Italian Renaissance Gardens

Italian Renaissance Gardens
Villa Borghese Statues by Gabriella Clare Marino / Unsplash

The Renaissance period of history marks great changes in society and culture from the middle ages. As it became safer to live outside of walled hilltop castle-cities, we see a change to living in fortified villas. This led to a change in garden design from enclosed medieval gardens to a new style that looked outwards and incorporated the surrounding landscape beyond it's walls as part of the overall design.

The renaissance garden style started in Italy with a renewed interest by renaissance scholars of classical Roman models. They were inspired by the descriptions of ancient Roman gardens given by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, by the letters of Pliny the Younger, by Pliny the Elder's 'Naturalis Historia', and in 'Rerum Rusticanum' by Varro, all of which gave detailed description of the gardens of Roman villas. The Italian renaissance garden style is first described in Leon Alberti's 'De re aedificatoria' (The Ten Books of Architecture) where he argues that a villa should both be looked at and a place to look from; that the house should be placed above the garden, where it could be seen and the owner could look down into the garden. Due to Italy's hilly topography, this led to a number of villas sitting in or above terraced gardens, overlooking the surrounding landscape.

Important Elements of Italian Renaissance Gardens

  • Seamless Design - similar to the designs of late Roman villas, Italian renaissance villas were designed with their gardens as an extension of the building. Garden frescoes were painted inside the villa, bringing the garden inside; courtyards and terraces were modeled as outdoor rooms, extending the villa to the outside.
  • Axial Symmetry - defined by the entry to the villa building, Italian renaissance gardens were designed along an axis that ran from the villa entry to the end of the garden, and each side of the axis mirrored each other in layout. The gardens were further subdivided by pathways perpendicular to the main axis, resulting in a grid pattern of similar spaces, often squares. These spaces were called 'compartmentii' and were usually bordered with a low fence or hedge.
  • Surprise - as the renaissance gardens were built primarily for pleasure, they were designed with rooms hidden from view that were discovered while walking around the garden, features such as unexpected views, grottoes and secret gardens .
  • Evergreen - green was the dominant color and to provide year-round interest, Italian renaissance gardens made extensive use of Boxwood, Italian cypress , laurel, yew, rosemary, and junipers. All of which were able to shaped into topiary to create sculptural shapes and define areas of the garden. Creating Order and balance was the goal of renaissance topiary, representing man’s power over nature.
  • Statuary - during this period, statues were used extensively in the garden as part of the extension of the home. Statues of Roman gods, goddesses and heroes of antiquity were commonly used.
  • Water Features - water was an important element due to the hot climate of Italy. Irrigation techniques advanced during this period and the water became important focal points in the forms of fountains, streams and ponds to enhance the beauty of the garden.  

Advances in Botany

During the middle ages, plants were studied for medicinal use. During the Italian renaissance, there was a great change in the study of botany through the systematic classification of plants and the creation of the first botanical gardens in the University of Padua. This led to an increase in interest of exotic plants from around the known world and later in the era of renaissance gardens, these began to be used extensively as show of wealth by the property owners.

Notable Gardens of the Italian Renaissance

  • Villa Medici Fiesole - this is the oldest renaissance garden that still exists today. Built in 1530, this is a great example of the villa built on a hillside with terraced gardens overlooking the city of Florence, and follows Alberti's principles for a villa and garden layout.
  • Villa D'este - located in Tivoli, the grounds of this hillside villa  has extensive water features and includes 51 fountains, 398 spouts, 364 water jets and 64 waterfalls. Of remarkable note is the the fountain of Rometta, which is sculpted as a model of the ancient city of Rome.
  • Sacro Bosco - located in Bomarzo, this garden bucked the trend of renaissance gardens with no axial layout or symmetry. This is an important example of the "mannerist" style which became popular in the later years of the renaissance as renaissance artists moved on from the goals of balance and beauty to create more bizarre and fantastical themes. This garden is famous for it's many unconventional statues laid in a seemingly random fashion.
  • Villa Borghese - located in Rome and developed in 1606 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese to replace the vineyards of the property into a landscape garden, suitable for its new use as a party villa. The gardens haven been expanded on over the the last 400 years and they are now open to the public, forming the 3rd largest public park in the Italian capital.

The Italian renaissance style garden was a great influence on the rest of Europe and influenced the French and English Garden styles that came after this period.