Renaissance Gardens in Europe: Connecting Eras

Italian Renaissance gardens in Europe reflect the splendor of the Classical Era.

Reinassance Gardens Villa d'Este
Villa d'Este. Photo: Waldo Miguez, Pixabay.

Renaissance Gardens from Italy to Europe. Maybe a big holiday or study project. Maybe a day trip. Like visiting any historic location, either alone, with a companion or as part of an organized group, a minimum of preparation is essential. I’ve seen women in stiletto heels hobble through The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, mothers pushing baby strollers through the uneven cobble-stoned paths of Pompeii, and I recently chatted with an elderly English-speaking couple — let’s call them Bertie and Bird — valiantly trying to keep up with their group guide on a very warm, humid September afternoon visit to Villa d’Este in Tivoli, outside Rome. They told me they’d spent the morning visiting the nearby Villa Adriana. It was more challenging than they’d expected. A few minutes into the tour of Villa d’Este, they had given up, exhausted, and waited in a nearby café for their travel companions, Bertie evidently in pain, his knees screaming, his heart racing; Bird frustrated at not being in the thick of things. I thought they were a perfect example of the importance of planning, reading the small print, asking advice and knowing how to be discerning in choosing a destination or a travel theme.

So what, I wondered, could have helped my hypothetical Bertie and Bird, casual visitors to Italy, leave Tivoli with something besides discomfort, ill-humor and frustration? The Villa d’Este is one of the grandest and best-preserved of the Italian Renaissance gardens. But what does that mean to the casual visitor?

Villa d'Este Reinassance Gardens
Villa d’Este, Tivoli. Palickap, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Renaissance, Rebirth. From what? There’s a gap of almost 1,500 years between the construction of Villa Adriana built around 120 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian and Villa d’Este built between 1550 to about 1570 at the behest of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. Let’s connect the two places. Pliny the Younger (61 AD, Como) a busy politician, judge and writer described his life at his villa at Laurentum, west of Rome “a good life and a genuine one, which is happy and honorable, more rewarding than any business can be. You should take the first opportunity to leave the din, the futile bustle and useless occupations of the city and devote yourself to literature or to leisure.” The purpose of a garden, according to Pliny, was otium, a term that includes seclusion, serenity, or relaxation, which was the opposite of the idea of negotium that often classified busy urban life. A garden was a place to think, relax, and escape. Pliny described shaded paths bordered with hedges, fountains, trees and bushes trimmed to geometric or fantastic shapes, all features which would become part of the future Renaissance garden.

Back to our question on reawakening. Beginning in the Middle East, Christianity began its spread north and west into Europe, carried by merchants, missionaries and soldiers. As a result, in 313, the Edict of Milan was passed guaranteeing freedom of religion throughout the Roman Empire, ending the persecution of Christians. In Europe, during the Medieval times the only recognized religion was Catholicism. The lives of the Medieval people was dominated by the church. Various religious institutions became rich and powerful. Medieval gardens were walled and private. They reflected both the austerity of some orders like the Franciscans and the pomp of others such as the Jesuits. Their purpose was the provision of foods and herbs for the community and, even more importantly, a place of silent meditation and a retreat from the outside world.

So, Renaissance was a reawakening from the ‘sleep’ of centuries, centuries that were surrounded by evidence of the greatness of the past that had been allowed to decline and decay and that now called out for rediscovery, for resurrection. Gardens were designed to open towards the surrounding town, the palace and the view. First created in the gardens of Florentine and Roman villas near the end of the 15th century, Italian Renaissance gardens were designed as part of the classical aesthetic of ancient Roma that emphasized order, harmony and beauty.

How did the Renaissance influence the gardens of Italy? Let’s jump around both in time and in space to give ourselves an idea of the immensity of what is under the umbrella of Renaissance Gardens. The middle of the 16th century saw the construction of a series of magnificent gardens by the Medici and other wealthy families. The Medici Villas took Tuscany by storm. They were no longer fortified castles and the gardens contained splendid walkways, fountains, alcoves, grottoes and statues designed to give the impression of symmetry, balance and proportion, expressions of a new intellectual power. They were usually sited on a hilltop or slopes of a mountain; had a series of ascending symmetrical terraces, along a central axis; the house looked over the garden and the landscape beyond, and it could itself be seen from the bottom of the garden. Water provided not only irrigation but movement and sound, all pointing back to the magnificence of the Roman Empire. Designed to delight their owner and amuse and impress guests, the gardens became an extension of the villa and, as such, an expression of the owner’s wealth, culture and power like his house or his art collection. Developments in hydrology meant that the gardens were equipped with increasingly elaborate and majestic cascades and fountains, and statues which recalled the grandeur of ancient Rome.

The oldest existing Italian Renaissance garden is at the Villa Medici in Fiesole, north of Florence. It was created between 1455 and 1461 by Giovanni de’ Medici (1421–1463) the son of Cosimo de’ Medici, founder of the Medici dynasty. Unlike other Medici family villas that were located on flat farmland, this villa was located on a rocky hillside with a view over Florence. Villa Medici would have a view that overlooks the city, the owner’s land, the sea or a great plain, and familiar hills and mountains. The garden has two large terraces, one at the ground floor level and the other at the level of the first floor. From the reception rooms on the first floor, guests could go out to the loggia and from there to the garden so the loggia was a transition space connecting the interior with the exterior. Lorenzo de’ Medici made the garden a meeting place for poets, artists, writers and philosophers ambassadors and foreign dignitories. In the late Renaissance, people contended to have larger, grander and more symmetrical gardens, filled with fountains, statues, grottoes, water organs and other features. Flowers were not central to the attraction of the gardens. It was more about art controlling nature, perspective and space. Tuscany itself provides many examples of splendid gardens, all competing to be the masterpiece, enough even for the most ardent scholar of the topic and more than enough for our Berties and Birds who want to get value for money by ticking off as many of their holiday to-do boxes as possible.

When the last of the Medici died in 1737, the gardens began to be altered by their new owners; but, long before then, they had been described by many who had visited and had become famous throughout Europe. The principles of perspective, proportion and symmetry, geometric planting of beds and ‘rooms’ with walls of trees and hedges, were adapted in both the gardens of the French Renaissance and the garden à la française which followed.

Villa d’Este Garden, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, was created under the reign of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, son of Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, and Lucrezia Borgia. He was made a Cardinal at the age of 29 and became governor of Tivoli in 1550. To develop his residence and garden, he took over a former Franciscan convent, and bought the adjoining steep hillside and the valley below. His chosen architect, Pirro Ligorio, had been carrying out excavations for Ippolito at the nearby ruins of the ancient Villa Adriana, the extensive country residence of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and relished this exciting new garden assignment. And he created it along Classical lines: a series of terraces descending the steep hillside at the edge of the mountains overlooking the plain of Latium or Lazio, the terraces are connected by gates and grand stairways leading down to the Fountain of Dragons at the foot of the garden. Alleys on different levels, rooms divided by hedges and trellises covered with vines, fruit trees, and aromatic plants. The Fountain of the Owl uses a series of bronze flutes to make the sound of birds but the most famous feature of the garden was the great Organ Fountain. It was described by the French philosopher Montaigne, who visited the garden in 1580: “The music of the Organ Fountain is true music, naturally created . . . made by water which falls with great violence into a cave, rounded and vaulted, and agitates the air, which is forced to exit through the pipes of an organ. Other water, passing through a wheel, strikes in a certain order the keyboard. The organ also imitates the sound of trumpets, the sound of cannon, and the sound of muskets, made by the sudden fall of water.” The garden was substantially changed after the death of the Cardinal and, in the 17th century, many statues were sold. However, the basic features remain and the recently restored Organ Fountain plays music once again.

A brief reading of a description such as this prior to visiting Villa d’Este should be sufficient to indicate that walking, climbing and descending steps would feature largely in the trip.

Italian Renaissance gardens abroad

The Italian garden fashion soon spread to neighboring countries. So where would we send our now better equipped travelers, Bertie and Bird, to give them an idea of how each area used and adapted their gardens based on the abundance or lack of reserves such as water, natural inclines, sunshine and wealth?

Let’s suggest a few possible places to visit if the visitor wants more than a casual stroll and wants to investigate the topic farther afield in order to see how the gardens that developed over time differed from the originals. About 100 years after the Italian Renaissance Garden became popular, the design style started to appear in France in the 16th century when the French King Francis visited Italy and met with Leonardo DaVinci, and applied the Renaissance style to Chateau de Blois.

The grandeur of Italian gardens spread to the chateaux of the rich and powerful, culminating in the majestic gardens of the Palace of Versailles.

Palace of Versailles Reinassance Gardens
Palace of Versailles, France. Guillaume Speurt from Tallinn, Estonia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The late 16th century Italian garden was much admired as an aesthetic ideal and imitated in northern Europe. Gradually, the epicenter of garden artistic activity gravitated to the North where new aesthetic concepts were added. Flowerbed ensembles called parterres de broderie laid the groundwork for the supremacy of the French garden style under Louis XIV, culminating in the splendor of Versailles (1670–90) The basic elements consisted of a strongly unified composition, carefully balanced and proportioned for optimal visual effect. Centering on the palace as the dominating axis, a broad vista over the whole layout was offered, showing a hierarchical arrangement of parterres and waterworks within a grid plan, strictly lined by hedges and bosquets.

Similar to the Italian Renaissance gardens, statuary and grottoes were also key features in their French counterparts. Another similarity is that the gardens were designed as extensions of the chateaux that they surrounded.

A big difference between stately homes in France and Italy during this period is that the French palaces were mostly built on flat river valleys, unlike the hillside villas more common in Italy. The gardens were designed to be viewed from a man-made elevated terrace looking down over the garden. A difference in attitudes towards nature is also noted. The French at the time were considered by historians to be hostile towards nature and rather than embrace and incorporate the surrounding natural features as seen in Italy, French Renaissance gardens sought to demonstrate man’s dominance over it. Entire forests were felled to create these gardens, with a tendency to seek a connection with the sky on the horizon rather than with the surrounding landscape.

The most common and defining feature for French Renaissance gardens is the parterre, a section of a garden organized into symmetrically patterned flower beds, bordered with tidily trimmed hedges or stone. These would include gravel paths separating each individual bed allowing for closer enjoyment of the plantings although the grand patterns were better viewed from above, making the view from the building and its terraces more important to the success of the design.

These parterres would be more elaborately patterned closer to the house, and less detailed in the distance. Another important defining element of French Renaissance gardens was the use of rectangular ponds or straight canals that emphasized the symmetry of the garden’s design. Although water was a common feature in Italian Renaissance gardens, the French style would typically feature still bodies of water that created reflecting pools, rather than the kinetic nature of waterfalls and downhill streams seen in Italy. Parterres and waterways continued to dominate this new French garden style and became important features of the French Formal Garden style as exemplified in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. In addition, the gardens at Château de Fontainebleau, Château d’Ambois, and Château de Chenonceau are all considered to be prime examples of the French Renaissance Garden style. To sum up, the main difference between Italian and French Renaissance gardens is the emphasis on perspective and space and a greater control over nature.

Back to travel practicalities. I was astonished to see a travel website I recently visited advertising French Renaissance garden-hopping holidays proposing 16 gardens in 10 days. As I said earlier, always read the small print and know your own tastes and limits.

To reflect on the development of Renaissance influenced gardens in England, we must keep in mind the opulence of the already existing medieval and Tudor gardens. The new did not brush off the old, rather they comingled. Viewing mounts or man-made hills were erected, deer roamed in the parks that were an extension into the wild of the tamed garden. The best example is, perhaps, Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden.

Kenilworth Castle Reinassance Gardens
Kenilworth Castle. Photo: Egghead06, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Keniworth was constructed as a Norman fortress in about 1120 and was added to and modified over several centuries. Why mention this particular castle garden? Interestingly, it was used by one of Queen Elizabeth’s suitors in an effort to court her during her regular tours around the country. Her suitor was very keen to impress and, in a final attempt to convince her to marry him, spared no expense on the gardens. Elizabeth viewed the partially finished results in 1572 and visited the magnificent castle again in 1575. She brought an entourage of 31 barons and 400 staff for the royal visit that lasted an exceptional 19 days but, alas, although impressed by the stunning gardens, she refused his marriage proposal.

A visit to Hadrian’s Wall on the English-Scottish border — yes, that same Adriano we met in Tivoli could be another example of the dovetailing of the past and the present. Hadrian came to Britain in 122 AD and built a wall 80 miles long from sea to sea approximately in correspondence with the present England-Scotland border, to separate the barbarians from the Romans. It was the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire for about 300 years. The wall was eventually reinforced by forts that were each manned by up to 1,000 soldiers. After Hadrian’s death in 138 AD the wall gradually became more difficult to manage. In 180 AD a major war took place when the tribes crossed the wall which divided them from the Roman forts, and killed a general and the troops he had with him.

Like so many other historical sites, a visit to Hadrian’s Wall is literally a step into a remote, complex past. For all intents and purposes it is, perhaps, the most natural of European gardens. It reflects not only how man imposed on nature, but how they have learned to live with each other. Here, too, each visitor will take away knowledge and enjoyment in proportion to how much he/she has invested in the preparation.

The first botanical gardens

A spin-off from the Italian Renaissance Gardens was a revolution in the study of botany through the systematic classification of plants and the creation of the first botanical gardens. During the Middle Ages, plants were studied for medicinal uses. Until the 16th century, the standard work on botany was De Materia Medica written in the 1st century AD by a Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides, that described 600 plants but lacked many of the native plants of Italy and had vague descriptions with stylized and inexact illustrations. In 1543, the University of Padua created the world’s first botanical garden, the Orto Botanico di Padova, and the University of Pisa followed with its own garden, the Orto Botanico di Pisa, in 1545. By 1591, the garden at Padua had over 1,168 different plants and trees, including a fan palm tree brought from Egypt. In 1545, in Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici founded the Giardino dei Semplici, the garden of medicinal herbs. Soon the medical schools of the universities of Bologna, Ferrara and Sassari all had their own botanical gardens filled with exotic plants from around the world. In 1533, the University of Padua created the first chair of botany and published a new book on medicinal herbs, Commentarii in libros sex Pedanii Dioscoridis, which described and gave the medicinal uses of twelve hundred different plants. Visiting botanical gardens, too, became immensely popular as a leisure activity and nowadays they can be found in most major cities.

Visiting Renaissance Gardens, be it in Italy, France, England, Germany or wherever, can be a simple day-trip or a full holiday. It can be an activity based on a deeper interest or, like mountaineering, surfing or archeological digging, it can be a traveler’s life choice. No matter what your choice, the only questions worth asking are: What am I doing here? What am I looking at? Why should I care about this place?

It might be worthwhile to reflect that if this destination is on my tour itinerary, it must be of some interest. Maybe I should put a little effort into making some preparation if I don’t want to find myself like the woman wearing her stiletto heels in Pompeii or Bertie out of puff in a coffee shop on what could have been a very enjoyable day in Este.

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