Amongst the many manifestations of garden architecture that surround the city of Rome, including the splendid Villa d’Este in Tivoli, one project in the Castelli Romani region, which deserves special attention is the Chigi Park in Ariccia. This garden park has recently been restored and given a new lease of life by Virginio Melaranci after five years of dedicated work, at the cost of over one million euro.
Originally planned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the Chigi family of bankers, the project was further enriched by Carlo Fontana, who added classical Italian garden layouts. His design works included the installation of a Barco (an area reserved for hunting) surrounded by a form of sacred forest, which echoed antique Greek models. The park itself also created a strong relationship with its surrounding natural environment, creating an equation between the organised layout of the garden park and the external undomesticated nature.
In 1661 the Chigi family acquired from the Savelli’s the feudal title of Ariccia and within a 15-year period initiated a series of important works to restore the park and incorporated the existing aviary of Roman origin converted in 1682 by Bernardino Savelli. The Chigi scheme featured a fishmonger’s store, although it has since been removed, cells and cellars for the conservation of food and a number of both decorative and rustic fountains. The scheme also included a system of waterworks, pathways and dense high trees with laid nets for the purpose of trapping birds.
In all of these changes, it’s easy to notice an almost reverend respect for the natural surroundings of the site, an approach rarely seen since those times. Sigismondo Chigi (1736-1793) insisted that the park should always retain a natural picturesque quality reminiscent of a wild forest, with trees which had fallen through the impact of strong winds or had dried up due to old age, left to stand in their derelict state.
After visiting as part of a grand tour of Rome in 1787, Goethe wrote, “we paused at the entrance of a park which seemed well kept but not controlled by its owner. Strangely enough, the proprietor, Prince Chigi, seemed keen that visitors should only get glimpses of this private natural environment. In fact, it appeared more as a tangled assembly of trees, roots and other plants which grew without any form of control. All bushes, shrubs and other vegetal growths were allowed to dry, fall and even rot. The whole ambiance evoked nature and appeared almost as a powerful painting conceived by a great artist.”
In the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the concept of the Barco, the aviary and new approaches in garden architecture, strongly evoked the zeitgeist of the age, following a philosophy that no one should disturb the romantic ambiance of untouched nature, which manifested the layering and stratification of its whole development over many a century. This approach however, did not prevent the respective owners of such spaces from imposing traces of their own design; for example, planting cypress trees in the centre of a clearing surrounded by 18th century style fountains; trees which today having reached a height of over 30 meters have changed the whole image of the site. The practice of planting exotic trees in relation to man-made architectural features is most evident in this complex at the piazza next to the aviary, where a large cypress tree was placed adjacent to the Viale dei Leoni, together with a series of sculptures in terracotta on the side of the arch which marks the entrance to the old Roman remains. Another cypress tree rises at the beginning of the passageway leading to the Barco, while a series of Chamaerop palms are evident in the Giardino Nuovo area on the hillock on the route to the aviary.
Since its restoration, the place has now been reinterpreted as a walled garden with the installation of a lawn, the starkness and simplicity of which contrasts with the organic plastic qualities of the whole complex. The borders which define the area feature decorative plants such as acanthus, various species of fern, rhubarb, hydrangeas and palm trees which in their autumn colours contrast strongly with the grey tones of the walls covered with capsicum plants.
The question facing the architect Melaranci in the restoration of this project was how to amalgamate and unify the historical, botanical and forestry aspects of the whole area while retaining the overriding order of its vegetal aspect. The choice was between the previously untamed and natural characteristics of the garden or recreating the image of what the park would have looked like in the 19th century based on photographic images of the time. Today, when visiting the park, the imagery evokes the atmosphere of those times while the aromas, the silence, the light and colours which now characterise the project were certainly aspects which would not have been present in the original layout but which would have developed and materialised in the passage of time through different epochs.
In this manner, the architect, while retaining the landscaping characteristics of the original project in its completely naturalistic state, has installed some form of overlaid controlled disorder. The new plants may be read as the architect’s gesture to emphasise the new man-made touches and his imposition of an antropic order yet recalling images of the ‘Giardino di Ninfa’ and the ‘Piazzale dei Mascheroni’ in the new part of the garden. The newly planted trees include various maple species monspessulanum, saccharinum, negundo variegatum, vari palmatum, heptalobum, all of which not only contrast with the monochromatic effect of the park generated by the ever present persistent lecci allori but also serve to create and focus on specific spatial vistas while also carefully avoiding views of the unfortunate structures of the new part of the city. This planting consists mainly of cynnamomum camphora which screens the back part of the Tiberian funerary monument of ‘Tiberio Latinio Pandusa’, relocated in the park in 1997 from the adjacent ‘Appia Antica’. In the ‘Piazzale dei Mascheroni’ a small water feature was introduced as a form of mnemonic recollection of the destroyed old fishmonger store during the construction of the monumental bridge.