A triumphal synthesis of humanity’s imagination and nature’s richness
The bewitching Garden of Ninfa (Giardini di Ninfa) is set amongst the ruins of a medieval town and is located 70 kilometres southeast from Rome in the territory of Cisterna di Latina within the central Italian region of Lazio.
Described by many as the most romantic garden in the world, the origins of Ninfa go back to Roman times and are immersed in myth. Tradition tells that Ninfa was named after a temple consecrated to the water divinities, nymphs, the locals believed occupied the natural springs and gentle flowing river that meanders through the verdant landscape.
Prior to developing into a garden of rare beauty, Ninfa was a small town of strategic importance and political influence. From the 8th century, travellers traversed the route through Ninfa to get from Rome to Naples and when the Appian Way (Via Appian) was impossible to traverse because of flooding rains.
In 1159, Cardinal Rolando Bandinelli was consecrated at Ninfa as Pope Alexander III. He was inaugurated at the Church of Santa Maria, whose evocative remnants are visible today.
The distinguished Caetani family, who had ties with the papacy, took control of Ninfa in the 13th century, buying out local proprietors and titleholders.
During the papacy crises, known as the Great Schism (circa 1378), anti-pope factions razed Ninfa to the ground. Never to be rebuilt, the town lay deserted for several centuries, mainly because of the untamed growth of the nearby marshland, a breeding ground for malaria.
I asked, amazed, what that most puzzling great garland of flowers, that mysterious green ring, could be. “Nympha, Nympha,” said our host. Nympha! then that is the Pompeii of the Middle Ages, buried in the marshes – that city of the dead, ghostly, silent.
Ferdinand Gregorovius German Historian – when he first viewed Ninfa from the hilltop town of Norma in 1852
During the 16th and 17th centuries, members of the noble Caetani family, lovers of botany, created some foundations of the garden seen today.
The garden remained abandoned until the 19th century, when visionary members of the Caetani family rolled up their sleeves and began the arduous process of regeneration and restoration. The legacy of their energy, boldness and foresight endures today.
The garden, a botanical, wildlife and spiritual sanctuary, spreads over 8 hectares (20 acres). Abundant in faunae and native and exotic flora, the garden has over 10000 species of plants, 152 species of birds and a rich variety of fauna that inhabit the lake and river.
The leafy winding pathways are a softened with dappled light and burst with ethereal vistas. The paths unite all parts of the garden and gently pull you to explore the curious and ghostly ruins of the medieval towers, walls and churches, all of which are romantically cloaked with plants such as climbing roses, ivy and scented jasmine.
Several ornate bridges span the serene river named Ninfa, as it serenely drifts in its progress through the lush landscape. And the 12th-century castle and tower cast mirror like impressions on the small lake they border.
The garden of Ninfa is the visionary fusion of many generations of the Italian, English and American-born members of the family. A tour de force of man and nature, Ninfa is a beguiling union of humanity’s creativity and the grandeur and order of nature.
Note: Ferdinand Gregorovius was a German historian who specialized in the medieval history of Rome. He is best known for Wanderjahre in Italien (Years of Wandering in Italy), his account of his Italian travels in the 1850s.
All images, text and content are copyright Steven Sklifas.