Lake Bolsena - Jewel in the Heart of Italy

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Villa Farnese

Great Renaissance Gardens

Villa Farnese is one of the great houses and gardens of Italy. Yet on the summer day we visited, there was barely a handful of visitors in the afternoon party that followed the guide up the great staircase. In its time it was a seat of one of the great dynastic families that ruled Italy and a good portion of the rest of the western world. The Villa dominates the town of Caprerola, which is just over an hour's drive from Bolsena and well worth the trip. On a really hot day it makes sense to combine this visit with a visit to the Lake Vico - a nature reserve in the caldera just over the summit - easily a day trip.

The Farnese dynasty ranks with the Medici as one of the most powerful in Italy and its sons were to be found in the seat of power, Rome and the Holy See. Cardinal Farnese, in the future to be Pope Paul III, acquired land on the slopes of the Volcano, at Caprerola and built a castle there. It was inherited by his grandson Alessandro Farnese, also a Cardinal. The new Pope brought disfavour to the Farnese and, embroiled in intrigues and increasingly unpopular, Alessandro retired to the Caprerola estate and set about building a villa and gardens to rank among the finest of the Renaissance period of the mannerist style. He hired one of the best architects of the day, Vignola, himself a student of Michaelangelo, to turn the castle into a palace and commissioned the artist Giacoma Dunce, to create a fitting garden out of unpromising mountainside.

The Villa dominates the town and plain below, its pentagonal facades reprising the original fortress. Inside are beautiful frescoes and ceiling friezes from the finest artists of the time. You will also see one of the finest staircases in all of Italy and wander through the eerie, empty rooms once belonging to one of the richest and most powerful men in Italy. The gardens are nowhere to be seen until you come to the back of the citadel to reach them over a high bridge.


What makes Villa Farnese gardens so special is how Duca managed to mix formal gardens and informal woodland walks leading up to a magnificent "Casino" or summer house of pleasure that materialises out of nowhere as the observer emerges from the woodland glade at the top of the hill. All of this is hidden to the observer as he leaves the house, and unfolds in a series of surprising visions.


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