The gardens of the Renaissance were art forms that, like the other arts of the era, took inspiration from the ancient world. The Renaissance garden emerged in Italy during the 1450s and reached a peak in the late 1500s with grand garden complexes featuring terraces and fountains. The style that developed in Italy influenced garden design throughout Europe.
Origins and Design. The poet Petrarch (1304–1374) had helped inspire an awareness of nature in Italy, and new translations of ancient writings about Roman villas* brought a renewed interest in elegant country living and garden making in the mid-1400s. The concept of villeggiatura, a retreat to the countryside, became fashionable.
Like medieval* gardens, the gardens that took shape in Italy at this time were enclosed by walls and planted with herbs and flowers both ornamental and medicinal. The new gardens, however, reflected the Renaissance fascination with antiquity*. Writing on architecture in 1452, Leon Battista Alberti emphasized the use of antiquity as a model, the role of geometry and order in the garden, and the importance of positioning the house and garden to create views of the landscape. Remains of ancient Roman gardens were few, so those who wanted to create gardens in the antique style relied on literary sources.
Despite regional variations in landscape and climate, the gardens of Renaissance Italy displayed a unity based on the design principles of order and geometry. Gardens were symmetrical*, with low-lying square or circular compartments separated by straight paths. This regularity was seen not as a sign of human control over nature but as a reflection of the divine harmony of the universe, the work of human hands revealing the order within nature. Trees and shrubs, carefully clipped, formed mazes and geometric shapes inspired by ancient Roman descriptions. Gardens designed on antique models also featured sculpture, fountains, and artificial caves.
The compartments of the geometric gardens were planted with herbs and flowers and bordered with hedges and fruit trees. The garden also featured orchards, orderly plantings of grapevines, and dense stands of trees arranged in rows. Although plants with medicinal uses remained popular, the desire to include ornamental plants increased as the era's exploration and world trade brought rare and exotic specimens from Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
The garden reflected nature's orderly side. Nature's wild side found expression in the park, an area of irregular, unsymmetrical landscape and plantings. Grand villas had both gardens and parks, and some estates were designed as large parks, embracing both the tamed and the untamed. During the 1500s, steep hillsides became choice sites for villas and their gardens and parks because they offered the best views. Architects designed the gardens on large terraces that were supported by massive walls and connected by ramps and staircases.
The Role of the Garden. Gardens were considered both useful and recreational. They produced medicinal plants, fruit, and wine for their owners and also served as quiet retreats for strolling, conversation, and outdoor meals. People saw the garden as a healthful resort, a place where its owners could escape the foul air of the cities.
Like villas, gardens also provided opportunities for their owners to display their wealth, status, and culture. The finest gardens were companions to their owners' elegant and magnificent villas. Along with exotic plants and animals, they contained statues, either ancient or newly created, and elaborate waterworks such as fountains, waterfalls, and water-powered musical organs. Designed by leading architects for cardinals, popes, princes, and wealthy citizens, the gardens were built and maintained by enormous crews of laborers. In this way, the Renaissance garden reflected the divisions of society.
Architects, sculptors, gardeners, and travelers spread the ideas and designs of Italian gardens abroad. Italian-style gardens featuring grottoes, waterworks, and statuary appeared throughout central and northern Europe. Gardens such as that at Wilton House in England, laid out in 1630, drew on design principles developed in Italy nearly two centuries earlier.
- * villa
luxurious country home and the land surrounding it
- * medieval
referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe
- * antiquity
era of the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, ending around a.d. 400
- * symmetrical
balanced with matching forms on opposite sides of a structure or piece of art