As an amateur gardener, I’ve been captivated by British gardens, first in books and then through actual visits. It was not until I toured Italian gardens that I realized the considerable influence Italian Renaissance design had on early British landscapes. I also learned that the ‘art of gardening’ emerged in 15th century Italy through the work of architects such as Leon Battista Alberti.
It was Alberti (1401-72), the multi-talented Renaissance man, who strongly affected landscape gardening by linking the house to the garden through a series of geometric shapes—squares, circles and rectangles, a totally different approach from the haphazard look of medieval times. To Alberti, the garden should be an ordered and beautiful extension of the home, a place to think, enjoy music and relax with family and friends.
Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the powerful and wealthy Medici family built a collection of villas around the city of Florence. Many of these villas, and in some cases their accompanying gardens, reflected the design principles of Alberti and his fellow architects. On a recent trip to Italy with Travel Specifics, I visited two Medici gardens of this period – one with a view and the other, enclosed within a wall.
Villa Medici Fiesole was built in 1450 on the side of a hill overlooking Florence. It is the oldest existing Italian Renaissance garden. A little over 500 years later, when standing in the upper terrace of the property, it is not difficult to imagine Lorenzo the Magnificent welcoming guests to his outdoor salon, while musicians played in the background and philosophers, artists and patrons discussed the issues of the day.
Villa Medici Fiesole itself is plain and stately in design and, although the location is stunning, the property has an unpretentious quality, reinforced by the geranium-filled pots lined up along a long stone wall. The features of the garden have undergone many changes over the centuries but for a modern viewer, the magnolia trees, parterre, pergola, lemon garden, fountain and courtyards—all beautifully arranged on two terraces—are inspiring.
This villa’s gardens are made even lovelier when the visitor spans the gorgeous views of woods, partially hidden villas, and cypress-lined roadways.
Villa Castello was commissioned one hundred years later by Cosimo 1 de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The garden took nearly 40 years to complete and was considered at the time to be one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe.
Many months after viewing the garden, a strong visual image stays in my mind of an enclosed space that perfectly incorporates the elements of symmetry, order and harmony, and creates, in an instance, a feeling of escape from urban clamour.
The main garden is laid out in mathematical precision and consists of sixteen flower beds, inside box hedges, with citrus trees in the corners. The rich collection of citrus trees is planted in large decorated terracotta pots. Green is the dominant colour; however, blues, mauves, soft pinks and splashes of orange enliven the design.
The garden of Villa Castello exemplifies the renaissance principles of proportion and tranquility, a direct contrast to the vicious and bloody battles for power that consumed most of Cosimo 1 de’ Medici’s life.
As we moved south on our garden tour to the spectacular 16th century gardens of Villa Lante and Villa d’Este, the relative simplicity of Florence’s renaissance gardens was replaced by displays of high drama and ostentatious wealth. These two famous gardens located near Rome were built by ambitious cardinals in their relentless efforts to impress and to win the papacy, efforts that diminished the spirit of the early renaissance period and failed to deliver the ultimate prize they sought.
By Barbara Reinhardus
Photo credits Barbara Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2013