterati of the early 17th century.

From very early in its history the public was allowed access to the front gardens of the villa, and that tradition became so well established it continued for centuries. But the other side of the villa was private. The Villa Borghese handles the difference between public and private in a beautiful way. To assure that privacy, linear gardens extended out from either side of the main villa. These were not open to the public, and they prevented access to the private, backside of the villa.

Your can see the layout--like a giant baton--below (courtesy of Google Earth), clearly separating the public side in the lower part of the photo from the private area in the upper half--a much more attractive solution than a garden wall.

To the right is the Garden of Bitter Oranges (Gardino dei Melangoli). The oranges are planted in pots, and at the time I was there--the end of April--they were swimming in a sea of irises. All the gardens immediately surrounding the house are still quite formal and geometric. Interestingly, the surrounding Borghese Gardens were redesigned in the "English" style from the 18th into the 19th century, and clearly imitate an English landscape garden, in contrast to the baroque gardens immediately around the villa.

Functioning like a startlingly ornate, three-dimensional garden wall, the Gardino dei Melangoli blocks public access to the back of the villa, which as you can see below, has no grand staircase, only a simple entrance for private use. Here too the garden is very formal, with box parterres planted with bulbs and annuals for seasonal flower display.

This private garden was also used for display of sculpture, though the grandest sculpture was safely housed inside, where it was protected from the elements.

This portion of the garden, which opens to the larger (now "English" style) garden beyond, is amply proportioned and has wide gravel pathways. The sense of open space on this cool, sunny day was heightened by the feeling of enclosure, awakening a sense of an ancient open glade amid a forest of trees. Quite a contrast to the rather fussy flower plantings of the parterre.

Then at the other end of the villa is another linear garden, which also functions to separate the public from the private sides. This baroque aviary or vivarium was designed by Girolamo Rainaldi. John Evelyn called it "an Elysium of delight" in 1644 and wrote that the vivarium housed ostriches, peacocks, swans and cranes "and divers strange Beasts."

This is the other side of the vivarium. A second one was built later further down from the villa.

These last photos show that view looking out and walking away from the villa proper into the English landscape garden.

And eventually the gardens, located on the Pincio Hill, end at the Spanish Steps, where visitors can reenter the busy urban life of Rome.

Of course, I'd like to take some kind of lesson away from this, something that might further the development of my little garden in Brooklyn (not so far fetched; I recall seeing a brand of chewing gum in Italy with the name Brooklyn Bridge!). I suppose my lesson is that enclosure can actually create a sense of space by calling attention to its limits.

(I should credit Wikipedia for much of the historical information in this post, and for calling 
my attention to the public and private aspects of the original Villa Borghese.)


  1. I think if I were going to start another blog, I would call it "Garden of Bitter Oranges." Beautiful photos. Rome was just amazing to me.

    1. Great idea, Cindy. What an evocative name. I might have pots of them in my garden if I had a way to get them through the winter.

  2. I feel I could spend a lifetime in Italy, James, and only begin to get to know it. I don't know if you've seen 'Monty Don's Italian Gardens' (BBC) - a truly stunning series that opened my eyes considerably. The Italians can have such verve and flourish, and their gardens can be unexpectedly peaceful and naturalistic. They can also be hugely ornate, and I have to say I find some of the very controlled spaces above, with their insistent white statuary and their frilly little bits of garden, too much to take - they are more ugly to me, than beautiful. Nonetheless, you must have had a wow of a time, and I cannot tire of seeing pictures such as these...I especially love the shots of Giardino dei Melangoli.

  3. Not my kind of garden, either, Faisal, but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the visit. Of course, the coolness of the day and that indescribable Italian sunlight seem to create an elevated sense of pleasure in almost anything. There's so much history and tradition in that place, I can't imagine a different kind of planting there.

  4. Beautiful pictures, James. Those orange trees growing up out of the iris were pretty spectacular. I could almost feel the sunshine on my skin and smell the citrus in the air. Thanks for the tour!

    1. Though the photos were taken almost ten years ago, I can still see that brilliant sunlight. Such a wonderful place...

  5. How lovely thanks for sharing. I hadnt realised there was such a large and beautiful garden in the centre of Rome. The next time I go I shall look out for it,

    I think the irises are wonderful planted en masse like that. It just shows that Italian formal gardens are all green and gravel!

    1. It's the second largest park in Rome, and in many visits, this is my first time to see it. I've barely touched the depths of Italian gardens, but the world is so large, and there's so little time to see it, not to mention the cost.

  6. Citrus in terracotta pots, santolina and blue irises - that'll be Italy then, or southern France. Beautiful.

    Faisal mentioned Monty Don's Italian Gardens. Great series from the BBC, reccommended if you can get a copy of it, Don's presenting style is so listenable, there's also a book by the same name.

    There's something about the light alright. I wonder, perhaps it's air quality, but in Rome???

  7. We can't see any BBC over here. Nothing they broadcast can be viewed in the US for some reason. I'll see if my library can get it.

    I guess it's a cliche to talk about the light in Italy, but it's certainly real and memorable. I would think you have the same in the Dordogne, don't you?

    Many people dislike Rome because it's a big, noisy city. I could stay there forever. Perhaps some day we can do an apartment exchange with a Roman.



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