Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

Main Page This family-friendly site celebrates Italian culture for the enjoyment of children and adults. Site-Overview



Villa Garden Inspirations


Greek/Roman Myths

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili




Villa Gardens


Sicily's Villas




Neptune's Fountain at Villa Lante






Architecture as a feature in an Italian garden at Palazzo Bomomeo, Isole Bella, Lombardy

















More than one Romantic painter was inspired by Poliphilo




Poliphilus kneeling before Queen Eleuterylida





 Embarkation for Cythera





Florence's Boboli Garden's Cythera Island


Greek/Roman mythology had a major influence on the decor of Italian Renaissance villa gardens, as did the 1499 book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.  I give you an introduction to both here:
  • so you can use them to inspire your own gardens, or
  • to better understand Villa Gardens you may see when traveling in Italy.


Gods and goddesses

The Italian Renaissance, Rinaciamento, celebrated the rebirth of classical studies.  Greek and Latin books, ideas and art were studied, copied and used as inspiration for the statues that decorated villa gardens.

The pagan gods and goddesses, while cloaked in erudition, could behave in ways the Catholic saints could never behave.  The church was never pleased by the embrace of the pagan stories and characters.  Some of the offending texts were banned, and some of the offending art was confiscated or destroyed.  But many of the pagan decorations in the villa gardens remain, carved into stone.

Favorites of villa gardens were the following, with the Roman name in parenthesis.  Each has conventions for their depiction in art, and myths attached to them.  Click through for an image of the god at the wonderful Web Gallery of Art, where you can read an explanation of the myth depicted.  Then click on the image to see an enlargement.

Olympian Greek gods and goddesses:

And some of the Semi-gods and spirits:

  • Adonis - Male beauty, Aphrodite's Lover
  • Amazons - Warrior women
  • Eros (Cupid) - Winged god of Love
  • Fates (Morae) - Fate
  • Charites (Gratiae) - The 3 Graces of Joy, Charm and Beauty
  • Helios (Sol) - Sunlight, and his son Phaeton
  • Hours (Horae) - Time
  • Hypnos (Somnus) - Sleep
  • Morpheus - Dreams
  • Muses - Art and Science
  • Nemesis - Retributive Justice
  • Nymphs - Nature
  • Pan (Faunus) - woods, fields, flocks, herds, lust
  • Persephone (Proserpina) - Queen of the Underworld
  • Sirens - half bird, half woman, singling seductress
  • Styx - River to Underworld
  • Triton - messenger of the deep ocean

And some of the Monsters and Creatures:

  • Centaurs - mean half horse creatures
  • Cerberus - vicious 3 headed dog that guards the Underworld
  • Cyclops - one eyed monsters
  • Giants - enormous monsters
  • Medusa - snake haired evil woman
  • Satyrs (Faun) - half goat creatures
  • Sphinx - half lion, half woman, winged

To learn much more about the Greek mythology and the vast cast of very unusual characters and their tales, you can visit the site, Wikipedia, or the Greek Gods Info Site.


A Special Book

Another major influence on Italian villa garden design, after the year 1499, was a very special book:  Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by a Venetian Monk Francesco Colonna (Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream).  The authorship was officially anonymous, but the illuminated letters at the beginning of the chapters signaled the author's name.  There are those who dispute the monk's authorship, but the fact remains that he is the only one who in any way claimed to have written the book.

In 1499, the prolific printer Teobaldo Mannucci, or Aldus Pius Manutius to use his preferred Latinized name, was busy printing Greek, Latin and Italian texts with a quality that was rare for his time.  His books are among the most collectable today for their beauty, technical wizardry, and examples of advancements in printing that he created.  If you wish to learn more about Mannucci-Manutius, you can visit his page at Wikipedia. 

There are many reasons why Colonna's book was so popular during the Renaissance.  Here are just a few.

  • It was stunningly beautiful, with text and woodcut images beautifully integrated.
  • The woodcut images were exceptionally executed and entertainingly presented.
  • The text celebrated the New Learning that valued classical Greek and Roman culture, and embraced all world cultures.
  • Cutting edge mechanical, architectural and hydro-mechanical designs were incorporated into the book, as were garden ideas.
  • The language of the book was Italian, spiced up with words from other languages that only a learned New Learning man would understand, making the book an instant cult classic for all wannabe Renaissance Men.
  • All this learning was entertainingly presented within the classic elements of a courtly love-story, which was wrapped up inside a sleep-fantasy tale, that involved the protagonist in a trial-adventure-journey, and even let him experience a few erotic adventures along the way, as well as allowing the reader to appreciate the allegory aspect of the story.  All five genres were popular book genres at the time (and today?).

When you had your Villa Garden designed around the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili you showed your guests that you were a well-read and well-educated Renaissance Man, and that you wanted to show your guests a good time.  They could wander through the garden and relive moments from Poliphilo's story, and admire the recreations of the book's designs for:

  • buildings,
  • the island of Cythera, home of Venus and all things beautiful,
  • fountains,
  • statues and
  • garden elements.

The story is about Poliphilo, a young man whose name means 'a lover of many things', or what we consider today to be a 'Renaissance Man'.  He falls asleep and dreams he goes through many trials to gain the woman he loves, who is named Polia, meaning literally 'many things', or what Poliphilo loves.  In this sense, the book can be seen as an allegory for the pursuit of knowledge by the 'Renaissance Man'

At the end of the story, Poliphilo wins Polia, but then he wakes up.  He reaches his goal to 'love all things' but awakes to find it was an illusion, and he still has lots of work in store for him.  It is a bit like any education:  the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.  Education is an unending path through life, if you wish to be a well-informed person.


The images I use below from the original 1499 book are from the Library of Congress on-line, digitized copy.


The book has a beautiful leather cover with metal clasps.


Here, you can see how beautifully the images are integrated with the text.


The woodcuts are detailed, and were the inspiration for illustrators throughout the ages.  Here is a particularly beautiful one showing Poliphilo in the woods.


These are of various fountains and statues elements.




These are of various architectural fantasies, the last one showing the printer's playful typesetting.




These images are of garden planting elements.




The images I use are from the original 1499 book are from the Library of Congress on-line, digitized copy.

Colonna's book even merits a mention on the New York Metropolitan Museum's Timeline.  See for yourself, and you'll find lots of fun information.

Here is an link to a recent English translation of the book Hypnerotomachi Poliphili.


These books are about the book Hypnerotomachi Poliphili.


And the first of these two books is a recent bestseller that uses the book Hypnerotomachi Poliphili as part of the detective mystery, much like Dan Brown does.  The second book claims to explain everything you didn't understand about the book Hypnerotomachi Poliphili after reading the first book.


Visit my Renaissance Garden page.

Elizabeth von Arnim's Garden Books