A few kilometers from the city of Norma, the ancient Norba with its mighty megalithic walls, unfolds the enchanting scenery of the Gardens of Ninfa.
“Behold Ninfa, with its fabulous ruins of a city half-submerged in the marsh, buried under dense ivy, boasting walls, towers, churches, convents, and dwellings. Indeed, this location is more charming than Pompeii itself, whose houses rise stiff like mummies unearthed from volcanic ashes.”
Thus Ferdinand Gregorovius described the gardens in his Roman Walks.
The name Ninfa stems from a Roman-era temple on a small lake islet, dedicated to the deity of spring waters. In the eighth century, it became part of the Papal administration and played a significant role due to the Pedemontana Road, providing a southern route avoiding the frequently marshy Appian Way.
From the 11th century, Ninfa assumed the role of a city governed by various noble families, flourishing both economically and politically. Pope Boniface VIII (Benedetto Caetani) acquired Ninfa, marking the family’s presence in the Pontine and Lepine territories.
In 1382, it was plundered and destroyed amid disruptions from the Great Religious Schism, never to be rebuilt. Malaria in the nearby marshes further deterred resettlement; the remaining few inhabitants departed, leaving behind the remnants of a ghost town. The Caetani themselves moved to Rome and elsewhere.
During the 16th century, Cardinal Nicolò III Caetani, a botany enthusiast, aimed to establish a “garden of delights” in Ninfa, constructed by architect Francesco Capriani. In the following century, Duke Francesco IV tended to the hortus conclusus. Only in the late 19th century did the Caetani family return to the once-abandoned estate.
Ada Bootle Wilbraham, an Englishwoman and wife of Onoraro Caetani, along with two of their six children, Gelasio and Roffredo, devoted themselves to Ninfa, creating an Anglo-Saxon-style garden. They drained the marshes, removed invasive plants from the ruins, planted the first cypresses, oaks, beeches—now majestic—many roses, and restored several ruins, including the Baronial Palace (town hall). It initially became the family’s country home and now houses some offices of the Roffredo Caetani Foundation.
Marguerite Chapin, Roffredo Caetani’s wife, and later their daughter Leila, the last “gardener” heir, introduced new species of shrubs and roses. In the 1930s, Leila opened the doors to a circle of literati and artists associated with the literary journals she founded, inspiring the likes of Virginia Woolf, Alberto Moravia, Truman Capote, and Giuseppe Ungaretti. The rustling leaves and birdsong captivated Diana Spencer and Prince Charles, as well as the Belgian Royals.
This garden was envisioned as a vast painting, harmonizing colors and allowing plants to develop naturally. The New York Times ranked it among the world’s most beautiful gardens. In 1972, the Roffredo Caetani Foundation was established to preserve the Caetani lineage’s memory and protect the gardens.
Spring blooms are delightful, and it’s enchanting to wander among over a thousand representatives of terrestrial flora. Cherries and ornamental apple trees, deciduous magnolias, American walnut, Mexican pine, South American acacia, Himalayan pine, yucca, banana, Australian casuarina tenuissima, prunus, birches, marsh irises, mist tree with pink feather-like inflorescences resembling cotton candy, and a cedar with a tillandsia resting on its trunk – a plant without roots that derives nutrients from the air’s humidity. There’s a sensational variety of Japanese maples, not to mention the numerous splendid rose gardens.
Since 1976, a WWF oasis has emerged on approximately 1,800 hectares surrounding the garden, dedicated to wildlife protection in the region. A forest system and wetland areas have been established to facilitate the rest and nesting of birdlife. Simultaneously, efforts have been made to recreate the typical vegetation of the area—predominantly marshy—existing until the 1930s before the Pontine land reclamation.
The area lies along a major migratory route for birds traveling from North Africa to various parts of Europe. After the oasis’s creation, the region has seen the arrival of mallards, teal, herons, snipes, stilts, and various raptor species.
The Gardens of Ninfa have been designated a Natural Monument by the Lazio Region.