Villa Lante

From Academic Kids

Villa Lante at Bagnaia near Viterbo, attributed to Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (there is no contemporary documentation) is, with Bomarzo, one of the most famous Italian 16th century Mannerist gardens of surprises. The first shock to a visitor coming fresh from Villa Farnese Caprarola is the difference of two Vignola villas in the same area, period and architectural mannerist style: there is little if any similarity.

In this article the villa is referred to with its usual modern name, "Villa Lante". However, it did not become known as this until the villa was sold to the Duke of Lante in the 17th century, when it was already 100 years old.


Introduction: Bagnaia

Bagnaia is located on the Via Francigena, the once busy Roman road through the Cimini Hills, however, the first specific historical mention of Bagnaia is in 963 A.D., when the village was known as Bangaria. Since the 13th century, the lands of Bagnaia had been in the gift of the Pope, usually given to the Bishop of nearby Viterbo. However, it was not until the 16th century that an episcopal residence was built there.During the Middle Ages the village obtained some fine architecture, especially during the Renaissance period, after the construction of the Villa Lante increased its popularity as a resort. In 1576 Tommaso Ghinucci, a Siennese architect oversaw the enlargement of the suburbs of what was now becoming a small town. These changes today are most obvious in the vicinity of the Piazza 20th Settembre, inspired by Piazza del Popolo in Rome.

Architectural Design

From the quiet piazza at the upper end of the unpretentious village, a flight of curved steps leads to a heavily rusticated arch. The buildings of the piazza display, in their ancient facades, worn stone coats-of-arms of popes and cardinals. Passing through the arch one comes to the first surprise: there is no Villa Lante.

The Villa Lante is in fact two casini; each casino, nearly identical, though built by different owners in a period separated by 30 years. Each square building has a ground floor of rusticated arcades or loggias which support a piano nobile above. Each facade on this floor has just three windows, alternating round or pointed pediments. Each window is divided by pilasters in pairs. An upper floor is merely hinted at by small rectangular, mezzanine type, windows above those of the piano nobile. Each casino is then crowned by a tower or lantern in the summit of the pantiled roof. These elaborate square lanterns too have pilasters, and windows both real and blind.

Each of these casini, in their severe mannerist style was built by a different unrelated owner. Villa Lante was first commissioned by Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara who gives his surname to the first casino.

It appears that work commenced in 1566 on the right hand (as one enters) casino. It is thought Gambara commissioned Vignola to design the project, (the and begin the work and the design of the gardens for which the villa was to become justly famous. The first casino and upper garden were quickly completed, but work was then suspended for the remainder of Gambara's lifetime.

Following the death of Gambara in 1587, he was succeeded as Apostolic Administrator of Viterbo, by the 17-year-old nephew of Pope Sixtus V, Cardinal Alessandro Peretti di Montalto. It was this mere youth who completed the project at Bagnaia and built the second casino. The two casini differ most in their frescoes: frescoes of landscapes in the Gambara and in the Montalto frescoes by a later artist in a more classical style. In the Gambara Casino the vaulted frescoed loggias are a riot of colour highlighting the architectural detail, while in the Montalto Casino the principal reception room is a combination of fresco and plaster sculpture, almost trompe l'oeil.

Garden Design

The gardens of the Villa Lante are the villas' principal fame, especially the water features, from cascades to fountains and dripping grottos. This harmony of water and the perfection of its flow was only achieved after the architect called in to supervise the design a hydraulics specialist from SiennaThomaso Chiruchi. It is his genius which lives and flows literally thought the gardens today.

Missing image

Entering from that rustic arch in the village piazza, leaving behind the dry dusty populated square, one immediately enters a new highly verdant, clean and fresh world. The first confrontation is the Quadrato, a perfectly square parterre, achieved a full generation before the first French parterres at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and at Fontainebleau: the contrast between the village piazza beyond and the sight of the new parterre must have been then even more astounding than today.

The twin casini stand on one side, on the remaining three sides the garden is enclosed by high box hedges. In the centre, low box is sculpted and formed into decorative patterns around small fountains and sculptures. The main feature of this parterre is the complex fountain at its centre, formed of four basins, separated by parapeted walks, the parapets decorated with stone pineapples and urns that intersect the water. At the heart of the complex, a centre basin contains the celebrated Fontana dei Mori by Giambologna: four life-sized moors stand square around two lions; they hold high the heraldic mountain surmounted by the star shaped fountain jet, the Montalto coat of arms. This is the focal point of this unusual composition of Casini and parterre. The Moors occupy the space that one would expect to be occupied by a vast palazzo flanked by the casini. It is now that one appreciates that the whole is in fact one perfectly planned unostentatious composition. Instead of the gardens being a mere appendage or at best a complement to a villa, here they are an integral part of the original conception of the villa.

Above the principal parterre a visitor climbs upwards, passing through the oaks, ilexis and planes, glimpsing the fountains and sculptures below through unexpected vistas, and seeing them anew in unexpected contexts. One then comes to the first of ascending terraces: here, lodged between two stone staircases, is the Fontana dei Lumini ("Fountain of the Lamps") a circular tiered fountain; on the ledge of each tier smaller fountains imitating Roman oil lamps spot small jets of water. Camellias, and other ericacious flowering shrubs added in the 19th century blaze in the shade of this terrace.

On the next (third) terrace a massive stone table, has water flowing down its centre. Here, Cardinal Gambara would entertain his guests to picnics. On this terrace are yet more fountains, depicting river gods. Above this terrace is the fourth, containing the catena d'aqua a water feature (gioco d'aqua) that Vignola added to several 16th-century gardens. Found also at the Villa Farnese and Villa d'Este, this rill of basins cascades down the centre of the steps leading up to the terrace.

On the next upper terrace are yet further fountains and grottos, and two small casini which frame further fountains completing a composition known as the 'theatre of the waters'. These small casini, like their grander relations on the lower terrace are of distinguished design, probably again by Vignola, with open loggias supported by Ionic columns. They bear the name of Cardinal Gambara engraved on the cornices. One casino gives access to a small secret garden, a garden of hedges and topiary, with a line of columns creating an air of almost melancholic nature.

A perspective plan of 1609 shows a wooded area of walks and vistas to obelisks, plus a maze.

20th Century

Following the demise of Lante's last cardinal owner in 1656, the villa passed to the family of Duke Ippolito Lante, in whose family it remained for many generations. In the 19th century the family, revived by an American heiress Duchess, still lived at Lante in some style: the Gambara Casino was lived in by ducal family and the Montalto was reserved for their guests.

In 1944 the gardens and casini were heavily damaged by Allied bombing after the fall of Rome. In the late 20th century the Villa was acquired by Dr. Angelo Cantoni, who completed a long program of restoration.


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