Ninfa: the ancient town
The town of Ninfa takes its name from a little temple dedicated to the nymphs during the Roman period, built on one of the most abundant springs at the foot of the Lepini Hills. These waters gave life to the original river Nymphaeus. Of the abandoned medieval town there remain today an imposing double wall and the ruins of a castle, churches, municipal buildings and many private dwellings. Water is still key to the life of Ninfa, as in the past.
Ninfa had a significant economic and strategic identity as early as the eighth century. This came about due to the flooding and impassability of a stretch of the Appian Way between Cisterna and Terracina, and the consequent spread of malaria. A water dam, to be seen to this day at Ninfa, is an early example of advanced engineering of the time. The resulting lake enabled waterpower to be used to turn rudimentary machinery such as mills, olive presses, bellows and hammers for the working of metal. This made a fortune for the little settlement.
By the beginning of the eleventh century, Ninfa had grown to the status of a small town. It continued to grow and prosper. In 1159, Rolando Bandinelli was consecrated as Pope Alexander III in the church of S. Maria Maggiore, the largest of seven. Several papal families – among them the Tuscolo, Frangipane, Conti, and Anibaldi – fought over Ninfa which was at various times destroyed and rebuilt before passing finally to the Caetani family in 1298. 100 years of prosperity followed. As the result of papal wars and inter-family disputes, however, the town was substantially destroyed in 1382 leading to an exodus of the population and an unstoppable decay that lasted until the twentieth century. In the seventeenth century, Ninfa was used for renewed commercial enterprise, for example iron-works and a tannery, or occasional relaxation for the family, who at that time commissioned Francesco da Volterra to design the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries artists and travellers regularly visited the ruined town, after failed attempts to repopulate it. Their various depictions of it left an important record of how it was at the time. Notable among them were Carlo and Enrico Coleman, Edward Lear, Gregorovius, Ettore Roesler Franz; and Giulio Aristide Sartorio in the twentieth century.
Ninfa: the garden
Gelasio Caetani, in the early 1920s, set out to restore Ninfa by means of a well-planned programme of research, excavation and restoration of the ruins, laying out the foundations for a garden today counted among the most beautiful in the world. With his English mother, Ada Wilbraham, the first of Ninfa’s gardeners, and inspired by Ninfa’s evocative and mysterious character, he began planting the great trees that we enjoy today. The creation of a garden at Ninfa, meaning the ability as far back as the 1920s to visualise the potential of the site completely abandoned and covered by a mantle of vegetation, is intriguing – the more so because Ninfa came back to life after centuries of neglect in the form of a garden conceived in a typical Anglo-Saxon style.
The garden, with its paths spreading like sinews, is spontaneous and informal with no formality and little in the way of geometric patterns. The development and planting work continued with Ada’s American-born daughter-in-law Marguerite Chapin. She opened the garden to an important circle of writers and artists associated with the literary reviews Commerce and Botteghe Oscure, which she founded. Such friends were equally inspired by Ninfa.
Marguerite’s daughter, Lelia Caetani, remains nevertheless the true artisan of the garden and in her time Ninfa took on the romantic character we know today. Lelia was undoubtedly influenced by her natural talents as a painter, which led her to select plants in the landscape as if at work on a large canvas. She had a natural and creative touch.
On Lelia’s untimely death in 1977, ownership and responsibility for the garden passed to the Roffredo Caetani Foundation. Ninfa is well cared for. Spontaneity remains key and visitors are little aware of the human touch. Managing such a remarkable place is a difficult and complex challenge with the delicate eco-system always a foremost consideration.
The address: Fondazione Roffredo Caetani
Via della Fortezza
04010 Sermoneta (LT)