To paraphrase an old Italian saying (regarding the magnificence of Naples), one should “see Ninfa and die,” as it surely is superior to Naples and easily “the most romantic garden in the world.” The opening photograph of ‘New Dawn’ roses cascading down to the river, with a glorious view of the old buildings and mountains behind, captures the charm of this ruin-turned-garden wonder—one of the most exciting destinations in Italy.
Created in the 1920s by descendants of some of the original owners of the land, the Caetani family, and guided to its present glory by Lelia Caetani Howard in the latter part of the twentieth century (her mother was American), it is now open to the public by reservation. Author Charles Quest-Ritson has been studying the gardens, lecturing about them, and writing about them for more than twenty years. Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World is his opus magnum on the subject.
The first thing that strikes the visitor is the size of the place and the extent of the ruins. Ninfa was a prosperous medieval town that thrived for about 600 years, from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries; in 1382, it was razed to the ground during fratricidal wars. The ruins of the castle, seven churches, town walls, and other buildings now create a background for all the plants that thrive there—especially the roses.
Knowing the history of the place makes any visit much richer. Farming supported the town, as did fishing in the river and surrounding canals that, even today, define the landscape. Wine was produced as well. The place was fortified by watchtowers. A pope was crowned there. A serious outbreak of malaria foretold the end of Ninfa as an inhabited place. When people started to return, several centuries later, they began planting the cypresses and magnolias that now soar overhead.
Today, the garden is managed by curator Lauro Marchetti, who has lived there most of his life. When asked how he would describe the garden, he suggested “controlled disorder.” More than 10,000 plants fill the garden, including many species from the US, especially California. Every visit reveals something new. Wandering along the banks of the river and the canals, the visitor is presented with a heart-stopping view around every corner. The constant sound of water adds a musical note to the journey.
I have three other books on the gardens at Ninfa on my shelves, but Quest-Ritson’s takes pride of place for its illuminating text and stunning photos. Quest-Ritson includes early photographs that illustrate the constant growth of the plants, the restoration of some of the buildings, and the people who restored so much of Ninfa. Anyone who looks at this grand book will want to take a flight immediately to Rome and make the two-hour drive south to see, firsthand, this paradise of gardens.
William Grant, garden writer & rosarian