Ninfa: The extraordinary tale of an English country garden which thrives in the heart of Italy

Charles Quest-Ritson fell in love with the spectacularly romantic gardens of Ninfa decades ago, and is just as entranced now as he was then. But make your visit while you can, he warns, since its future is not secure.

I first heard about Ninfa when I was barely out of school. It was an English garden made around the ruins of an abandoned Italian town somewhere south of Rome. Lots of people seemed to know the owners, but we didn’t, so it was some years before I wangled an introduction, passed through the garden gate and found myself in Paradise.

I wrote about it ecstatically in my first book, The English Garden Abroad, nearly 30 years ago, but Ninfa has a way of working ever deeper into your skin and, eventually, I had to dedicate a whole book to it. This was published in 2009 as Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World and is the only book I’ve ever written on spec, without a publishing contract until I’d finished it. Second-hand copies used to retail for exorbitant sums, but, now, it’s been republished by the Friends of Ninfa and the bubble has burst.

It’s not only the medieval walls that render the garden unique – Ninfa’s river gushes out beneath a manmade lake next to the citadel at the phenomenal rate of 1,000 litres per second. It creates a micro-climate for temperate plants that would otherwise not survive a Mediterranean summer. Ninfa’s grass is always green.

Ancient bridge over the Ninfa Creek, Latina, Italy

Ancient bridge over the Ninfa Creek, Latina, Italy

The town was sacked and set alight in a local war in 1381. Its feudal owners, the princely Caetani family, decided to abandon it – the cost of repair and re-population was too great. Roofs collapsed, walls crumbled and the ruins were smothered by thickets of hawthorn and bay. Ninfa slumbered, let to tenant farmers for grazing and, latterly, visited from time to time by English watercolourists, such as Edward Lear.

In 1921, Ninfa was inherited by Prince Gelasio Caetani – war hero, mining engineer, politician and diplomat – who began to clear the overgrowth of centuries, excavate the medieval ruins and plant a garden within and around them.

His mother was English – Ada Bootle-Wilbraham, a niece of Lord Derby, the Prime Minister – and, as were many well-born Victorian ladies, she was an enthusiastic hands-on gardener. Many of the climbing roses that drape the walls of the ruined houses, churches and fortifications were brought by Ada and planted during her weekend visits.

Wisteria covers an ancient bridge over the  Ninfa River in the central Italian garden of Ninfa.

Wisteria covers an ancient bridge over the Ninfa River in the central Italian garden of Ninfa.

After Gelasio’s death, his American sister-in-law, Marguerite, Duchess of Sermoneta, planted lavishly until, in about 1950, her daughter Lelia took on the venture. Lelia was an artist and a passionate plant lover. Every year, a lorry loaded with new trees and shrubs would come to Ninfa from Hillier in Winchester and Lelia planted them wherever she thought they would fare best and, in addition, where they would create beautiful, harmon-ising, painterly effects.

After her death in 1977, Ninfa was curated with skill and devotion by her English husband, Hubert Howard. The Howards had no children of their own and the male-line Caetani family had died out, so Ninfa was set up as a trust on the English model.

When Hubert died in 1987, management of the garden passed to the Howards’ protégé Lauro Marchetti, who was the son of their estate manager and still a young man in his thirties. Lauro has maintained and developed the garden exactly as Lelia and Hubert intended.

Ninfa Gardens

He is that rare creature among gardeners: an Italian who thinks like an Englishman. The plantings have intensified over the past 30 years – Ninfa is ever more Ninfa-ish.

I’m often asked about the best time to visit Ninfa. I love it most in late winter, when the woodland areas are full of light and the first magnolias break into flower. Most people would say the garden reaches a peak of beauty in May, when climbing roses cover its walls and all its 20 acres are filled with scent and beauty.

Ninfa opens on selected days from March to November, but you have to queue up and join a group for a guided tour. It’s a good tour and you see most of the best parts of the garden; better still, however, is to engineer a private visit by joining a group that may, on occasion, be allowed to dally or deviate from the prescribed route.

The garden was created by the Caetani family, using existing features such as this medieval bridge covered in wisteria.

The garden was created by the Caetani family, using existing features such as this medieval bridge covered in wisteria.

Best of all is to wander around in the evening, when fireflies glitter and nightingales sing – an experience offered only to very special guests such as members of the Royal Family.

However, you must go now, while the going is good. Lauro is nearing retirement and few Italians understand, as he does, the obligations that English trust law impose. I cannot be as confident about Ninfa’s future as I was when I first passed through the gates of Paradise more than 30 years ago.

To join the Country Life tour to Rome and Lazio, which includes a visit to Ninfa, on May 5–9, contact Boxwood Tours on 01341 241717, email mail@boxwoodtours.co.uk or see www.boxwoodtours.co.uk/country-life-rome-lazio.