Ninfa: The Pompeii of the Middle Ages


About an hour's drive south of Rome, at the foot of the Monti Lepini in the Pontine Marshes, lies a singular and suggestive place, Ninfa. The fragile ensemble of ruins, plants and animals is open to the public just a few days a year and has only recently become the subject of systematic cultural-historical investigations. In 2000, Ninfa was declared a natural monument (Monumento Naturale) of the Lazio region.

For several reasons, Ninfa may be considered an ensemble unique in the world. At any rate, the usual classification of the Giardino as an English landscape garden fails to do justice to the specific quality of this natural monument. The name likely harks back to a nymphaeum that presumably existed on the site, of which, however, no archaeological traces have yet been identified with any certainty. A larger agricultural complex existed in Ninfa by the eighth century and may already have been there in antiquity. Beginning in the eleventh century, a city emerged south of Rome in a position of strategic importance and significance for transport geography. In 1159, with the consecration of Pope Alexander III, it would become a scene of European politics. Ninfa’s gradual decline began in the late fourteenth century. In the sixteenth century, Cardinal Niccolò Caetani di Sermoneta had a Renaissance garden (giardino all’italiana) laid out whose basic structure survives today. Several attempts to resettle the city from the seventeenth century on failed.

In the twentieth century, the owners, the old Roman noble family Caetani, transformed the densely overgrown ruins into a landscape garden. According to an English-language publication (Charles Quest-Ritson, London, 2009), this ruined garden is considered ‘the most romantic garden in the world’. The water-rich southern location protected by the Monti Lepini as well as the specific microclimate within the medieval city walls favour the unique symbiosis between ruins and plants, streams, and rare animals (especially fish, birds, and insects) created or permitted by human intervention. 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. The uniqueness of the site consists not least in the inscription of two thousand years of history on the Giardino di Ninfa and the overall complex.

From the late 1990s to 2009, Pantanello Nature Park was also laid out in an area of some 100 hectares directly adjacent to the Giardino. This site surrounding six new ponds is an ongoing project intended to partially reconstruct and cultivate the flora and fauna that were typical of this landscape before the draining of the Pontine Marshes during the Fascist period.

Three garden models exist in Ninfa: The Renaissance garden, the Giardino di Ninfa laid out since the 1920s, and the Pantanello Nature Park. Together they contribute to the uniqueness of the gesamtkunstwerk and have become a topic of research in cultural studies.

Several projects were and are being pursued within the framework of the larger enterprise:

  • Rudolf Hüls is studying the surviving written sources on the history of the Pontine Marshes and Ninfa in the Middle Ages in the relevant archives, especially the Archivio di Stato di Latina. His findings were and are being published in individual studies, and the sources he has found will be made accessible in a database (see Research Findings and Further Reading).
  • Michael Matheus and Christoph Brech are working on a book project on the history of Ninfa as well as on the possibilities of current artistic perceptions.

Christoph Brech, who trained as a gardener before studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, documented the gardens of Ninfa in photographs over a period of several years. His aim was not only to capture this unique ensemble 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 themselves as ruins in autumn and winter shots.

In addition to the photographs, Michael Matheus, historian and long-time director of the German Historical Institute (DHI) in Rome, outlines the genesis and decline of the medieval city, as well as the emergence of the overgrown ruined city as an international travel destination. References to Ninfa as a city of ivy and flowers show that, in an environment affected at the time by malaria, the interrelationship between ruins and plants was considered specific to the site even before the creation of the romantic ruined garden. Publication of the volume is slated for 2024.

- In the medium term, in collaboration with Gabriele Turban-Lang, Michael Matheus and Anna Maria Voci will publish an anthology of texts on Ninfa from the long nineteenth century (ca. 1780 to 1914). They reflect the construction of Ninfa as a magical and romantic space.

The undertaking is a cooperative project between the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, the German Historical Institute (DHI) in Rome, the Fondazione Roffredo Caetani and the Giardini di Ninfa.

- A virtual reconstruction of parts of the medieval city or individual buildings will be carried out based on a systematic evaluation of the preserved written sources and terrestrial and airborne 3D laser scanning of the preserved ruins (by ArcTron3D).

- Until now, it has been widely accepted that, with a few exceptions like Edward Lear and Ferdinand Gregorovius, the ruined city only became a focus of interest following the bonification of the marshes and the transformation into the present-day Giardino since the 1920s. According to our research thus far, the opposite turns out to be the case. Over the long nineteenth century, Ninfa became a site of longing of decidedly international significance, which was addressed using metaphors such as the Pompeii of the Middle Ages, Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and magical city.

Despite Covid, the initial results of the history of perceptions of the site before the First World War were presented at a conference held in Ninfa in October 2020.

The conference volume was published in 2020 and presented in Ninfa.

Further publications are planned on the history of the reception of the ruined city, especially on the discovery and perceptions of the Pontine Marshes and the Volsci hills as old European cultivated landscapes.

Research Findings and Further Reading:

Michael Matheus (ed.) Ninfa. Percezioni nella scienza, letteratura e belle arti nel XIX e all’inizio del XX secolo. Regensburg, 2022.

Michael Matheus, ‘Premessa’. In Michael Matheus (ed.). Ninfa. Percezioni nella scienza, letteratura e belle arti nel XIX e all’inizio del XX secolo. Regensburg, 2022, 9 – 12.

Michael Matheus. ‘Ninfa. Percezioni nella scienza, letteratura e belle arti tra il secolo XIX e l’inizio del XX’. In Michael Matheus (ed.). Ninfa. Percezioni nella scienza, letteratura e belle arti nel XIX e all’inizio del XX secolo. Regensburg, 2022, 13 – 164.

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’. Latium 34 (2017): 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’. Latium 36 (2019): 29–74. Hüls, Rudolf: I quaterni Del notaio Antonio di Mastro pietro alias Tuzi

Rudolf Hüls. ‘Descrizione dei Quaterni del notaio Tuzi di Sermoneta’.  Latium 37 (2020): 47–82. Rudolf Hüls: Descrizione dei Quaterni del notaio Tuzi di Sermoneta


To a version with higher resolution