History of Renaissance gardens.
The purpose of this presentation is to define what the characteristics of Renaissance gardens were by means of a varied iconography. The following lines are synthetically presenting the main ideas of our subject. The corresponding slideshow mostly consists of monographs.
Renaissance gardens ranged from the utilitarian enclosure, with its train of Christian symbols, to large perspectives expressed in a pagan tongue and whose prime aim was sheer delectation. Aesthetic and personal considerations became paramount. The garden space was less and less subjected to religious ideas (save Erasmus’ and Palissy’s visions). Iconological references tended to be exclusively classical: they belonged to mythology by the symbols used, the themes illustrated, the statuary… The gardens also had a political dimension (big gardens were designed to the glory of the master of the premises), and the evolution of the way of living turned them into settings for celebrations and gorgeous feasts. Their history is also the reflection of that of botany (a parallel history of the introduction of new species, and of a more and more scientific approach), as well as that of farming theories and practices.
Villa Giusti, Verona, Italy, present state of the garden. Where Renaissance gardens were kept, designed parterres, then made of lavender, rue, santolina, mint, hyssop, juniper, myrtle, rosemary or trimmed thyme, were all replaced by box as soon as the early 17th century for its more plastic qualities. Like many Italian gardens, Giardino Giusti underwent the offences of 19th century updating. Today it has recovered its Renaissance initial aspect owing to a restoration true to documents dating from its creation in 1570-80. It notably houses one of the oldest European labyrinths.
1) At the source of our culture: Eden.
The garden, be it an image of paradise or a utopia, is an attempt to create a better world. As a pleasure garden or a garden of happiness, paradise was already surrounded by an encircling wall to shut it out from the world of imperfection and sin. Eden is the remote goal and the original purpose of many a garden; this Eden is already divided by its four brooks, common to both biblical and Koranic traditions.
Pompeii and Herculaneum ruins permitted to reconstruct what antique Rome gardens looked like, and frescoes gave a view of the plants then cultivated. Pastoral trompe-l’œil paintings on walls pushed the very limits of the garden away. The idea to crowd gardens with statues, fountains, linear flowerbeds and carved trees (topiary art) dates up from this time: they made the garden another room to live in. Pliny the Younger’s Laurentine villa, to the south of Rome, was fully open onto its garden. And the garden itself was penetrating the house by means of the peristyle and the atrium. There, all was passage, openings, tree-covered paths and tunnel vaults, at the solitary thinker’s disposal or to serve friendly conversations and banquets. As it recovered its antique roots, especially through ancient texts, Renaissance took up again all these ideas to connect the villa to the garden.
3) Medieval Hortus conclusus.
The medieval civil or religious garden is another of the bases on which Renaissance gardens grew; it is the immediate historical substrate of our subject. No pleasure gardens were to be found before the 15th century. Only the utilitarian garden, generally small, be it a kitchen garden, an orchard or a herbal garden, was then admitted. It was a closed garden - a hortus conclusus -, most often shut off within high walls, apart from the city or from the fortress, and whose Christian references in turn remind one of a vision of Eden, of an idea of Mary or of virginity in general. Encased in high walls, thorny hedges, fences and ditches as it was, all forbade its access. In the midst of it, birds were singing; the rose, as queen of the garden, was growing; and so did the Marian lily, among other fragrant and medicinal plants. There stood tufted benches where one could sit. There spouted a fountain where the virgin maid could bathe. There grew humble and local flowers.
Another walled garden was that bare square of lawn mirroring the sky, ornate with scarce trees or shrubs: the yard in monastery cloisters was a symbolic vertical link of the otium between man in his enclosure and god.
Detail from an illustration for the French translation of La Teseida (1460) by Boccaccio. Masonry high walls, a wooden arbour with climbing vine, trellised roses, a turf bench, a confined space.
4) Artists’ visions: order and proportion.
To design their gardens, the princes hired the most fashionable artists. Following the example of the antique villas, those great architects and designers considered the garden as linked to the plan of the pleasure house, to the plan of the palazzo. They drew axes and organised volumes. Their view was mathematical, dictated by rulers, T-squares and pairs of compasses. All of the Renaissance culture was aiming at the harmony of forms. The notion of proportions was echoing all the trends of philosophical speculation, of mathematics and of the arts of that time. The budding art of gardening was one of the most acute expressions of it: owing to its measurable, rational aspect, the architectonic garden was a token of beauty and a guarantee for perfect, divine harmony. Harmony was an incarnation of love itself, notably through the worship of Pan and Venus. Gardens were changing all natural elements (water, light, air, growth) into elements of art; and all utopian designs were fundamentally artificial. Beauty belonged to the sensible world of running waters, of the warmth of the wind, of the fresh shade of abundant foliages, of fragrances and of the chirping of birds, but it was man’s creative energy that gave shape to it by means of the trick of order and proportion. Nature was then a means. And without an artist, nature was considered as merely vulgar and useless.
Renaissant Italy, as all Europe would soon do, was opening onto the stars; painters inserted visions of remote landscapes into their paintings (vedute); architects arranged their buildings into rows of long perspectives. Cities bristling with the Middle Ages’ irregularities of towers and spires were flattened into even surfaces. A parcelled out, odd, ill-assorted space was criss-crossed with parallel and perpendicular axes. Heterogeneousness, asymmetry and exiguous juxtapositions fell into order to form a unified, structured space. Sequences of adjoining spaces were then preferred; successive extensions and the use of tree-lined straight lanes made axial links between the different parts of the garden and enabled points of view and symmetry.
5) The Italian villa.
In its humanistic impetus to combine classical antiquity heritage to modern political and religious ideas, what the Renaissance brought was to think that aesthetic aspects did not pertain exclusively to the field of faith but also depended on individual needs and interests, and so the garden was gradually designed for the aesthetic pleasure of a private person. This art of gardens was born in the countryside where the princes were trying to escape the uproar of city life. The villa, in the Italian meaning of the word, id est the whole farming property, comprising its arable domain, its fattoria, its outbuildings, its wine cellars and oil presses, its park, this villa became the object of all emulations, of all expenses. Less quarrelsome times enabled the villa to get rid of its fortifications and to open onto the surrounding country (Piccolomini a Pienza…). Yet, the first Medici villas in the vicinity of Florence were still medieval fortresses (Trebbio, Cafaggiolo, Poggio a Cajano, …). Monasteries, which were the hearts of Christian culture in the Middle Ages, were gradually supplanted by the new villas where circles of artists and philosophers gathered into academies (Marsile Ficin at Careggi). To recover the antique villa and its art of living made a new objective for the two centuries to come. The general antiquomania in towns like Rome often took the form of looting the antique vestiges that were outcropping everywhere in order to furnish the newly created gardens.
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), a humanist and an architect, was one of the first to theorise and spread these new values. He drew his ideas from ancient texts (Vitruvius and Cicero). In the 9th of his Ten books on Architecture written between 1443 and 1452, he was dealing with the garden layout in relation to the private villa, a rural palazzo not too far away from town, that must fulfil individual needs (so much for Michelozzo in the Medici Villa of Fiesole, opening the villa onto the landscape and considered the climate). Alberti spread the idea that the villa must contain elements of the garden and vice versa by the play on « still life » paintings, windows, loggias and pergolas. For him, the utilitarian garden was part of the farming domain and did not belong to the private villa. His view remained mainly medieval, yet he thought about new items such as ornamental box, myrtle and laurel, he considered ivy-covered cypresses and quincunx arrangements of trees, and recommended that geometric shapes be made by bending and interlacing Citrus and Juniper branches, leading the way to new aesthetics.
Tree-planted alleys, bowers and pergolas, were playing a very structuring part in the design of Renaissance villa gardens. As soon as 1309, Crescenzi advised to use pergolas – which were almost indispensable during the hot Italian summers -, made of interwoven branches of fruit trees, of willows, elms, poplars or even vines and other climbing shrubs on wooden frames. In the 16th century, domes capped intersections. Windows were cut in hedges to open the view. Wood structures seldom survived beyond the 17th century. Trimmed hedges made of laurel, myrtle, holm oak and laurustinus then slowly replaced the arbours, in association with rows of lanky cypresses, and were cut higher and higher as the 17th century proceeded, to end up by representing a very symbol of the classical garden.
Another recurring element was the parterre. This parterre was not a flower-bed, but refers to a planted area that was divided into compartments, an area that, itself, consisted in flower-beds (parterre, from the Italian partire, divide). The first drawings were symmetrical and very simple. The compartments were separated from one another by sand or gravel paths. The different patterns were only visible from the villa windows or from the upper terraces. Every motif was walled out from the next chamber and the different drawings did not particularly fit into the decorative programme of the rest of the garden. More complex patterns using circles and ovals appeared in second half of the 16th century. Circles and squares, as perfect shapes, were images of a cosmos inspired by God, like in the Islamic architecture. The drawings by Sebastiano Serlio were then widely taken up.
Models for parterres at the turn of the 17th century in Flore overo cultura di fiori distinto in quattro libri by Giovanni Battista Ferrari, Rome 1638, describing notably those in the garden of the collector Francesco Caetani, duke of Sermoneta, near Cisterna, to the south of Rome.
The boschi, as wooded areas in the form of a labyrinth or of a wild copse, were not always rejected out of the garden boundaries but were often included in the general layout of the garden in the mid 16th century as a formal wooded element. The tree-planted nature of the garden could also apply to the whole garden, then scattered with mythological statuary (Bomarzo).
The irregularities of the Italian ground, subjected to the play on perspective, permitted the creation of grottoes, amphitheatres, tiers, stairs flights, ramps and loggias. This configuration was the crucible, the nest for endless hydraulic fantasies: cascades, water sprays and fountains, pools, races, masonry brooks, hydraulic organs… (Este, Pratolino).
In the 16th century, the villa too was drawn in a central position, in line with the garden (Este, Caprarola, Aldobrandini).
6) Giardino segreto.
As most of the time, to assert something is often to imply one admits its opposite could also be true. To say that the Renaissance was characterised by coming back to all the sensuality of the antique mythological world is to forget that the Reformation, and then the Counter-Reformation, have yielded extremely strict religious positions. To say that the medieval garden was a walled-in space is to forget that it represented a huge opening compared to the thickness of the fortress walls. And to say that the Renaissance garden is partly defined by perspectives and openings already suggests the possibility of the opposite reaction: the need to create a secret garden. The hortus conclusus did not disappear in the Renaissance. This plane surface divided into flowerbeds, encircled by trellised vines, parted by arbours, watered by a central fountain, made a recurring, almost compulsory cell, a wall-in anachronism that escaped the general open layout of the garden. In the Quattrocento and the Cinquecento, its marginal nature, compared to the giardino grande, evicted it from the garden map and cast it beyond the garden limits. The late 16th century and early 17th century connected it to private life, hence to the villa, which it then adjoined most of the time. The private nature of the giardino segreto made it a unique term in the writing of the garden poem, amongst fish ponds, grottoes, gazeboes, coppices, mazes, alcoves, pools, aviaries, fountains, tree-lined alleys and tunnel-vaulted bowers. If it was disconnected from the rest, due to its secret nature, it was close to the heart and the intimacy of the prince of the premises. Here, the latter could withdraw from public ceremonies, games, feasts, entertainments and parades; here he could detain and admire some rare species of plants that the general keen interest of the powerful for curiosity cabinets incited him to collect. The giardino segreto was linked to the realm of the studiolo, the study, which was sometimes a chamber for art and wonders, or to the scrittoio, the library.
7) Written gardens.
The theories about the history of gardens in the Renaissance were indeed expressed mainly by architects and artists, but philosophers, theologians and gardeners wrote too. These paper gardens were not always actually planted.
Where Alberti and Erasmus were staying very close to literary tradition, Francesco Colonna developed rich and acute visions on the drawing, the structure and the nature of the items that should compose and organize the garden. In his Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphil’s dream of love), an allegorical novel comparable to the Romance of the Rose, published in Venice in 1499 and illustrated with over 200 woodcut engravings, Colonna took up the elements of the classical culture and reinterpreted them with his Renaissant eyes. The decorative quality of both the gardens and the classical architecture was then very important. Detailed descriptions of complex labyrinths, of rows of arcades covered with ivy, of carved trees and ornamental statues were furnishing what was at first a medieval garden, located on the island of Cythera, and consisting of the traditional vegetable and herb garden, supplemented with an orchard and an arboretum. The island was divided into three areas: a copse ring, a meadow ring, and a central section, which the later terminology termed as the “parterre”. Each individual area was enclosed with pergolas with pavilions at the intersections. Each pavilion consisted of four ionic columns supporting an entablature with red architrave on which were placed cupolas overgrown with yellow roses. Boxwood topiary, a giant carrying towers, colonnades and water-spouting serpents were some of the features. The central parterre was characterised by its knot ornaments, each of which with a kind of marble altar at its centre, bearing pruned spruces and box trees. The enclosure of this area was made up of citrus trees cut into a round shape, box trees cut like a sickle moon, conical juniper bushes and myrtle hedges. The ideas of Colonna have influenced all Renaissance Europe.
The Recepte Véritable by Bernard Palissy, published in 1563, gives a description of a square garden, adjoining a mountain to the north and west. Alleys divide the garden into four sections of equal size. Nothing is said about the patterns of the parterre. The centre is occupied by a round amphitheatre pavilion, with a pyramid at the top. At the garden’s four corners stand grotto-like cabinets, built with bricks that are glazed so as to represent rocks, plants, animals and human terms. A leisure promenade and high chambers for garden-related activities are hollowed out in the mountain cliff. Palissy’s vision certainly influenced some late Renaissance and baroque gardens like those of Boboli in Florence or those at the Villa Orsini in Bomarzo. In addition to the corner brick cabinets, four other pavilions are erected in the middle of each side of the square. These are made of elm-trees that are carved so as to figure bases, columns, architraves, cornices and green domes. Each building is diversely perforated with spraying or running water. Emphasis is placed on the ingenuity of the buildings, on the pleasure one can enjoy in the place, and on the profitability of fruit and vegetable yields. There, the vegetable world is subjected to art so as to imitate the rocks the architects’ buildings are made of.
Olivier de Serres (1539-1619) was probably the first theoretician to bring the garden into the sphere of courtly art by elevating bon sens to the sole criterion of evaluation. He may represent a decisive step from the Renaissance garden to the Baroque garden. In his Théâtre d’Agriculture et Mesnage des Champs (Paris, 1600), he brings gardening up to the noble rank of the visual arts. Among gardens for root vegetables, herbs, and fruit, he highlights the bouquetier, or flower garden, made more for pleasure than for utility. Again, his four gardens are separated from one another by alleys or trellised walkways. The author hierarchically divides the parterre into quarters, quarters into compartments…Yet, this important chapter, all made of bowers and refined parterres as it is, seems in contradiction with the thrifty, austere, and above all practical non decorative vision developed in the rest of his writings. And the illustrations to this chapter, on late request of king Henri IV, were by Claude Mollet, not by de Serres. What to infer?
8) Renaissance and the history of plants.
Printing, study travels, optical and astronomical investigations kept pushing boundaries further away and strangely belonged, in a time of such openings and intense awakening, to the microcosm of the secret garden. The giardino segreto revived the forgotten knowledge of Theophrastus’, Dioscoride’s and Pliny’s natural history, and announced a new kind of garden: a compromise between the traditional herb gardens and the botanical gardens to come, a garden that would be both an apothecary’s garden and a herbarium, a garden of pleasures and of knowledge, of contemplation and experiments. It belonged to an intermediary time that could scarcely differentiate medicine, from botany and alchemy, a time when the scientific objectives of reasoned classification curiously coexisted with astrological correspondences and combinations. But what was definitely new was the change brought by the increased number of new plants the travellers collected from Orient and from the ever-growing trade with America. Another new contribution was the interest for the observation and the description of as many plants as possible, should they be local or from abroad.
Renaissance corresponded to the first of four big waves of plant introduction in Europe with the coming of bulbs, corms and tubers from the Mediterranean eastern basin in the 16th and 17th centuries. Trees, shrubs and hardy plants from northern America followed in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Then colourful frost-susceptible annuals came from southern America in the mid 19th century, and at last Far East plants from the 19th century on.Ferdinand I’s ambassador in Constantinople, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, discovered the first bulbs in Ottoman Turkey in 1554. There, he built up a collection of tulips and sent it to Vienna in 1594, where Carolus Clusius (Charles de l’Ecluse – 1526-1609) was one of the first to grow and multiply these plants. The new craze would have motivated that many tulips were stolen by Dutch gardeners, which would account for this Dutch speciality. But it is also said that the bulbs would have arrived in Antwerp 1562, which would be long before that. The proliferation of tulips in Europe during the second half of the 16th century went along, amongst other things, with the diversification of the varieties of narcissus, hyacinth, fritillaria, iris, anemone, ornithogalum, ranunculus and lily, as well as the arrival of lilac (first described by Pier Andrea Mattioli – 1501-1556) and of horse chestnut (from Turkey).
Beautiful collections of dried plants were gathered (Crescenzi, Dodoens, Clusius, L’Obel, Mattioli), which were still complemented by references to medicinal properties at the beginning. But the scientific descriptions and aesthetic considerations gradually prevailed and supplanted the dubious medicinal properties. The medical part blurred away and herbariums became artistic anthologies (Basile Besler). A small herbal garden was created in Bologne in 1528 (Luca Ghini), but the first botanical gardens were those in Pisa (held by Ulisse Aldrovandi) and in Padoua in 1545. Then followed Leyde (1587), Montpellier (1593), Oxford (1621) and the King’s garden in Paris (1625-1636) first held by Jean Robin during the reign of Henri IV.
9) North/South specifications.
A good deal of the new plants that were arriving from Orient in Vienna and in northern Europe at the end of the 16th century were probably already grown in 15th century Italian gardens and had arrived there by passing through Venice and Genoa, carried along with the missions from the Far East, with the Jesuit expeditions especially. A special attention should be brought to Spain which, together with Persia, knew the world’s most beautiful gardens at the end of the Middle Ages. The extremely refined art of Islamic gardens probably outstripped the Italian Renaissance creations. Yet, Italy’s gardens were those that influenced the rest of Europe.
Châteaux in France were more generally located in plains and thus did not benefit from the Italian commodities of irregular ground that permitted great flights of stairs, cascades and ramps; these elements were then expressed with more reserve. More modest declivities did not hinder the creation of terraces though. To design vast, symmetrical and axed compositions and to open onto perspectives was impeded as long as the garden development concerned limited yards adjoining the irregular general layout of a preserved medieval abode. The garden was not thought in relation to the château before 1570 (Verneuil).
One French singularity lied in the presence of waterways on the site that made possible to line the alleys with canals (Anet) and to fill up basins (Fontainebleau) whose design was in line with the garden general layout.
Pergolas happened to be monumental (Montargis); the woodwork was painted bright colours, and even sometimes guilt (Blois). The lie of the land more seldom allowed to build grottoes in the supporting walls (Fontainebleau, Urfé, the Tuileries, Écouen).
In France, the design of parterres acquired an unusual elegance in the early 17th century. Claude Mollet, a gardener serving king Henri IV, was using box as a filling element in the parterres located right under the windows of the château, and hence led the way to more curvilinear patterns such as arabesques, scrolls and palmettes making up the Baroque repertoire, and relegating the flowers to side beds set around the parterre.
In Germany and Austria, the Italian gardens not only led the way but simply gave one way, as the local culture in this art then hardly existed at all, and as the medieval type of garden in monasteries did not any longer fulfil the princes’ and dukes’ demands for ever more pomp.
Compared to the complex lay-outs of Italian gardens, those to the north of the Alps leave a slightly austere impression. The medieval structure was often preserved; only the ornamentation of the flowerbeds and the water fountains constituted modest Italianate additions.
Nonetheless Heidelgerg’s hortus palatinus, designed by Salomon de Caus, in which the architectural concept created room by making use of terraces, was quite outstanding. Other interesting cases were the Leonberg orange grove with its double staircase after Bramante, its balcony, and the terraced gardens at Neufra. But the scale often remained small. The palace/garden coaxiality was to be noticed at Neugebäude.
Even so, the Stuttgart gardens by Heinrich Schickhardt were considered then as the most beautiful gardens ever planted to the north of the Alps, along with Heidelberg, Amboise and Fontainebleau. There, grottoes, fountains, springing water, parterres, labyrinth and coppice could be found long before Heidelberg. Ambras’ gardens were also housing a giardino segreto.
Painting by Jacques Fouquières (1620), detail showing Heidelgerg castle’s Hortus Palatinus created between 1613 and 1618 by Salomon de Caus, Germany. Terraced gardens, knotwork parterres bordered with small box hedges, intersecting bowers, labyrinth, flower-dial.
In the Netherlands, the engravings by Vredeman de Vries broadly contributed to propagate the Italian gardens models for parterres, pergolas and pavilions throughout the Germanic world and across the Channel.
Ever more isolated, England received the Italian influence later and gave it a very local taste by some innovations. For instance, it was not rare to provide the garden with a mound and a gazebo on top of it, from which one could behold both castle and garden (Hampton Court, Packwood House, Lyvedon New Bield…).
A local specificity affects the parterre ornamentation by the use of interlacing lines. This knotwork, whose fashion lasted until the end of the 17th century, was perhaps inspired by the book by Francesco Colonna as well as by some French ornamentalists. The models were spread by Thomas Hill’s The Profitable Art of Gardening (1568) and The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577).
Another English originality dating from the Renaissance was the creation of depressed surfaces surrounded by a small wall, with two or four stairways to get down there. This was the sunken garden with a planted parterre or a simple lawn – the Bowling Green – for outdoors games.
As in Fontainebleau, the water labyrinth in Theobalds (gardens by Gerard), and the broad reservoirs in Kenilworth were part of the garden “stage design” during the feasts given by William Cecil and Robert Dudley to entertain queen Elizabeth I.
Bibliography that was used to write the above synthesis:
Gaëtane lamarche-Vadel, Jardins secrets de la Renaissance, des astres, des simples et des prodiges, l'Harmattan, Paris 1997.
Trea Martyn, Elizabeth in the garden, Faber and Faber, London 2008.
Bernard Palissy, Recette véritable, Macula, Paris 1996.
Henri Gourdin, Olivier de Serres, Science, expérience, diligence en agriculture au temps de Henri IV, Actes Sud, 2001.
Carl Friedrich Schröer et Torsen Olaf Enge, L'architecture des Jardins en Europe, Taschen, Köln, 1990.
Penelope Hobhouse, L'Histoire des Plantes et des Jardins, Bordas, 1994.
And monographs of gardens of villas and palaces from the Middle Ages to the Baroque times in: