Tag Archives: villas

And sometimes, you find paradise.

19 Jun

I’ve gotten good at this. Finding paradise, that is. It’s not all that hard when I’m in Italy. It just requires letting go of my normal thoughts for a moment – the physical aches of my shoulders and feet or the technological zips of Facebook alerts – and letting my senses take over. No planning ahead, wearing watches, or using maps. Just wandering, observing, touching, and trying to consume as much as possible in real-time memory-making.

Urban studies has a term for this method of approaching cities: the dérive. Students abandon their normal methods of navigation and, it is hoped, their native misgivings and instead journey based on instinct and emotional response to their surroundings. If a certain street looks inviting, they walk down it. If they turn back and switch direction, they note it and later try to determine why. Why enter this piazza? Why not put your hands in that fountain? Why are some parts of the city magnetic and others repulsive? It is a technique that gives weight to the individual experience within the context of the urban whole.

I bring this up because I have spent several of the past few days going on my own dérives. Finally, I feel as though I have gotten to the point where I don’t need a map here (which doesn’t mean that I know my way around, it just means that I’ve gained a certain familiarity with the north-south-east-west bearings of the landscape), and I’ve started taking some solitary afternoon walks (mainly to the computer repair shop, which is how I am typing again. YAY.). From this perspective, the city feels completely different. I pay no attention to street signs and instead orient myself based on gut feeling (“where is the Tiber? where should I be in relation to the river right now?”). I don’t take pictures. I don’t slow down to read the plaque on every building. Instead, I make eye contact with the trees and the drivers, and I shake my head with a smile at all of the “bella! bella! ciao, bella!” from Italian men, and I let myself be drawn into the everyday bowels of this eternal city.

But back to paradise. The one that I visited most recently was a series of villas during our big class day-trip to Tivoli yesterday. Tivoli is about an hour away, so we were on the bus at 8:30am and back in Rome by 7pm. Within that time, we visited Hadrian’s Villa, Villa d’Este, and Villa Gregoriana, and the best way of describing the landscapes that I saw is to think back to those old puzzles – yknow, the ones with vibrant greens and distant mountains and always a waterfall, that have at least 500 pieces in them that all blend together because everything is so lush, and you are convinced it’s just a painting after all? yeah, those puzzles – and imagine walking through them, and realizing that they are real, and that your feet – those same dirty feet that played soccer on New Hampshire fields and tottered for hours the night of prom – are touching that painted earth. It is a landscape that forces poetry or prostration, perhaps both. If you are ever in Rome with the chance to take a day trip, this is it. The big and beautiful kahuna.

First, Hadrian’s Villa. We just finished reading an exquisite book called “Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar – one of my all-time favorite books, please please go add it to your list – and so I had some background heading into the day. I knew, for example, that Hadrian had been a Roman emperor right after Trajan, and that he lived from 76-138 AD. I knew that he was an extremely well-traveled man who barely spent any time in Rome and instead slept at the edges of his empire, trying to keep it secure. I knew that he had a love affair with a young boy named Antinous, of whom he had many statues made. And I knew that he was rumored to be an amateur architect.

What I didn’t know was that his villa (and here’s an important point – unlike our connotation in English, the word “villa” in Italian does not refer solely to a house, it refers to an entire estate) is cradled by hills out in the countryside, and that he had built houses, as the guide said, “capable of architectural flirtation.” I didn’t know that his admiration of everything Greek led him to build pools that reflect water in moving ribbons across marble columns, or that I would be surrounded by the remnants of curves and shadows, pillars and grids. “Get drunk on art,” the museum there encouraged us. And so I did, imagining what the tumbling down brick halls looked like when they were first painted with their frescoes or lined with colored marble statues. And we all did, as we delighted in Hadrian’s ability to fuse the organic and the constructed by building man-made fountains in the natural curvature of a valley.

Then, we piled onto the bus and back out at Villa d’Este. Built much later and with the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa in mind (and in hand – many of the decorations at d’Este were in fact stolen – er, scavenged – from Hadrian’s original structures just a few miles away), Villa d’Este is a place where luxury and whimsy gave themselves permission to run rampant across a hillside. It is home to sun and shade and oasis and retreat and olive trees (with the most unbelievable, gnarled and time-wizened trunks) and above all, WATER. Edith Wharton wrote about the gardens here, as do the guidebooks, because of the fountains within them. More fountains than you can imagine, about 500 individual jets of water, all celebrating their surroundings through reflections. I am aching with the beauty of the space before I even make it down the first staircase. This is a planned place, a scripted place, meant to be romantic and evocative, and it succeeds; there is a marking in the exact center of the gardens, and when I get there, I lay down on my back and closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I said something silly and romantic and exactly like what the architects wanted me to say, something like, “I am waking up from a dream and seeing through my heart.” I was actually exhausting myself with my lofty odes. We picnicked in Villa d’Este and ate a cake we had brought with us for someone’s birthday, and as we left, I spoke with someone about how much more disciplined this villa had seemed than the crumpled one before. “That’s true,” she agreed. “But think about it – even with this planning, the water is still slowly wearing down its stone fountain containers every second of the day. At some point, it, too, will go back to nature.” And it’s true – in one hidden corner, I found a dormant statue so covered with moss that it seemed to be clenched by the greenery. It all circles back into itself in time.

Finally, we arrived at Villa Gregoriana. Unlike the other two sites, Villa Gregoriana has no house within its walls; it is a villa of nature, but is well-known for human engineering in addition to its beauty. That engineering diverted the Aniene River from its normal flood path (right through town) and to a safer set of tunnels and pools within the hills. Pope Gregory XVI turned the space into a public park in 1826, and Pliny and Goethe, to name just a few, both mentioned it as one of the most beautiful spaces they had ever seen. I have to agree, if only because so many of the signs used the term “grotto,” and that word in itself connotes a place of splendor, doesn’t it? Either that or the Little Mermaid, who would have been proud of the way I clambered down rock steps and over barriers to dip my feet in waterfall pools.

In all of these places, we wandered. Yes, we talked, and at Hadrian’s Villa, we were taught in a linear fashion by our on-site professors, but we were walking differently than normal, allowing our feet to drag just a bit longer in the ancient dirt and actually reaching out to touch the evidence around us. In the boys’ case, of course, this also meant reaching out to touch every lizard and bug they could find, but it was all part of the classroom experience. Again, if you get the chance, go see them. And if you don’t, well – here it is in pictures. My little slice of paradise.

Hadrian’s Villa

A guesstimated model of what Hadrian's Villa looked like during Hadrian's lifetime. My reaction: "Well...I guess I wouldn't mind living here. If I HAD to..."

The class at Hadrian's Villa. Our professors are the two women in sunglasses.

Olive trees. I am beyond positive there are mythical creatures living within these trunks.

I am a pillar of strength! Also, a dork.

Villa d’Este

The entrance hallway at Villa d'Este

Me in front of the first fountain I encountered. And no, you are not the first one to poke fun at me for not being able to touch my feet to the ground.

Mo' fountains.

Group fountain photo! These are the best girls. We explored together (read: splashed each other with water) all afternoon.

Villa Gregoriana

First view of the Villa. Can you really blame me for my overt romanticism in these situations?

There were rainbows. No pots of gold, though. But definitely rainbows.

And there were waterfalls. (Hearts and stars and horseshoes, clovers and blue moons!)

Annie and I on the descent. Note the backdrop.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...and I, I took the one - well, I took the one that gave me the viewpoint over the Valley of Hell. And that has made all the difference.

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