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Experiencing Landscape: Villa Giulia, Rome

Posted by Author on March 31, 2015 at 10:00 PM


Resisting the temptation to dedicate a third post to Sacro Bosco, this blog shifts focus to another villa garden of the same era. Unlike the rural Sacro Bosco, Villa Giulia sits just yards from the ancient Roman walls that mark the empire's center. The two villa gardens, which both came together in the mid-1500s, are vastly different in both conception and detailing, but their distinction goes far beyond a simple country mouse / city mouse dichotomy.


Located less than a three-mile walk from the Vatican, Villa Giulia was built as something of a papal way station. The garden is surrounded by and integrated with what naturally appears to be a residential structure, but as Elizabeth Barlow Rogers describes, the house serves "simply an accessory to the garden" and was built "not as a residence but as a place for papal entertainment."

Rogers' statement ranking landscape over structure is significant and also reassuring. To be honest, the garden is what brought me to Villa Giulia, and during my tour of it I was concerned I was missing something -- the "residence" consistently seemed like it was playing second fiddle. Villa Giulia is not a simple landscape, but to me it unfolded in five legible chapters.

Entering through a conventional, ornamental architectural facade, a visitor passes through a vestibule that gives way to a semicircular portico. Painted with intricate ceiling frescoes and faux-ancient murals reminiscent of those seen at Pompeii, these vaulted and column-lined walks sweep around an open courtyard.

The second chapter follows along the central axis established from the front door of the entry vestibule. Forward momentum carries a visitor from the dark, shady portico into a garden court with a clear sense of perimeter enclosure. The court tempts the eye of the visitor with five doorways and is otherwise encased above eye level. To the right and left, four openings offer invitations to side gardens, but these do not rival the allure of the formal, elevated loggia located on the central axis ahead.

Climbing a few steps to the columned loggia, one achieves a sense of arrival with a twist. Across an expanse, a Palladian porch comes into view, but the groundplane between the viewer and this feature falls suddenly away. Without a word of warning, the designer brings one to the edge of an unexpected two-story depression. Looking down from a stone balustrade, an highly ornamental grotto beckons.

Descending one of two flanking stairs, the fourth chapter is reached only by leaving the central axis. Stepping down over stone and herringbone-brick stairs, the increase in coolness and moisture is noteworthy. Even with a relatively recent algae-scrubbing that Rogers describes in her book, this grotto, or "nymphaeum," has a vibrant but constrained wildness to it. The grotto is the most iconic moment of the garden, and it is interesting that the designer chose the lowest point, topographically, to serve as the summit of the villa's dramatic sequence.


The fifth and final chapter is a courtyard beyond the Palladian porch. Not directly accessible from the main axis and partially concealed from view, my impression was that this space was envisioned as a secondary, semi-private courtyard. (If entrance to this space was supposed to be part of the sequenced narrative, I would assess that this goal was poorly executed.) The porch and the court beyond it overlooks the grotto from an opposing angle, and maintains a strong relationship to the loggia. Perhaps from this perch, experienced visitors could be entertained by the dropping jaws of new arrivals.

A quick comparison of the photos in this blog to those from my previous two posts demonstrates that there are pronounced ornamental differences between Villa Giulia and Sacro Bosco. Having visited the two only days apart, I was surprised to learn that it is not the presence or lack of carved-stone "monsters" that drives this distinction. Next to the carefully scripted sequence of movement through Villa Giulia, Sacro Bosco, and perhaps most other gardens, feel like an improvisational -- and perhaps less masterful -- performance.

Categories: Landscape Design, Garden History, Art & Inspiration

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