The land at Bagnaia that became the Villa Lante was developed in stages in the 16th century by a succession of the Cardinals of Viterbo. Bagnaia, which was only three miles away from Viterbo, had been allocated for use by the Viterbo cardinals since the 13th century.
The conception in 1498 of building a hunting preserve at Bagnaia dates to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, whose grandmother Bianca was a member of the Rovere family and the sister of Pope Sixtus IV. In 1514, Raffaele's nephew, Cardinal Ottavio Riario, built a wall around a 54-acre tract, and sometime before 1523, he or his nephew, Ottaviano Visconti Riario, added a hunting lodge.
Cardinal Niccolò Ridolfi, the next Cardinal of Viterbo, decided to change the property from a hunting preserve to a park with fountains. In 1549, he engaged Tommaso Ghinucci, a Sienese architect and hydraulic engineer, to build an aqueduct to bring water to the cardinals' property and the town of Bagnaia.
The garden known as the Villa Lante was built by Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara from 1568 to 1578. The emblem of the Gambara family, the crayfish (gambero in Italian), can be seen in many places.
Tommaso Ghinucci, who was brought back in 1574, was largely responsible for building the fountains.
The villa had been largely complete when Cardinal Gambara ceased work in 1578 after a visit from Pope Gregory XIII. Impressed by the garden's extravagance, the pope criticized Cardinal Gambara's expenditures and canceled his "poor cardinals" stipend, a financial supplement given to cardinals who were not from affluent families and needed extra income to live with the dignity due the office.
Harsher criticism from Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in 1580 led Cardinal Gambara to devote funds toward rebuilding the local hospital and church.
Cardinal Gambara died in 1587.
Work on the garden was resumed by Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto, the young great-nephew of Pope Sixtus V of the Peretti family. He completed the park and oversaw the building of the second of the two casini, which was most likely built in the first decade of the 17th century.
Cardinal Montalto also changed several of the fountains so that they prominently displayed emblems of the Peretti family coat of arms. Most notably, on the large parterre in the formal garden, he changed a pyramid-form fountain to the Fountain of the Moors, whose figures jointly hold the Peretti mountains aloft. In the park, he changed the Fountain of the Acorns to the Fountain of the Little Hills and the Fountain of the Ducks to the Fountain of the Lions. Mountains and lions were among the attributes of the Peretti family arms.
In 1656, the villa was acquired by the Lante family, who kept it until 1953. The family also owned another villa of the same name, which stood in Rome and was designed by Giulio Romano.
The villa was badly damaged by Allied bombing in World War II. In 1953, Angelo Cantoni bought it and established the Società Villa Lante, which began its restoration. In 1973, the Villa Lante came under the supervision of the Italian government, who completed its restoration and supervises its operation as a tourist attraction.
Although no documents confirm that Cardinal Gambara commissioned Vignola to design the Villa Lante, Vignola is generally accepted as the designer because of letters exchanged between Cardinal Gambara and Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a fellow cardinal and a relative by marriage. Cardinal Gambara asked to borrow Vignola to design his garden villa. Vignola was then working nearby at Caprarola on a villa for Cardinal Farnese. Cardinal Farnese wrote that Vignola was on his way.
Cardinal Farnese was happy to assist his fellow cardinal in creating a garden that would equal or surpass the Villa d'Este because its patron, Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, was his former rival for the office of pope and his current rival as an astute patron of the arts.
The design of the Villa Lante is consistent with Vignola's other works.
The villa is made up of both a formal garden featuring a series of fountains along a terraced hillside and an informal park consisting of fountains and other features connected by straight roads.
The garden design expresses the parallel themes of nature versus art on the one hand and the simple life during an ancient Golden Age versus the civilized life of the Renaissance, on the other. On one side is untouched nature and the simple life, and on the other side is art and cultural refinement.
These polarities are reflected by the villa's two sections. The formal rectangular garden along one side represents art and civilization, specifically, nature controlled by man. The park occupying the rest of the villa's grounds represents a bygone arcadia where man lived contentedly amid nature's bounties.
Two viewing sequences are possible according to which gate is entered. Today, entrance is through the parterre gate.
|●||Entrance through Park Gate. Entrance through the gate into the park, the public entrance, provides an evolutionary path down through time. This route best embodies the iconographical program. It begins in the park, whose theme is the Golden Age of man. Near the top of the park, the formal garden can be entered at its summit, and from this point, visitors experience an evolution from unspoiled nature to geometrically ordered flower beds.|
|●||Entrance through Parterre Gate. Entrance through the gate into the formal garden's parterre at the bottom of the site was only available to invited guests. This route provided a reversal of the theme so that man moved backward from the height of civilization and artistry to a time of unspoiled nature and man living in a Golden Age.|
Several subjects and themes at the Villa Lante seem to be deliberate references to similar subjects and themes at the Villa d'Este. Both gardens have fountains featuring Pegasus, the winged horse of the Muses. Although the dragon fountain at the Villa Lante is known only from an engraving, both gardens originally had dragon fountains referring to the Garden of the Hesperides, from which Hercules stole Hera's golden apples granting immortality. And, both gardens have stone ships in streams or ponds.
In form, the Villa Lante's Pegasus fountain is similar to the Villa d'Este's Oval fountain: both have oval pools with high rear walls and low front walls.
The formal gardens are laid out symmetrically on a hillside whose drop in elevation from top to bottom is around fifty feet. The architectural features, namely the two palazzine and the two temples to the Muses, are laid out in pairs that are located on the sides, which leaves the center open for water features.
The formal part of the villa is laid out according to a progression from untouched nature at the top of the hill to a series of geometrically designed beds at the bottom.
|●||Fountain of the Deluge. At the Fountain of the Deluge, an artificial grotto rises up behind a wide U-shaped pond. Water flows into the pool through the mouth of a mask that was partially concealed by plants. The theme of the deluge refers to the account in Ovid's Metamorphoses in which Neptune sends a flood to eradicate humankind, who has fallen into immoral ways. Jets of water shooting into the pool from the tops of the temples simulate rain. The singing of songbirds from the nearby aviaries would have added to the impression that a primeval world had just come into being.|
|●||Fountain of the Dolphins. As the first fountain after the Fountain of the Deluge, the Fountain of the Dolphins presents early life forms from the sea such as dolphins and shellfish. Originally, a piece of imitation coral was mounted above the fountain, but both it and its protective wooden canopy have disappeared. The importance of this feature is reflected by the fountain's having originally been named the Fountain of Coral.|
|●||Water Chain. The Water Chain extends from the Fountain of the Dolphins to the Fountain of Giants. Water symbolizes untouched nature, and the chain form, which exercises complete control over the water, symbolizes the civilizing of nature by art. The crayfish at the chain's top and bottom represent Cardinal Gambara, the patron of this transformation.|
|●||Fountain of the Giants. At the Fountain of the Giants, moss-covered statues of river gods representing the Tiber and the Arno recline on each side of a two-tiered cascade. The cornucopias they hold advertise fertility and abundance, a theme that is reinforced by statues of the vegetation goddesses Flora and Pomona in niches on each side. The use of symmetrically arranged statues of reclining river gods had precedent at the Oval Fountain of the Villa d'Este, where they were built into a hillside grotto, and at the Palazzo Senatorio, where they occupied similar positions in front of a double-ramped staircase.|
|●||Stone Dining Table. The plateau at the base of the Fountain of the Giants was used for dining, which took place at the "Cardinal's table," a stone dining table that is part of the system of fountains. Water running through a trough provided a means of chilling food and beverages and rinsing the table afterwards. This table was probably derived from a description in one of the letters of the ancient Roman author Pliny the Younger.|
|●||Fountain of the Lights. The Fountain of the Lights is structured of concentric tiers that are concave on the upper side and convex on the lower side. This arrangement had been used for a staircase/theater by Bramante at the north end of the Belvedere Court. The fountain's current name, which dates to the 17th century, is based on the candlestick-like appearance of the thin jets of water shooting upward from 160 small cups. Originally this fountain was named the Fountain of the Lucerne because the cups resembled ancient oil lamps (lucerne).|
|●||Fountain of the Moors. The Fountain of the Moors was installed by Cardinal Montalto in place of a tall pyramid-shaped fountain that was described by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who visited the gardens in 1581. Emblems from the Peretti family arms such as mountains, lions, and a star are prominently displayed. The fountain is the centerpiece of the Square Parterre, which consists of a large four-part square fish pond surrounded by twelve beds. In the progression from raw nature to highly refined art, this parterre, whose plants were planted in rationally ordered beds, represents the apex of civilization.|
The park is laid out as a series of straight tree-lined lanes connecting its buildings, fountains, and other features.
Two features whose placement was fixed by history and practicality are the hunting lodge and the reservoir. The former had been built already and the latter needed to be positioned at a high point of the property to maximize pressure for feeding fountains on the rest of the property.
The original fenced area of woods, where hunting took place in the time of the Riario cardinals, was re-planted with many special trees. Fruit orchards and vineyards announced a world of plenty.
Although illustrated in a fresco and several engravings, there is no evidence that the maze was ever built.
Many of the original fountains no longer exist, but their identity is known from contemporary drawings, inventories, and descriptions.
Classical mythology was the source of the fountains devoted to Pegasus, Bacchus, and the Dragons. The fertility of nature was suggested by subjects like acorns and ducks. (Cardinal Montalto converted these subjects to mountains and lions, his family emblems.)
Because the informal roads intersect at many points, no fixed order for viewing the features is imposed on visitors except at the entrance gate, where visitors pass the Pegasus fountain immediately. Unlike the theme of the formal gardens, the theme underlying the statues and fountains of the park is not evolutionary and dependent on a sequential order.
The subject of the first fountain encountered by visitors is the Fountain of Pegasus, the winged horse of Olympian mythology. He belonged to the Muses, the nine dwellers on Mount Parnassus who inspired musicians, writers, artists, and other creators of the arts.
In being located on the edge of the property near the entrance, the Pegasus fountain signaled visitors that they were entering a mythical realm infused with imagination and creativity, an earthly paradise.
In being oval and built into a hillside, the Pegasus Fountain resembles the Oval Fountain at the Villa d'Este. Instead of nymphs in niches, the Pegasus Fountain has busts of the nine Muses on plinths.
The myth of Pegasus and Mount Parnassus was the most prominent theme in Italian Renaissance gardens. It was depicted at the Villa Medici in Rome, the Villa Medici at Pratolino, and the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati.
Fountains featuring dragons stood on each side of the upper passage from the park into the formal garden near the Fountain of Bacchus. The dragons referred to the mythological Garden of the Hesperides, whose golden apples were guarded by the Dragon Laden. The placement of these fountains at the entrance to the formal garden as if they were guardians suggest that it is the Garden of the Hesperides.
This reference to dragons and the Garden of the Hesperides is also a reference to the Dragon Fountain at the Villa d'Este, which had been intended to link the Este gardens with the Garden of the Hesperides.
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Fountain of the Giants, Villa Lante, Bagnala
Square Parterre, Villa Lante, Bagnala