Forty miles from Rome, the ancient city of Ninfa has been overtaken by a lush garden. What stories hide here?
In the Latina province of the Lazio region of central Italy there lies a garden. No ordinary garden, but a place considered by connoisseurs to be one of the most romantic in the world. Twenty acres of landscaped beauty comprises Il Giardino di Ninfa, part of a larger Italian Natural Monument, Il Parco Naturale Pantanello. Ancient and medieval ruins are embroidered with greenery and roses make tenacious toeholds between crumbling stones weathered by centuries. Grassy meadows give way to stands of oak, cypress and poplar, while plants imported from all over the globe take advantage of an abundance of water. Beneath all of this extreme beauty, there is the story of Ninfa, a community lost and regained several times over the course of history.
Ninfa means Nymph and the original settlement (as well as the river) was named for a nymphaeum, or temple dedicated to nymphs, that once stood on a island in the small lake. The earliest known reference to this structure is found in the letters of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113), a famous Roman lawyer, magistrate and writer. Pliny was a survivor of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which took the life of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. He tells us the temple was dedicated to water nymphs; water is key to Ninfa’s identity and value. Early residents knew it was wise to keep the nymphs happy, as floods and waterborne illnesses were unpredictable and could quickly overwhelm a community.
Those first residents were probably the Volsci, who were driven from the Liris river Valley in the northeast to the marshy regions near Rome after 600 BC. These were water people who worshiped water gods and made their living from fertile soil watered by so many rivers and streams. They were also, at times, fierce enemies of the Romans. In 304 BC, they were defeated for good and subsequently assimilated. Famous Romans of Volscian descent included Cicero and Caesar Augustus himself.
Over centuries, Ninfa grew from a prosperous agricultural community into a more worldly town, benefiting from its location on the Via Pedemontana near Rome. This was the high road at the feet of the mountains, which proved useful whenever the marshes flooded. The Appian Way was also nearby. It should have allowed local farmers to sell their produce far to the south and brought in other merchants and artisans, but it was prone to flooding. Ninfa was situated along the most important detour in central Italy and became rich off of tolls and customs trade.
By AD 1159, Ninfa was important enough that Pope Alexander III was crowned here in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, following a disputed election that would have repercussions throughout Europe and result in decades of violence. This association with Papal politics proved deadly. A dozen years later, Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, would burn the city, in an attempt to flush out Pope Alexander, who was hiding here. Ninfa had the resources to rebuild- this time, thanks to the Caetani family with their money and Papal connections.
At her height, she was a cluster of more than 150 homes, with churches, mills, two hospitals, a castle (built near the lake where the nymphaeum had once stood) and a town hall. Recognizing what was coming, the Caetanis encircled the city with a 1500 yard defensive wall and guard towers. In the 14th century, those wonderful Papal connections were to embroil Ninfa in a Civil War that would cripple the city and make agriculture and commerce impossible. Importance brought intrigue and intrigue brought corruption and violence. The city dwindled.
In the 16th century, Cardinal Nicolò III Caetani gave Ninfa its last gasp, repopulating the city and commanding architect Francesco Perugino to build a lavish garden there. The respite was short lived, as the Cardinal died in 1585 and disasters continued to mount. The marshes began to flooding again and malaria broke out. Ninfa proved too weak to face the wrath of the water spirits. She did not survive the 17th century.
The land remained in the hands of the Caetani family, unused and forgotten until the early 20th century. We’ll explore the reinvention of Ninfa next time.