Low clouds and mist enveloped Rome. It was cold. Even worse, the city was in chaos with demonstrations by flag-waving groups loudly protesting against the construction of a high-speed rail line in the north of Italy. Most of the demonstraters were dressed in jeans and sweaters but a group looking like monks with brown robes were standing around with cigarettes stuck in the middle of their mouths while waiting for their marching orders. Stores were shuttered and transit was tied in knots. We, my daughter and two friends, wound our way through back streets to reach the Via Cassia which would lead us to our destination: the late Renaissance-era Villa Farnese, famed for its frescoes and gardens – and we hoped quiet, sun and a good lunch.
We headed norththrough the usual depressing detritus of suburbia, shopping malls and outlet stores until we reached the real countryside set with groves of filbert and olive trees along with a few vineyards. Turning this way and that we came to the small town of Caprarola, the site of the magnificent Villa Farnese built for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese between 1559 to 1575. The sun suddenly appeared to highlight a pentagon-shaped building rising five stories above a long flight of terraced steps set at the top on a hill dominating the town.
The Farneses knew how to live in style. Their Palazzo Farnese in Rome is now the location of the magnificently-decorated French Embassy near Campo di Fiori and the Villa Farnesina in Trastevere hosts a science academy and print collection. The villa we were visiting was a country house built by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, over a partially constructed fortress begun by his ancestor in 1504.
After we each enjoyed a restorative cappuccino and cornetto the gigantic sundial on a south wall told us that it was time to start our tour of the interior, the 44-acre park, and the Renaissance garden crowning the hill. We joined a group of Italians out on a sunny spring day trip like us. Room after frescoed room conveyed the power and the glory of the Farnese clan.
One room had romantic depictions of the towns and castles owned by the family;
another was called the Room of Farnese Deeds. Deeds, and there were a lot of them, were interesting but the Room of the World Map was the prize. The entire known world as it was in 1574 was depicted, some accurate and some wildly wrong.
I was in fresco heaven with every wall and ceiling covered in disporting gods and goddesses alongwith flora, fauna and the family. Too much to possibly take in at one go.
As we descended the glorious spiral staircase to cross the moat into the gardens I noticed a woman staring at me intently. Curious, I stared back, wondering why she was so interested. Was my fly unzipped? Then she said in English: “I know you, you worked at the United Nations in the ‘80s. Your name is Judith.”
She was correct but how she remembered me I could not fathom. We chatted a few minutes before she turned back to her companions. Her parting words were, “How strange – this is the first time I have ever been to this villa.” Strange indeed.
We crossed the drawbridge into the warm sunshine, a pleasure after the cold and damp interior where the fireplaces seemed too few and only hooks at the top of the walls remained to hang the long-gone tapestries used to help warm the enormous high-ceilinged rooms.
The bridge took us to a parterre garden made of box topiary and decorated with fountains, and then uphill through a park of chestnut trees. Wild crocus blooms carpeted the ground.
At the top we ascended the stairs flanked by a catena d’acqua, a staircase with water running down the side, to arrive at the casino – a summerhouse now belonging to the President of Italy. A delightful perk of office.
The adjacent garden is lined by stone herms (Roman boundary markers) and ancient dark cypresses set against the blue sky.
The casino has terraces for al fresco dining which reminded us that it was lunch time. When our tour was complete we asked about restaurants and were directed to Tratorria del Cimino. The menu was posted outside: carpaccio with funghi porcini, fried artichokes, homemade pastas and gnocchi, grilled and oven-roasted meats.
We opened the door and were welcomed by an agreeable host who brought bruschetta and local wine while we studied the menu. It was all tempting. I settled on the fettuccini followed by roast pork with rosemary potatoes. Biscotti and another cookie, rich with local filberts, for dessert arrived unbidden. With wine and coffee finished and our goal of peace, sun and good food met, it was time to head back to Rome. All was quiet, the demonstration was finished for the day and the sun was out. Our hotel terrace beckoned.