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Once it was a ruin. Now it's a beautiful garden.

By Marc ZakianContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 2005


This is the story of one of Italy's most beautiful gardens - how it almost disappeared and was rescued by women of three successive generations who fell in love with it. It's also the story of a man who was chosen as a boy to guide the garden into the future.

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In the beginning, it wasn't a garden at all. Instead, Ninfa was a town, one that has been referred to as the medieval Pompeii.

"Ninfa is a coincidence of history, botany, and art," says Lauro Marchetti, the garden's curator. "The first inhabitants were the Romans, who thought it so beautiful they named it after the nymphs they believed resided here."

By medieval times, Ninfa, about 44 miles from Rome, had grown into a thriving town with 2,000 inhabitants. In 1297 Pope Boniface VIII - the patriarch of the Caetani family - gave Ninfa to his nephew Pietro. Eighty years later there was a civil war in the church, with the Caetani family on the losing side. As an act of revenge, the victorious pope, Clement VII, destroyed the town.

Ninfa lay abandoned for six centuries - its churches, castles, and houses open to the elements. Nobody wanted to resettle the area - it was difficult to defend and malarial mosquitoes had colonized nearby marshes.

Then, in 1920, Onorato Caetani married English aristocrat Ada Wilbraham. As soon as she set eyes on Ninfa she made it her life's mission to restore it.

An artist, Ada would paint magnificent visions of the ruined castles and palazzi of Ninfa surrounded by plants and in harmony with the natural environment. She showed her canvases to the gardeners, who would try and re-create the pictures in nature.

When Ada died in 1934, her second son, Prince Roffredo, and his Boston-born wife, Maurgerite Chapin, continued to try to bring to life his mother's visions for the garden.

As Princess Maurgerite Caetani, she became a leading literary patron. At Ninfa, she added numerous shrubs to the trees that her mother-in-law had planted in the garden to form a foundation or backdrop for the landscape.

Today's garden is mostly the vision of Maurgerite's daughter, Lelia. Mr. Marchetti first met her when he was 7 years old. "I was born on the farm next to Ninfa," he explains. "One day I was playing here, and when they saw me running around in the garden, looking at the birds and animals, they 'adopted' me."

Lelia was the last in the Caetani line - she had no heirs to carry on her work. "One day she asked my father if I could come and live here as an apprentice. He agreed. When I asked Lelia how long should I come for she smiled at me and said, 'the rest of your life.' "

Before Lelia died in 1977, she created two foundations to ensure the garden's survival. As planned, Marchetti took over stewardship of the 200 acres of gardens and buildings.

"I have to think of the garden as a picture, and give maximum freedom and expression to the plants, animals, and birds," he says of his gardening philosophy. "Lelia never chose a plant for botanical reasons, only for artistic ones."

Naturalistic look