LESS THAN A MILE from Baldassare Peruzzi's birthplace at Ancaiano, stands another villa built for one of the Chigi – Villa Cetinale. Designed by Carlo Fontana after he had worked on the Isola Bella, it was completed in 1680, almost 150 years after Peruzzi's death. Perhaps in acknowledgment to Peruzzi's genius and his association with the Chigi, Fontana took Peruzzi's characteristic design of a rectangle with wings, which had served for his grandest Chigi villa – the Villa Farnesina in Rome – and modelled Villa Cetinale on it.

cetinale_axial.jpgFontana placed the villa in the middle of a 3-mile (4.75-kilometre) axis with a statue of Hercules at one end and a romitorio (hermitage) on the other. It paid admirable homage to Peruzzi's reputation for simplicity, accommodating both the surrounding landscape and the agricultural nature of the estate. This is almost unchanged since Edith Wharton's description of it: `The olive-orchards and corn-fields of the farm come up to the boundary walls of the walk, and the wood is left as nature planted it. Fontana ... was wise enough to profit by the natural advantage of the great forest of oak and ilex which clothes this part of the country, and to realize that only the broadest and simplest lines would be in harmony with so noble a background.'

The villa was rebuilt from a modest farmhouse for Cardinal Flavio Chigi, the nephew of Pope Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi), the childhood friend of Cardinal Barbarigo, who built Valsanzibio. Pope Alexander had helped Barbarigo become a cardinal, and made Flavio a cardinal at the age of twenty-six – one of the last examples of a practice that had become so common that it gave rise to the word 'nepotism' (from nipote, meaning 'nephew'). Pope Alexander VII also gave the newly created Cardinal Flavio Chigi the casino and garden of the Quattro Fontane in Rome, which Barbarigo had built as Secretary to the Pope, and vacated only a few years before, when he was made Bishop of Padua.

Cardinal Flavio Chigi lived in the villa of the Quattro Fontane some ten years before he built Cetinale. To the rear of the property, in a grove of laurel and holm oak he called the Thebaid, he built himself a romitorio with frescoes of hermits painted on the walls. Wharton remarked upon these frescoes in her essay on the hermitages, 'What the Hermits Saw', in Italian Backgrounds. Cardinal Chigi also commissioned the sculptor Antonio Fontana to make peperino (porous rock) statues of animals – dragons, lions, a tortoise. When he converted Cetinale from a farmhouse to a - villa and made it his agricultural summer retreat, he brought these animals with him and placed them in a new Thebaid he made there in the ilex wood. In theory, the idea of the Thebaid came from the Egyptian saints of Thebes who, noted Wharton, 'turned to the desert to escape the desolation of the country and the foulness of the town' and 'took refuge in the burning solitudes of Egypt and Asia Minor'. In practice, it was really Petrarch's concept of otium reinterpreted. 'The traditional charm of the life apart was commemorated by the mock "hermitages" to be found in every nobleman's park, or by such frescoes.' The hermit shared his solitude with wild and domesticated animals — hence the statues. Only a few of the animals, the votive chapels, and the statues of the penitent monks and saints are left now, but as you make your way amongst the winding paths, the atmosphere is extremely evocative.

Legend has it that the whole romitorio, Thebaid and scala santa (holy steps) that led up to it made up a garden of atonement, for it is said that Cardinal Chigi, thwarted in love or ambition, had murdered a rival cardinal in a jealous rage, and built and then ascended the scala santa on his knees to beg forgiveness. Lord Lambton scoffs at this and says it was primarily a garden of pleasure with added holy elements. Alternatively, a walk through the garden could be read as a journey by which one leaves the earthly delights of the virile Hercules at the lower end of the garden and makes the steep climb to the romitorio, to find oneself already that much closer to God.