Italian Garden Design: green grandeur

by Drucilla James

Villa Gamberaia view over Florence

To visit gardens in Northern Italy is to experience a feast of contrasts – brilliant hot sunlight versus carefully constructed cooler shade; meticulously clipped topiary designs and wilder woods; architectural pomp and circumstance and quirky jokes and entertainment; greenery and splashes of colour; sun-baked earth and water; and enclosed spaces opposed to dizzying panoramas. Their history is a cycle of opulence, decline and renewal.

The Italian Renaissance garden, unlike the enclosed gardens of the middle ages, was designed to look out on to the surrounding countryside.

gamberaia view

It also looked back – Renaissance gardeners took inspiration from their Roman predecessors and incorporated ancient sculpture, exedra, porticoes, terracing, stairways and grottoes and the use of proportion, symmetry and perspective in their designs.

These sixteenth century gardens also reflected a fascination with water – the mechanics of its supply, the beauty it could add to the garden and the ingenious fun to be had in drenching unsuspecting visitors.

The gardens also developed as spaces for spectacle and performance.

In the seventeenth century, Italians were overwhelmed with a passion for collecting rare and exotic plants from the New World – precious garden plants to be displayed in the secret garden or giardino segreto, impressive in their very strangeness.

During this time and earlier, aristocrats all over Italy also cultivated citrus trees in terra cotta pots, displayed in prominent positions in summer and protected in lemon houses in winter.

Later, Italian gardens were influenced by other European gardening styles. The broderie parterre and multiple radiating avenues were adopted from the French and then the English landscape garden’s irregular paths, grouped trees and grand perspectives came into favour. In the nineteenth century glasshouse cultivation and the subsequent influx of exotic plants, including the camellia, became popular in Italy, just as elsewhere in Europe.

Boboli Gardens- Florence

Built originally by Cosimo I de’ Medici, to a design by Il Tribolo and carried out by different architects from 1550 to 1583, Boboli is a garden designed for shock and awe and one which epitomises the history of Italian garden design.

The garden of this first Cosimo begins with the spectacular amphitheatre reminiscent of a Roman hippodrome, which was later developed into stone-tiered stands, with balustrades and statue- housing niches as a venue for grand pageants, ballets and displays of horsemanship.

From here, there is the lung-bursting climb up, past the Forcone Basin of 1777, to Fort Belvedere and The Knight’s Garden with views of the hills of Florence beyond and vertiginously back to the Pitti Palace below. These are the great views of the central axis from the original Tribolo design.

bovoli view to piit

From the same period dates  Buontalenti’s Grotto 1582  based on Ovid’s  Pyhrra and Deucalion – with Michelangelo’s prisoners forming part of the design.

The second Cosimo (1609-1621) gave the garden the other main axis – the Cypress Lane leading to the Island Pond -one of the most beautiful water features of the Boboli. Hidden by giant hedges, the oval pool comes as a surprise. It flows around an island, fringed by 200 potted citrus trees, surmounted by the imposing 1576 Giambologna fountain of Oceanus rising above the Rivers Nile, Ganges and Euphrates, once sited in the amphitheatre.

isolotto download px

Island pond. Credit:rfzappalo

Water flowed too through the Mostaccini fountains– a water ladder of sixteen grotesque masks providing monumental watering troughs for the birds netted in the Ragnaie or fowling groves, still to be seen, where aristocrats once lured songbirds to slaughter for their pleasure.

boboli mostaccini

Fountain of the Mostaccini and La Cerchiata – holm oak tunnel

Cosimo I was an avid plant collector and introduced  asparagus plants, saffron crocuses and dwarf fruit trees to the gardens. The first pineapple ever picked on Italian soil was also grown at Boboli. The Medici citrus collection -held dear for its beauty, therapeutic qualities and aromas -was one of the largest and most varied collections in Europe. When the dynasty came to a close, the Grand Duchy passed to the House of Hapsburg- Lorraine and during this time, in 1777, the Lemon House was added with its beds of old roses, camellias and bulbs, which is still used to store the 500 citrus plants.boboli lemon house px

Villa Gamberaia, Settignano

In contrast to the ostentatious although slightly run-down splendours of Boboli, Gamberaia is a tranquil oasis of manicured perfection. Created originally in 1610, this is a magically beautiful garden. A huge terrace was levelled on a slope to build the villa, with a high wall supporting a lemon grove and woods behind- a variation on the terracing of many Medici gardens. Almost two centuries later, Princess Glykha, sister of the Queen of Serbia, bought and restored the garden in 1896. In 1944, a retreating German officer ordered the burning of the villa; the villa and gardens were restored again by the Marchi family.

gamberaia general

The central axis of the garden is the bowling green -bowling was a popular sport played with stones tossed at a target. Through ochre walls, beckoning statuary and tall cypress trees, it leads at the North end to the Nymphaeum- with its Pan/Neptune/Dionysus figure which once presided over secret rites, music and dance, and opens out at the other end to views over the Arno Valley.

gamber lemon bowling green

On the garden’s other axis lies the baroque cabinet di roccaglia – the intimate secret garden or open air drawing room whose rough-textured rockwork and statuary contrast with the smooth surfaces elsewhere. This garden houses water jets, operating from beneath the steps, which were intended to trick and trap visitors.

gamb secret garden

However, the most stunning feature has to be the  French broderie parterre originally created in 1717  but with  the  enclosed beds transformed into pools of water by Princess Glykha ,which reflect with calm serenity the clipped topiary balls and hedges, roses and perennials which surround them, in a tapestry of subtle greens.

The arched Cypress Belvedere and semi-circular pond, wrapped in coiled box hedges, where the parterre once ended in a garenne (a curved artificial island), echo this effect and also open out on to mystical views of the sky and Florence reflected in the water.

gamberaia parterre and garenne

To the North, lie the Lemon Garden with its giant terracotta pots and diverse array of citrus fruit trees and the Lemon House and thence, from the carefully shaped and confined nature of the main gardens, the wild gardens or woods -the Selvatici with their ancient trees -several of them hundreds of years old.

Villa Torrigiani di Camigliano, near Lucca

The first things to meet the eye on a visit to Villa Torrigiani are the ochre yellow building, with its imposing statuary, and – the English lawns.

torrigiani view

These were established, together with exotic trees like Liriodendrum tulipifera, Atlantic cedars, Taxodium distichum and the camellias from which the villa derives its name, following the marriage in 1816 of Vittoria Santini to the eponymous Torrigiani.

The Villa, built in 1500, became the home of the Santinis, when one of them became Luccan ambassador to the court of Louis XIV at Versailles in 1636. Under this influence, as shown by a fresco inside the villa, the gardens once boasted a broderie parterre around two circular pools designed by Le Notre – since superseded by the lawns.

At the back of the house however can still be found Santini’s cabinet di roccaglia here called the Garden of Flora. It glows with red busy lizzies confined in neat geometric box hedges. At one end is a terrace with a handsome divided staircase, at the other is the Grotto of the Winds with again the water jokes – this time unwary visitors could be caught in a downpour inside the grotto and prevented from exiting by jets of water. Nowadays it provides a cool and shady retreat from the summer heat.  From the staircase there is a delightful view over this garden and of the lemon-pool garden high above.

Torrigiani parterre

To sit on the wicker chairs in the entrance porch of the house is to capture a sense of languid relaxation perhaps familiar to the Italian aristocracy who once inhabited here.

torrrigiani pool and grotto

Villa Pisani , Stra

Villa Pisani’s 1000 rooms provide a striking contrast to the almost domestic virtues of Torrigiani and the garden, with its grand architectural structures, is similarly imposing. The Palladian villa rises up to meet you in a bend of the Brenta Canal which once brought visitors from Venice. Step through the huge doorway and beyond, through the monumental pillared hall, there is immediately a vista of the gardens – specifically a long sheet of water reflecting the Pavilion- stables so opulent princes could have lived in them.

The Pisani family’s power grew, culminating in the election of one to Doge of Venice and thus their search to build a fitting palace for their eminence. Plans were duly drawn up by Girolama  Frigimelica Roberti, a  Paduan architect, in the 1720s who although he didn’t oversee the building of the Villa, did establish the main structures of the garden – the maze, the exedra, the coffee house  and those stables.

pisani general view

The maze is one of the best- known and well- kept in Europe. Surrounded by a trapezium of hornbeam and lime trees – a later French addition – there is only one route through the nine rings of box hedges (originally hornbeam) which leads to the central tower and its spiralling staircase topped by a statue of Minerva.

The exedra or pavilion with its six great archways is the centre point of the six long avenues which pass through the garden and which can be viewed by climbing a spiral staircase to the top.

pisani maze coffee house exedra

Maze, Coffee House and Exedra

The coffee house was planned as an idyllic retreat from the summer heat cooled by breezes from the ice house below and was once surrounded by a moat.

In 1807 the villa was taken over by Napoleon and given to his nephew the Italian Viceroy. The design of the garden was much altered at this time by a conversion to parkland and statues being  removed to Paris. On Napoleon’s fall, the Villa passed into the possession of the Hapsburgs.

In the nineteenth century the Citrus Arboretum was developed. Three different kinds of greenhouses protected the fruit – tepid, heated hothouse and the plant nursery. The enormous Grand Conservatory now shelters the pots in winter which are then set out on the stone pedestals along the avenues in summer. These were the biggest greenhouses for citrus fruits in Northern Italy. In 1822, having stayed at the Villa, Tsar Alexander sent for an inventory of the fruits. In 1851 there were more than 1100 trees and these supplied the Hofburg and Schoenbrunn Palaces in Vienna with their fruit.

pisani citrus groves

Upon the unification of Italy, the Villa came into the possession of the Crown.

Subsequently attached to the University of Padua, who installed the tank for hydraulic engineering experiments – the rather prosaic reason for the creation of the water feature – the park was later neglected until restoration in the 1970s.

Villa Emo, Rivella Monselice

emo general view

And finally to the more domestic setting of Villa Emo-this white slab of a villa was built in 1588 and had a garden that then would have linked to the Battaglia Canal nearby. The current garden is however a twentieth century creation and owes its existence to the Countess Giuseppina Emo who developed it in the 1960s using many of the features of the historic Italian garden.

emo maze

The garden is enclosed by avenues of poplar and magnolia and a tunnel of hornbeam which create marvellous shady promenades away from the summer sun. At the front of the house is a striking modern take on the broderie parterre with curlicued box hedges and red gravel. On either side of the house lie two long rectangular fishponds, from the sixteenth century design, now restored and flanked by banks of calla lilies and irises, bordered by rosebeds.

Emo herbaceous borders

To the rear of the house are massed block-planted perennial herbaceous borders in the English style which border a lawn with heraldic additions.

And finally:

Edith Wharton, the American novelist, visiting Italian gardens a century ago summed them up  as an  ” abundance of water; easy access to dense shade; sheltered walks with different points of view; and variety of effect produced by the skilful use of different levels.” This they have  and more…

These gardens were visited as part of a “Gardens of Italy Study Tour” organised by Art and Heritage Holidays.

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