Ninfa: The "Pompeii of the Middle Ages"

Conference: Ninfa. From the Pompeii of the Middle Ages to the Gardens of Ninfa, October 23, 2020

Ninfa, a singular, suggestive place, lies in the Pontine marches, at the foot of the Monti Lepini, about an hour's drive south of Rome. The sensitive ensemble of ruins, plants and animals is only open to the public on a few days a year and has not been the subject of systematic cultural-historical investigations until now. Since 2000, Ninfa has been a natural monument (Monumento Naturale) of the Lazio region.

There are two aspects which render Ninfa a worldwide unique testimony. The medieval town, which was built in this place in the high Middle Ages, gradually started to decay at the end of the 14th century. In the 19th century Ferdinand Gregorovius described the ruins of the fort, the city wall, the town hall and numerous churches and houses as the "fairytale ruins of a city", the "Pompeii of the Middle Ages" and the "Pompeii of Christianity". "This delightful Nympha" - says Gregorovius - "is the most charming fairy tale in history and nature that I have seen anywhere in the world". The suggestion of this landscape of ruins also fascinated (not only German-speaking) artists.

In the 20th century the ruins, overgrown by numerous plants, were transformed into an English landscape garden by the owners, the old Roman aristocratic Caetani family. According to a recent publication in English (Charles Quest-Ritson, London 2009), it is considered "the most romantic garden in the world". The water-rich southern location below the protective Monti Lepini and the specific microclimate within the medieval city walls favour the unique symbiosis created or at least facilitated by man between ruins and plants, between watercourses and rare animals (especially fish and birds). The walls and the plants growing on them create beautiful patterns, whose fascinating interactions and contrasts are truly eye-catching due to the ever-changing light and colour conditions. The preservation of the balance between the remains of historical buildings on the one hand and a diverse fauna and flora on the other is one of the main objectives of the Garden Management and the Fondazione Roffredo Caetani. Thus a ruin-specific flora thrives here, whose roots should not endanger the still existing monuments.

Four projects are currently being pursued within the framework of the project:

1) Michael Matheus and Christoph Brech are working on a book project in collaboration with Andreas Beitin.

Christoph Brech, who himself trained as a gardener before studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, documented the gardens of Ninfa photographically over a period of two years. The aim was not only to capture this probably unique garden and ruin landscape as a romantic park in the changing seasons of the day and year, but also to identify essential subjects for this place through precise observation, such as the juxtaposition of grown and built structures or to show the plants as ruins in autumn and winter photographs.

In addition to the photographs, Michael Matheus, historian and long-time director of the German Historical Institute (DHI) in Rome, describes the genesis and decline of the medieval city, the transformation of the ruins into a garden ensemble, and the perception of the "Pompeii of the Middle Ages" by German writers and artists in particular.

Michael Matheus, Andreas Beitin, Christoph Brech (photos), Ninfa. The "Pompeii of the Middle Ages", Schnell and Steiner (in preparation)

2) Rudolf Hüls researches preserved written sources on the history of the Pontine swamps and Ninfa in relevant archives, especially in the Archivio di Stato di Latina. The results will be published in individual studies and the sources will be made available in a database.

3) Thirdly, a virtual reconstruction of parts of the medieval city or individual buildings is to be carried out on the basis of a systematic evaluation of the preserved written sources and on the basis of terrestrial and airborne 3D laser scanning of the preserved ruins (by ArcTron3D).

4) In an anthology prepared in collaboration with Anna Maria Voci and Gabriele Turban-Lang, Michael Matheus publishes texts on Ninfa from the long nineteenth century (ca. 1780 to 1914). They impressively illustrate the perception of Ninfa, in Europe and beyond, as a magical place before its was transformed into the present-day Garden of Ninfa in the 1920s.

The project is a cooperation project between the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, the German Historical Institute (DHI) in Rome, the Fondazione Roffredo Caetani and the Giardini di Ninfa. In the medium term, the project is to become part of an interdisciplinary and epoch-spanning project on the environmental history of the Pontine marshes.


Research results and further reading:

Rudolf Hüls: Paulus Gaytanus da Marmossolio (ca. 1400 - ca. 1450): un abate produttore di vino, commerciante di bestiame, prestatore di denaro e padre di famiglia, ma senza monaci. In: Latium. 34 (2017), S. 5-16. Hüls, Rudolf: Paulus Gaytanus da Marmossolio

Rudolf Hüls: I quaterni del notaio Antonio di Mastro pietro alias Tuzi (sec. XIV): una fonte straordinaria sulla vitapolitica, sociale, economica e culturale nell’area di Sermoneta e Ninfa. In: Latium. 36 (2019), S. 29-74. Hüls, Rudolf: I quaterni Del notaio Antonio di Mastro pietro alias Tuzi



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