What I liked about Italian Renaissance Gardens

I returned recently from nine days in Italy where I visited gardens between Florence and Rome. Historically, they ranged from the 1st century (Villa Adriana, or Hadrian’s Villa) to the 21st century (Bosco della Ragnaia). Weeks later, my head is still spinning with all I saw — and with all I learned about history, art and garden design. There is far too much to include in a single post, so I plan to write several. This one is about the Renaissance gardens, a style inspired by classical ideals of order and beauty that emerged in the late 15th century and influenced garden design throughout Europe and beyond.

The thing that struck me first about these gardens was the near or total absence of flowers. The books I studied had prepared me for this, but seeing and experiencing something is different from reading about it. Italian Renaissance gardens are not about flowers or bright colours. They are not about gently curving lines or imitations of nature. They are about control.

The parterre at Castello Ruspoli was created between 1600-1611.



The gardens I visited were full of  darkness and light, punctuated with the bright yellow of lemons. They were composed of different shades green: from the clear colour of boxwood to the deeper tones of cypress and the silver-grey of olive trees. They were quiet places that nonetheless were full of sounds: of bird calls and insect noises and water, plashing and running and trickling and falling.  They were perfumed with the sweetness of orange and lemon blossoms, touched with a hint of that strange odour that boxwoods emit. They were full of life —  not the frantic life of our modern-day world but a calm and orderly life where paths sprinkled with tiny flowers were bordered by shrubs as precisely trimmed as a 1950s’s flat-on-the-top brushcut.

These shrubs here have not yet been trimmed. Once they are,
they will be clean-cut and sharp-edged.
Balance and symmetry ruled, with the straight lines of the house extending into the garden, transforming the two into what felt like a single unit.

The central axis of Villa Cetinale extends five kilometres!
The villa is at the mid point.

The gardens seemed designed not to sit in but to walk through. In those from the early Renaissance, paths were perfectly placed, sometimes shaded and sometimes open to the skies. They led to specific destinations, perhaps to a grotto or to a view out onto the surrounding countryside. And they were wide enough for two people to walk together, slowly, side by side while discussing some grand philosophical point. 

The bowling green at Villa Gamberaia stretches what seems
an impossibly long distance.


In the early years of the Renaissance, the villas and gardens were simple and restrained. At the Villa Medici in Fiesole, just outside Florence, the small walled garden beside the house is divided into quadrants edged with boxwood. Large magnolia trees stand in each of these grassy rectangles, and where the paths meet, there is a simple and elegant fountain.

The Villa Medici at Fiesole is the oldest existing Renaissance garden,
a prototype for all that followed.

As the years went on, simplicity disappeared. Later Renaissance gardens were places to see and be seen, and to be drenched by fountains that suddenly began to play. At the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, the fountains are marvels of hydraulic design where the force of water causes birds to move and organs to play. The most famous of these, and the most often photographed, is the Hundred Fountains, where from three tiers water rises, falls, spurts and sparkles.

Ferns almost hide the masks that line the lowest tier of the fountain.
Originally, the tiers were fern-free.

Often, through the design and arrangement of fountains and statues, the gardens tell stories about personal ambitions and family pride. For those of us who visit today, the iconography may require explanation but the overall effect does not.

A river god reclines beside a fountain at the Villa Lante, built by Cardinal Gambara.
Figuratively, his name appears in stone in the crayfish claws at the top of the fountain.

The patina of age is inescapable in all these gardens, whether seen in a line of vases

Stone urns line a terrace at Villa Lante

in the choice of materials on a path,

Fragments from Hadrian’s Villa and other Roman ruins were used
to build this path at Villa d’Este.

or under the weighty age of trees.

These plane trees were planted when Villa Lante was built
in the 16th century.

The effect of time adds romance to these gardens but time alone does not explain their magic. Weeks after seeing them, aspects of each of these Renaissance gardens linger in my mind. I can hear water laughing as it descends a scroll-edged rill.

The waterchain at Villa Lante is part of a larger story that acts as a metaphor
for human progress, from the chaos of pre-Christian times to the order and harmony of the Renaissance.

I feel solemn awe as I walk up a cypress-lined drive,

The height of the cypress along the entry to Villa Gamberaia
 conveys a sense of restrained grandeur.

and a sense of my own place in the world next to mighty walls that enclose a long strip of green.

Honey-coloured walls tower above the bowling green at Villa Gamberaia.

I feel free to choose my own way, whether to follow a path through a garden where nature is controlled,

Two small houses, or caserni, flank the central path at Villa Lante.
Although nearly identical, they were built by two different owners, 30 years apart.

or to accept the invitation to move towards the uncontrolled wilderness beyond.

A gate opens onto the Scala Santa at Villa Cetinale.

The combination and repetition of stone, water and the many shades — and shapes — of green: how is it possible that such simple ingredients can work so powerfully on the mind and on the senses? Whatever the explanation, their magic endures, potent and deep.