The gardens at Ninfa are set amongst the medieval ruins of the town of the same name. During the medieval period the town of Ninfa lay between Rome and Naples so it became an important stop on the way to or from these two cities. The location of the town was at the bottom of mountains where they had access to fresh water, but this also meant that the city lay in a swamp and was prone to malaria outbreaks. After a successful period the town was repeatedly sacked by barbarians and was abandoned for a more fortified location in the 17th century.
One family retained ownership of the town during its period of decay, ruin and revival as a romantic garden. The town lay relatively untouched until the early 20th century when a member of the Caetani family began planting and cultivating a garden within the ruins. Today one can stroll along the manicured paths and observe the ruined walls and streets of the original town with carefully placed and arranged flowers and plants. The effect is very thoughtfully articulated with every plant knowing its place, all arranged to make the image of the ruins a perfect backdrop for the plants and the plants an ideal accessory for the ruins. The romanticism associated with ruins has made Ninfa the ideal tourist spot. The ruins are open to the public on the first weekend of the month — although only during spring and summer — which further enhances a desire to see these hidden, special, antiquated gardens.
The magic of Ninfa lies not in the ruins but in the meticulous cultivation of its image. Without the gardens Ninfa would likely be no more than old stones of interest only to dusty old academics. The subject of how ruins come to be regarded with a sad longing was touched on in Nostalgia for Ruins by Andreas Huyssen: “How can we speak of ruins as we remember the bombed out cities of World War II (Rotterdam and Coventry, Hamburg and Dresden, Warsaw, Stalingrad, and Leningrad). Bombings, after all, are not about producing ruins. They produce rubble.”1 Time changes our view of most things. Bombings in WWII were horrible, similar to a town being invaded by barbarians and destroyed, yet what is left behind is the same and eventually the bad memories are discarded or forgotten and the romance of a time long passed are called forth. The most popular ruins are ones that were once monuments to a society of great power, now discarded and destroyed. We do not look at these ruins and see sickness or suffering or displaced people, we see an idealized past full of unseen futures.
1 Huyssen, Andreas. “Nostalgia for Ruins.” Grey Room, no. 23 (May 1, 2006).