My computer has been out of service for days. It started with the screen turning upside down for no reason at all, like the screen on my camera going milky for no reason too – I didn’t drop it but had it strapped to my wrist!

Tuscia countryside just north of Rome

Tuscia countryside just north of Rome

On our way to explore three cardinal villas, we stopped at an Etruscan-Roman town on the Via Cassia to see the amphitheatre built below it early in the first century AD. It is a grandiose ruin, intact enough for one to imagine the steps crowded with yelling spectators from Sutri on the hill above and all the other settlements in the area. The Italians call it ‘suggestivo’!

We had coffee in Bracciano perched above its quiet lake where no motor boats are allowed. Deep blue tranquillity before our visit to the Orsini fortress. A castle, existing or hurriedly built, was a way to emphasise the family’s ancient power – and nobility. The Orsini were an old papal family and they built this castle residence in the 15th century where a previous fortress stood. The first of the Medici to wed outside their Florentine mercantile contemporaries was Lorenzo il Magnifico, who married Clarice Orsini – a diplomatic move. Lorenzo’s second son became Pope Leo X and his nephew Pope Clement VII, the one who excommunicated Henry VIII. In the 17th century the Orsinis sold the castle to the Odascalchi family who still own it. It is one of the few castle-palaces to retain its late 15th-century Renaissance fresco decorations in rich if faded colours. Some of the furniture came from the same period, maybe 19th-century copies, but they give the atmosphere of the time. In fact, this is one of the few castle-palaces to have any furniture at all. It also has a dramatic and bloodthirsty history and a ghost! No garden, but an ample castle courtyard and kitchens to match.

Villa Farnese at Caprarola

Villa Farnese at Caprarola

We drove delightedly through the countryside bursting into spring, past another volcanic Lake Vico which, legend has it, was created by Hercules, who is popular in these parts. The Farnese family that bought the village of Caprarola in the early 15th century. A century later this condottiere family from Bolsena had become a papal family, helped by the Borgia pope Alexander VI who took the beautiful Giulia Farnese as a mistress. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese cleared a triumphal road through Caprarola where, at the highest point, he was building a magnificent pentagonal castle designed by the same architect, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger,that he had used for the magnificent Palazzo Farnese in Rome, now the French Embassy. He became pope in 1534 and the building was carried on by his nephew, another Cardinal Alessandro, who created some of the most magnificent Mannerist interiors and gardens of the late 16th century. Finished by Vignola after Sangallo’s death, the whole atmosphere had changed from the Renaissance interiors a hundred years earlier in the Orsini castle-palace at Bracciano. The mood and colours were lighter and changed from room to room, frescoed by an army of painters, the most distinguished being the ubiquitous brothers, Taddeo and Federico Zuccari. You begin in the company of Hercules creating the Lake Vico and scenes of his other exploits, while underneath are portraits of towns – the Farnese possessions – and a superb stucco fountain with mosaics and marble statues below a fresco of a palace on a hilltop – the multi-media in which the Mannerist artists excelled. An adjacent hall contains the story of the first 50 years of the 16th century when the papacy was closely involved in the rivalry and alliances between the three young kings, born in the same decade, who paced the stage of an emerging Europe: Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his uncle by marriage, Henry VIII – Catherine of Aragon was Charles’s aunt.

Then room after frescoed room, none furnished, in the summer and winter apartments, some with a bridge across the moat into the gardens that, from the formal winter and summer gardens, climb the hill through a wood or wilderness to a cascade between stones carved as curls to a pavilion, and above to another, following the contour of the hillside, more unexpected and full of surprises than the fabulous garden at Villa d’Este at Tivoli, which one can see from the terrace above.

Aerial Caprarola

 Cardinals from the mid 15th century were creating rival gardens, and we had another to explore – Villa Lante.