Villa MontaltoOn the east side, towards the Esquilme and Viminal, there was a very scanty supply, and it was just here that another cardinal, Montalto, elected to build the Villa Montalto in a grand style. This cardinal made a victorious exit from the Conclave in 1585 as Pope Sixtus V. To no other Pope have so many legends been attached as to this one, originally Felice Peretti, who worked his way up from the lowly estate of a shepherd boy to the highest position in Christendom, always believing in his luck, which he thought his father had bestowed on him with the name Felice that he liked so much to hear. This Pope is described by Ranke as a man of frugal life, who quickly remedied the ruinous condition of Church finance.
In spite of his economy, however, he indulged his fancy for building. The villa he started as cardinal he brought to completion as Pope, and in the handsomest way. It was adorned with choice works of ancient art, although at one time he had scornfully opposed the cult of antiquity. There is an anecdote that relates how the cardinal suddenly was compelled to give up building his villa, when Gregory XIII., himself a great lover of building, was provoked by hearing that a mere cardinal was making a finer villa than the Pope’s. Then Montalto thought it advisable to hold back, feigning illness. But at this point the architect Domenico Fontana, who also believed in his master’s good luck, bought the entire place so that he could continue the work, and later on the Pope heaped honours on his head.
This story shows how important to the Romans was the size and splendour of this garden. But one reason why it was interrupted must have been the deplorable want of water in this part of the city, and the first order given by the Pope on the very day he ascended the papal chair, was that Domenico Fontana was to undertake the construction of the water conduit, Acqua Felice. Thus did he inaugurate a work that, as Ranke says, "brought more honour and glory to him in the town than was paid to any other Pope.” This gigantic work filled him and the architect with joy and pride when two years later it was completed. All Rome took part in the jubilation, and Torquato Tasso wrote a pompous poem in its praise, following the water on its path below the earth till gleefully it greets the sun which once shone upon the mighty Augustus. It was felt that now something had been made worthy of antique glory, and so it should be celebrated in an antique style. The Pope had one arm of the conduit taken through his garden and thence to the Quirinal, the other was to pour forth its streams at the Moses fountain at the Thermæ.
The Villa Montalto which only a few decades ago stood “ beautiful and dignified in wild surroundings “ is now completely swamped in a sea of houses, stretching from the Esquilme and Viminal between the church of S. Maria Maggiore and the Thermæ. The architect, Domenico Fontana, was the first of a whole family of architects, who gained their chief reputation by the laying out of gardens in the seventeenth century. Like his master, Domenico had risen in the world; from a bricklayer’s apprentice in the service of Sixtus V. he had become his architect, and finally he was almost exclusively employed. The casino at the villa was not large and its façade was only approached by one entrance loggia, and Fontana’s particular ability is shown in his spacing, which is remarkable in the massive features of the garden grouped about the Palazzo Felice. One can imagine nothing more magnificent than the approach to the casino from the side of the Esquilne near the church of S. Maria Maggiore.
Through a large gate one steps into a garden where three splendid cypress avenues diverge; and at the point where they end there are two grand lion fountains, which seem to be fastened together by a kind of clasp or chain. The middle avenue leads directly to the entrance loggia with its three arches, and we must think of it as described by Evelyn—full of statues, inscriptions, reliefs, and other antique marbles, “such that one could not imagine anything more splendid and gay.” The palace has giardini secreti half-way to the height of the first story, and there is a higher terrace behind, There are various grottoes in the walls, and behind the casino there is a semicircular level part with a fountain and vases put up between hedges.
A large cypress avenue starting from here crosses another that began at the second gate at the baths, in a round place where a great many water devices are assembled. These two main avenues reached the wrought-iron gates of the flower-garden, and were then continued in the park which surrounds this garden on the north and east; and both of these avenues, which end in hills with statues upon them, give a point de vue very clearly, as they are straight as well as long.
If we compare this with all the other gardens we have examined, the continuity is obvious and significant. We have always found hitherto that in the flower-garden at least there has been a formal distribution of beds in squares and bordered with hedges, or else paths arched over with foliage. Then in the gardens of Ligorio, Vignola, and others, the architectural effect has been obtained by either water or terraces. Here for the very first time the artist is working in a larger style with perspective. Long avenues are made with definite endings, architecture or sculpture. The beds must be arranged to suit the form of the avenues: large, open, or semicircular spaces at the beginning of the avenues increase the grandeur of the outlook, as Evelyn particularly notes. Their size is increased once more by the extension of the flower-garden into the park; the importance of this feature will be seen later on. The many beautiful fountains—unhappily all entirely perished—are something more than an adornment of separate parts of the garden or avenues, for they really dominate the whole composition, and are a leading motive. Villa Montalto is in this respect not only the first in a particular style, but it is destined to be for long the only one. More than half a century later Fontana’s ideas are united to those of the French garden, and proceed to what is still more important and built on a larger foundation.
Villa Montalto had not only its own points de vue to rejoice in, but also the help of buildings outside. This attraction was not the least that was felt by the Pope when he chose the site for his villa, seeing that on one side there were the mighty towers and cupolas of the church of S. Maria Maggiore, on the east, looking through a great avenue, the little church of San Antonio, and on the west the ruins of the baths of Diocletian which extended right up to the park. Ever since Alberti's time the view from the garden had been an important consideration, and in a country that was so rich in the beauties of landscape scenery, it was easy enough to find a view. But Rome offered more than this with its abundance of ruins and churches, and it did not take long to see how a villa would be enriched by a view of such architecture.