Green-fingered Aristocrats - the 4 best renaissance gardens near Rome

There's so much more to Lazio than Rome. Rich in history and culture, there's always something more to see. In this guest post, Michiel, the founder and editor of Minor Sights (see below), takes us through four renaissance gardens nestled in the picturesque hills of Tuscia, northern Lazio.

Northern Lazio tends to be neglected by visitors rushing from the famous sights of Rome to the equally famous attractions of Tuscany. Which is a shame.

For centuries this area was part of the Papal States, back when the Popes wielded enormous temporal as well as spiritual power. Northern Lazio was at its core, providing cheap labour and cardinals in equal measure, ruled over by a small number of powerful families who took their turn wearing the Papal crown and cardinals’ red hats.

Of course, these aristocrats did what aristocrats around the world have always done: they taxed the poor, plundered the land, and used the spoils to compete amongst themselves in terms of who could build the most sumptuous palace (a tradition that sadly, seems to have been lost by contemporary looters).

The Renaissance was a particularly productive period for these families. With the Black Death behind them, and a new influx of ideas (sprouting from Florence), money, and the desire to approach things in a more inventive yet rational way. And that included gardening.

Gardening, I hear you think? Yes, gardening. 

Much like Ancient Rome and Greece inspired Renaissance painting and architecture, classical ideals of order and beauty inspired horticulture. As a result, gardens became larger, grander, more symmetrical, with the intent to both delight owners and impress aristocratic neighbours. 

The giardino all’italiano influenced gardens throughout Europe, including the French and English gardening styles. 

The Villa d’Este at Tivoli near Rome is a famous example, attracting plenty of day-tripping hordes. But I want to draw your attention to four magnificent gardens that see far fewer visitors, and which I would classify as ‘Minor Sights’. Not because they are inferior, but because mass tourism’s ‘winner takes it all’ approach means that they are mostly overlooked. Which makes them even more attractive to me, as you can enjoy these places in peace and quiet (until the day this article goes viral of course.)

Villa Lante at Bagnaia: the wet one

While initial Renaissance gardens were very much about symmetry, form and harmony, things started getting a little out of hand during the period referred to as Mannerism. It was no longer enough to be harmonious. Mannerism was about surprise and caprice. The garden’s owner, a cardinal called Gianfranceso Gambara (whose symbol, an oversized shrimp (gambas- get it?) can be seen throughout the garden) decided to use water for playful, surprising effects.

The garden deployed the height of hydraulic technology, which was used to create multiple giochi d'acqua, water ‘games’, like fountains,  jets, canals, etc.

Click here to read more about Villa Lante on the Minor Sights website.

Castello Ruspoli in Vignanello: the family one

The Ruspoli Castle and garden is the only one of these gardens that is still owned and managed by the same family. It’s one of the finest examples of Italian Renaissance gardening, with an extensive main garden that features the initials of its creators as well as other family members, and a secret garden just out of sight. 

This is simply one of the most stunning gardens you will find in Italy- even more so because there are no coach loads of tourists. The family opens the castle and garden every Sunday, and you will need to contact them to make an appointment. You may even get a personal tour by the princess!

For more information about visiting Castello Ruspoli, click here

Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo: the crazy one

The Parco dei Mostri (Monster Park) also known as the Sacro Bosco, takes the cake when it comes to Mannerist absurdity. 

Created by Vicino Orsini (father of Ottavia, who started the Ruspoli garden mentioned above) it was intended to astonish and impress. Orsini went a little loco after his wife died and dedicated this garden to her- a collection of monstrosities, absurdities and a haunted house. Some people have likened it to a Renaissance Disneyland, although every statue is rich in symbolism and mythology beyond what Walt could ever muster.

Kids will delight in the Monster Park. For more information,  check out this post on Minor Sights, or this one on Lazioexplorer).

Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola: the neglected one

This garden is only neglected because it is outshone by the stupendous art inside the Palazzo, a palace so rich in decoration and art that it could give anything in Rome a run for its money. (LazioExplorer- it wasn’t neglected by us, we had our wedding photos there!)

But while most people come for the Palace, the garden is equally delightful, small and intimate with a refreshingly cool water grotto in the back. Most visitors only see the small public garden but there is actually a large secret garden whose visiting hours are restricted- but there are daily visits in summer. 

For more on Palazzo Farnese and its gardens, go here

Visiting the gardens

These four gardens are all close to each other. It would be possible to overdose on gardens by trying to string them altogether into one long day of hardcore greenery gazing as a day trip from Rome. 

Alternatively, base yourself in one of the many wonderful small towns in the region, and string them out over two or three days. Public transport exists, but you’ll find a car immensely useful in visiting these out-of-the-way places. 

The towns of Bomarzo, Vignanello, Bagnaia and Caprarola are each about 1 or 1 ½ hour by car from Rome’s ringroad, the GRA. Travel between each of the towns takes 20-30 minutes by car. 

About the author

Michiel is the founder and editor of Minor Sights, a website dedicated to fascinating places that are barely mentioned in guidebooks. He divides his time between Paris and Northern Lazio.

Find Minor Sights here:

Getting under the skin of Rome with Context Travel

What lies beneath these ancient streets but millennia of stories. Rome. The ultimate treasure trove of history. In this city more than any other, there's truly more than meets the eye. Layer upon layer of history, generations of cultures, over 2000 years of life, concentrated in one chaotic miasma of stone. It's overwhelming, but soon after arriving in Rome, you'll want to start piecing it all together, to understand at least a little of how this great city has grown and changed over the years, of how much remains in view, of how much we owe to ideas first conceived before Christ.

Copyright @Mordredsoul

Thankfully, Context Travel, with an enviable 'who's who' of docents, can help. They contacted me earlier this year offering the opportunity to take one of their tours. I looked through the list, all the regular tours are there, the Vatican, a food tour, a tour of the Roman forum. All interesting. Great, if you want a flavour of Rome, but what if you've visited a few times, you've done the main sights, had your fill of carbonara and alla gricia? That's when you need a tour which is going to go further, deeper into Rome. That's where this tour, Rome Underground with Context Travel, comes in.

La Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Lucina. But what lies beneath?

Meeting outside la Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Lucina, our small group (numbering just 6) listened as our extremely well qualified docent Philip Ditchfield showed us paintings and pictures of the church and square, slowly taking us back in time, explaining how the local area had formed, which buildings date from which period, and indeed, how the whole area appeared at various stages of the Roman civilisation. I won't spoil it for you, but suffice to say, it was truly fascinating. What I will tell you is that it's the second church on that site, and dates from around the 1100s. The first church, dating from around 400AD, was demolished, possibly by the Normans (under instruction from the pope), but was still visible, if only we could get underneath the church...

Granted, my phone isn't the best camera, and I'm not the best photographer.... but here's a live shot of the tour
Through a nondescript wooden door, we descended a few steps underneath the altar. Here, the history of church was laid out before our very eyes. Approximately 1m below the current floor of the church, the arches from the earlier church are visible, along with two earlier structures, that of a Roman apartment block, and of an ancient Roman house. With each layer, we are told anecdotes of life at the time, from that of a slave revolt to why you really want to live on the 1st floor of a Roman apartment block, rather than the penthouse. Deep under the church, fragments of the original flooring of the Roman house are visible (that's flooring from the time of Christ), along with the plumbing and steps of the apartment block. Amazingly, most of central Rome is like this, layer upon layer of history, right under people's feet. Under every street is another street, a few feet down, and then another, further still. This of course explains why Rome isn't blessed with the most efficient nor comprehensive metro system, but also explains the ancient layout of the streets, and the prevalence of ancient stones and artefacts turning up in the middle of pizzerias and bars.

Roman floor under San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome, Italy. Copyright -
Guess how old that mosaic floor is?

After a thorough exploration of and underneath the church, we headed outside into the glaring Roman sun and through the throbbing Roman alleyways towards the next site. En route, our guide couldn't help but continue to explain everything around us, from the architecture of the most beautiful police station you're ever going to see, to the presence of a masterpiece by Andrea Pozzi in the second ever Jesuit church in the world, la Chiesa di S. Ignacio. Go there, even if you don't take the full tour, and look at the ceiling and tell me it's not at least as good as the sistine chapel (and without the crowd or cost).

We headed past the Trevi fountain (with another fascinating tidbit of history, this time about the ancient Egyptian columns now holding up the Benetton store), past all those tourist trinkets and luxury shops, towards the Crypto Balbi. Once there, we descended once again below the tourist-filled streets into the well-preserved depths to discover a medieval Rome, and beneath that, another real Roman floor. We must have been 25m below street level, but thanks to the complete excavation, museum-style lighting, and spacious feel, it wasn't claustrophobic or particularly adventurous.

Do you know what that slab of stone on the wall is for, or how old it is?

As you may be able to deduce, the tour was excellent. Our guide was a walking encyclopaedia, fascinating, without being too bookish (although I am a scientist so maybe I'm not the best judge), and really gave us an insight into ancient Rome. The tour also both satisfied and fed a thirst I have to understand more about Rome. By providing glimpses of the past, the tour allowed me to understand much better the tangled, inefficient streets of the centro storico. It's truly mind-blowing when you consider the amount of life that has passed through (and I guess now, below) those ancient streets.

I totally recommend this tour, especially if you're spending a few days in Rome, so you can do the main sights yourself, or if you've been to Rome before. This tour will take you further. Consider it the intermediate course, after your beginner of the colosseum and Roman forum. I, for one, can't wait to apply for the advanced course...

Details of the tour (as of July 2014):

Duration: 3.5 hours
Cost: €75
Incidental costs: up to €15 entrance costs, depending on where exactly is visited (dependent on season)
Venues: San Lorenzo in Lucina, Vicus Caprarius, Crypta Balbi

Disclaimer: While a guest of Context Tours, I can't be bought and opinions are my own and are honest. If I didn't like it, I'd tell you straight.

The other photos are mine, taken on my less-than-stellar camera phone

Build an infiorata in Genazzano this weekend

Ever wanted to take part in local life in Italy? You know, join in with the ancient traditions, give something back while enjoying something that you couldn't normally participate in? Something that has even entered the Guinness book of records?

Well now's your chance...

La strada di fiori, genazzano

This coming Saturday night (the 5th July), the little town of Genazzano will be a hive of activity as young and old, locals and visitors, all work together to create masterpieces of art using the humble petal. This tapestry is made every year to celebrate the sacred heart, the week after corpus domini, and given the religious significance, the locals also don various biblical costumes for a solemn procession through the town. The infiorata, almost 2km in length, has even entered the Guinness Book of Records (in 2012) as the longest infiorata in the world.
Infiorata sulla strada Genazzano

Genazzano is a small town of around 6000 souls and is located on the top of a tuff spur 375m above sea level, about 45km south-east of Rome. This Saturday, around midnight, they plan to paint the town red, green, and indeed all the colours of the rainbow, using coloured flower petals, salt, and water. In collaboration with Rome-Countryside, tourists can now join in the fun. 

The programme is as follows:

Check-in at accommodation.
Evening - each guest is assigned a neighbourhood group and begins their work preparing the infiorata
Guests can continue working until the tapestry is finished, or can go to sleep when they're tired
Lunch at a specially selected restaurant with traditional, local food
6:00pm - procession through Genazzano
Cost per person (2 nights accommodations, Sunday lunch): 80 euros
Cost per person (1 night accommodations, Sunday lunch): 59 euros

It's a great opportunity to join in with a local tradition, experience real Italian life, and get a glimpse of the countryside outside Rome. All-in-all, it sounds fantastic, and if I didn't already have a stag-do to go to on Saturday, I'd be there.

For more information, and to make a reservation, click through to the Rome-Countryside website.

Vino Intorno - wine tasting in the hills of Lazio

June is a wonderful time of the year in Lazio. While many tourists throng around the many sights of Rome, the more adventurous have many great opportunities to get out and explore the stunning surrounding countryside. What better then, after doing the Forum, taking Selfies at the Colosseum, and queuing around the Vatican, than getting out to a wine-tasting 45km from Rome?

Vino Intorno, in collaboration with Slow Food Lazio, is over two days at the end of June (21st-22nd) and covers both history, culture, and of course, wine. For €79, which includes accommodation for the Saturday night, entrance fees, tour costs and some meals, you can experience a fully immersive weekend away.

Here's the full programme.

June 21, 2014

Arrival and check in
15.00 Meet in Olevano Romano (RM)
15.30 Tour of Villa Pisa
17:00 VINO INTORNO wine and food tasting evening

June 22, 2014

10:00 Meet in Bellegra (RM)
10.30 Visit to the Arch Cave karst system
13:00 Lunch at a restaurant based on local products.

Included in the €79:

Entrance and guided tour of Villa de Pisa
Coupon for a tasting of food and wine at VINO INTORNO
Overnight stay (breakfast included) at a local B&B
Entrance to the caves and caving Guide Arc Bellegra
Lunch on June 22
Socio-card Rome Countryside

The weekend starts in Olevano Romano, with a guided tour of Villa Pisa and the Museo Centro-Studi di Olevano where, thanks to the impressive work of the "Friends of the Museum of Olevano Romano"over 2000 works are collected and stored, including oil paintings, watercolors, drawings and sketches.

At 5pm, the tasting starts, with both locally sourced food and wine, including the locally-grown Cesanese grape. A coupon for tasting is included in the price. Continuing on the Sunday, we meet in Bellegra for a guided tour of the nearby karst system. First explored in 1925 by two cavers from the Speleogical Club of Rome, the caves can be visited more comfortably today via a catwalk. The caves have a constant temperature of around 7-8 degrees, so it's advisable to bring a jacket.

Frankly, it all sounds lovely! For more information (in Italian) and to book, click through to

This post has been supported by funds from the organisers of this event and is hereby marked as an advertisement. However, any opinions stated within the post are those of LazioExplorer alone and are  independent of this funding. If you have a sagra or festa of your own that you would like to advertise on LazioExplorer, please complete this form.

World Nutella Day Recipe - Banana and Nutella Muffins

It's Nutella Day! A day where you can (legitimately) stuff your face with Nutella and not feel guilty! To celebrate, along with our customary Nutella on toast breakfast, we've decided to honor the day with a sweet treat that can easily be paired with a coffee, used as a dessert, or simply for breakfast...