Benedetto Cateani as the newly elected pope, Pope Boniface VIII, in 1294, conferred on his family the fiefs of four hilltop towns: Sermoneta, Bassiano, Ninfa and San Donito – making his family the most notable in Rome. The history of Pisa holds the other part of the Caetani family life in early medieval times. This wealthy family turned their fiefdoms into walled hilltop fortresses, with Romanesque cathedrals and massive castles.
Ninfa – our object of desire! – was a substantial town going back to the times of the Romans, however during the middle ages the town was squabbled over, sacked, beset by malaria and eventually Ninfa was abandoned to the elements and neglected by its aristocratic owners.
Since that time, on the marshy plain leading down to the sea and under the eagle eye of the other more successful hilltop towns, the castle, the fourteen towers, seven churches, town hall, mills and 150 houses of Ninfa have slowly crumbled.
In the last century descendants of the Caetani transformed the town’s ruins into a botanical garden and the garden has now been left to a foundation to run the site in conjunction with the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Natural life has taken over, colouring the ruins, brightening the day with blushes of flowers cascading over low walls, broken foundations, flattened geometry of the old town, growing high into the trees, falling over high battlements.
The whole of Ninfa has disintegrated, the whole can still be seen, one could imagine walking through the streets, round the buildings, seeing the smithy, watching the canny pick pockets, smelling the pungent smell of new baked bread, with oils, garlic and olives, men talking in the square – but time stood still.
It is a place for feeling more than seeing – feeling the blood of time since the sacking of the 2,000 souls in 1381, feeling the sense of wholeness for the town that was .. and now seeing it come to life again as a nature reserve: 100 acres of nature reserve, the new lakes, the migratory birds, the owls and rock thrushes in the towers above.
Preservation as is – is the order of the day .. the plants wind over ruined towers and walls, rejoicing in the crystal clear streams and springs that run through giving them life in the damp conditions. Roses scrambling for footholds in ruined archways, the frescoed church wall still standing open to the weather, together with banana trees, maples, slender cypresses and flat-topped stone pines dotted throughout this typical Italian landscape.
The dampness of the location, under the hills facing the coastal plain, has lead to a microclimate of an unusual and unique mixture of species. Ninfa is a landscape of water, despite the spread of centuries’ old sacked building rubble under its evergreen covering, with the clear water running through channels and cascading through races, into iris pools until they team up into the river flowing down to the sea.
The restoration as such has been left as much to nature as can be, not much tidying up has been done, it’s been cleared a bit, new plantings have just happened with no obvious planning – making it such a wonderful natural gardener’s delight. Clematis abound, bignonia, jasmines and honeysuckles clamber up trees and ruins. Self seeding has been allowed to occur with different ‘rooms’ within the ruins – for wild flowers, a grove of Cyprus trees, Magnolias and flowering cherries dotted amongst the green open spaces.
See ancient Italy, a lost garden, smell the scents of Cyprus, old roses, and in May the waft of orange blossom as you wander under the blue skies, and hanging gardens, remembering our troubled past, but what a folly of wonderment for its future – an idyll that will never be lost in time.
Thank you for being here today Mr Postman, my mother, who was a great gardener, will absolutely love this story, so we can talk about plants and gardens, stone walls, cascading waters .. a wonder to bring back some colourful thoughts and scents for us to discuss ..
PS .. Entrance is by ticket only and its not always open .. go to World Wide Fund for Nature.