Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

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Italian Gardens - Classic Renaissance Gardens



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Villa Petraia has a long history including owners such as Brunelleschi, the Medici, and Vittorio Emmanuele II.






Below is a modern-day view looking up from the terraces at the villa.




This image is of the box-enclosed herb garden at Villa Petraia.  Click on the image for more images of the garden, and of Villa Lante, shown below, from Garden




"By gently rising paths he is to be led through the garden and up to the house, without noticing the climb. He is to be astonished at the view when he arrives, wondering if he had better stay or, enticed onward by variety and splendor, go farther."
 has a wonderful article about Leon Battista Alberti, a Renaissance historian and architect.  He's the author of "Di architettura", a book about villas and their gardens that borrows much from the Ancient Roman Pliny.  The quote above is their paraphrasing of part of that book.  From that article, you can pass along to more of their articles about Italian gardens.




These images are from another page with lots of links to Italian gardens: Grandi Giardini






















These two garden images are from Weddings In  You can get married in these gardens!





These two images are from a special Classical Italian Villas and Gardens Tour from Classical  

They base their tour on a book written by the novelist Edith Wharton:  Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904). Click here for a short summary of that book provided by the Edith Wharton Society












Books About Italian Gardens  

If you'd like to read about Italian Gardens, I've put a few direct links to books below, all available via






Or you can use this Search tool for to see what's available, what people's comments about the books are, and what they cost. 

Just enter 'Books' in the 'Search' field, and 'Italian gardens' (or Renaissance gardens, for example, or the name of a Villa with a famous garden) in the 'Keyword' field.  Then click on the 'Go' button. 

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The Renaissance Garden

Outlining with Evergreens

Topiary and Statuary

Fruit Trees

Arches and Pathways

Trellises and Climbing Plants


Potted Plants

Tightly Planted Beds

Water Features

Planned with the Villa


Garden Furniture

The General Mood

Personal Touches

Italian Garden Tours

Books About Italian Gardens



This article is about Italy's unique contribution to garden design:  the Classical Italian Garden, also called the Renaissance Garden.  

Discussing Italian gardens, it is important to point out that most people in Italy live in condominium apartments and have no garden.  

Those who live in villas (free standing houses) in the countryside, or on hills near towns, do generally have a garden.  But the gardens can be used to grow vegetables, or be ornamental, or both.

Public gardens are often former private estates of the extremely wealthy (usually former royalty).  They can include formal gardens and large green areas used in the past for exercise on horseback, or for hunting.  




The Renaissance Garden

A Renaissance Garden is a place for retreat from a hectic world.  It's for pleasure and peace.  It's for wandering, pottering and contemplating.

Any practical elements such as vegetables, fruit and herbs are woven into the garden design so they appear ornamental.



Outlining with Evergreens

The most recognizable elements of the Classical Italian Garden are the evergreen-outlined beds.  

Box (buxus) hedge, myrtle, rosemary, and other evergreen plants are trimmed into a hedge shape to divide the beds.

More importantly, however, the hedges provide shape and green even in the garden's fallow months because the Renaissance Garden is meant for year-round pleasure.



Topiary and Statuary

Topiary, evergreen plants shaped, trimmed and pruned into amusing shapes, are used to add humor and playfulness to the garden.

Some say this is really a Medieval custom that just stayed on during the Renaissance.  But you'll see more topiary than statuary in Classical Italian Gardens.

Statuary, when it is used, is normally a central feature in a fountain or grotto.  It is never vulgar or offensive, but humorous or graceful.




Fruit Trees

Renaissance Garden fruit trees are clipped and well-tended.  Some are planted in pots, others are planted in open ground, most often against walls.

Citrus fruit plants are often potted up so they can be set outdoors during warm months, and moved indoors during winter months.  

Other fruit trees are usually trained as arches or over pergolas, when they're not formed as an esplanade against a South-facing wall, for early ripening of the fruit.


Arches and Pathways

Evergreens often line pathways, and it's not always box hedging.  Laurel, Yew, Cypresses, Fir, Oaks, Plum, and Juniper trees are used to create green walls, arches and living pergolas.  

Footpaths are designed to offer varied walks with varied views through the garden.  They are also used for exercise, often taking the long way around.

Paths can be grass paths, mown down regularly, or dirt paths weeded regularly.  But the easiest paths to maintain are paved or gravel-covered (an anti-weed tarp under the gravel can cut maintenance to almost nothing). 



Trellises and Climbing Plants

Trellises are used to divide "rooms" and line paths in the garden.  They are trained with climbing plants like ivy, roses, honeysuckle, or grape vines.

The climbing plants are also trained over structures such as pergolas, porticos and pavilions.  Flowering climbers are preferred.




The ideal Renaissance Garden is terraced on a gently sloping hillside.  The various levels are joined up by paths and short flights of steps.

Terraces are used mainly to divide the garden into "rooms" with varying "moods", and to limit the views and vistas.  A connecting terrace should come as a surprise when climbing up the garden.

Looking down from the villa, however, the terraces should create a tableau of pleasing vistas, artistically sculpted views.  



Potted Plants

Terra-cotta pots, often covered with figures and designs, are common decorative features in Renaissance Gardens.

Flowers, fruit trees and herbs can be potted up and moved around the garden for variety and added color.  They are almost always displayed in balanced symmetry, so buy your pots in twos.



Tightly Planted Beds

Bordered beds are often planted up on various eye levels.  In the center is a tall plant such as a fruit tree, or an evergreen such as Laurel. 

Surrounding the tall plant are shorter plants in a different color, providing either a contrast or a complementary shade.  These plants are often herbs or flowering plants such as roses, salvias, or lupines.



Water Features

Water always plays a part in Classical Italian Gardens.  Primarily the water is for irrigation to keep the plants from drying out.

Secondarily, the water is used for features such as grottos, fountains, streams, and ponds. 

These features can be central features in "rooms", or as in the case of grottos, off to the shady sides of the garden.




Planned with the Villa

The villa is always taken into account when planning a Renaissance Garden.  The villa is treated as a feature of the garden, usually the central view.

Shapes on the exterior and interior of the villa are often mirrored in the garden shapes and structures, creating a harmonious blend of the two.

But just as important are the beautiful vistas from the Villa when looking out of the windows and doors into the garden. 




Structures are used to separate "rooms", add varied heights for views; and to provide shade, relaxation, and protection from wind and salty sea-air.

These structures can be porticos, pergolas, pavilions, grottos, loggias, balustrades or walls.  They are made of natural materials and often trained with climbing plants.


Garden Furniture

Seating is spread around the garden so the various vistas and "rooms" can be contemplated and enjoyed in repose.

Seating can include benches, small patches of lawn for picnics, chairs, tables with chairs.  They are best in natural materials such as stone and wood.

Covered seating areas are normally provided for protection from sun and rain alike.  Pergolas covered in vines or flowering plants are a typical covered structure.




The General Mood

The Renaissance Garden or Classical Italian Garden is a light, open, peaceful, symmetrical, soothing garden. 

There should be nothing dark, melancholy or gloomy.  And certainly nothing perverse or off-color in the decoration.


Personal Touches

The Classical Italian Garden also includes personal touches.  Each garden should reflect the family that lives in the villa.

Some gardens have the family name written in box hedge.  Or you can put the family coat-of-arms on a garden wall. 

Some gardens feature plants with the family or Christian name in Latin, for a more erudite personal touch.

Just a note here at the end...I put in an Italian garden in an old home we bought 10 years back, and today it is a beautiful escape from the world, a pleasure for the eye and soul. 

It's no Medici villa garden, but with three small 'rooms' (an herb garden, a fruit tree arcade with dense side planters, and a bordered lawn area with seating) there's variety and surprise with every few steps.  The maintenance is a few hours per week, and well worth the effort!




Italian Garden Tours

Visit the Ville Venete & Castelli site for information on all the Villas and gardens in the Venice area, so you can organize your own tour.

Classical Italian Villas and Gardens Tour from Classical base their tour on a book written by the novelist Edith Wharton. 

Another company that offers Italian Villa Garden Tours is Dolce  

Garden offers information on tours and gardens. 

Italian Travel offers a trip of Italian gardens from Pompeii to the Renaissance.  

This page offers lots on the villas around Lake Como, including descriptions, addresses, opening times, and how to get to them.

The Grandi Giardini Italiani site offers up lots of information on Italian villa gardens.




Here is a two minute video postcard of the luxury villas and their gardens on Lake Como





NEW Images of Italian Villa Gardens

from Unusual Villa & Island Rentals

























These last images were from one special villa in Lucca.




New images of the beautiful Renaissance gardens of the French castle Villandry that I took on a recent visit.

In 1906, Joachim Carvallo bought the castle, restored it, and replanted the once famous Renaissance gardens.  He used old texts and modern archeological research to determine the layout and design of the gardens.  Then he painstakingly restored them to their full glory.

The plan includes:

An ornamental garden (parterres)

A woodland garden

A water garden

A sun garden with play area for children

A maze

An herb garden

A vegetable or kitchen garden

and a belvedere, or beautiful view area, for a view of the entire garden below you. 

They are the best kept, and most beautiful Italian gardens in all of France.  This plan shows the castle/palace and the farm buildings at the bottom of the design, and the village to the right.  This is how the place is today.



This is a view of the castle to the right, the town in the background, and the parterre garden in the foreground, and the vegetable garden behind it.



The ornamental garden (parterre garden) designs represent: Tender Love, Passionate Love, Fickle Love, and Tragic Love.  Here is a low view with the castle in the background.



Here is a view from the castle's second floor.  If you visit the castle, be sure to climb up to the rooftop terrace the best view of the garden patterns.  From above, you will be able to pick out all the shapes and symbolism described in the tour brochure, including crosses, hearts, masks, horms, daggers. 

Visit their website for more details and for a panoramic view.



The vegetable / kitchen garden is between the castle and the village.  The beds are bordered with box hedge (buxus), and dotted with standard roses and fruit trees and fountains.



Here's a higher view.  You can see that the vegetable planting was done with the colors of the plants in mind, to create a pleasing pattern within the hedges.



Now for a closer view. 

You can pick out (from the foreground to the back) carrots, lolla rossa lettuce, cabbage, and a red oak leaf lettuce.  The standard roses are meant to represent the monks tending the garden.



The vegetables are also planted for texture, as you can see here with the artichokes.



Here is another view of the various lettuce plants and the artichokes, within the box hedges, surrounded by gravel paths, with the roses and fruit trees dotting the pattern.

Visit their website for a virtual tour and a panoramic view.



An Italian garden is not complete without water.  This is the central water canal that divides the ornamental garden from the kitchen garden.  It feeds the many fountains throughout the garden, which originally would have irrigated the garden.  Today, they use a sprinkler system.



The interior of the castle is interesting, too.  You can see much of it via the website, including panoramic views of this dining room, and several other rooms, too.


I especially enjoyed the kitchen, complete with shining copper pots and traditional medieval oven.

I highly recommend a visit to their website for more images and information about visiting the Loire Valley castle, and if you can, visit it in person!  Here is the link to their virtual tour.  And this is the link to some info on the castle including some panoramic views.



Loads of stunningly beautiful garden images for inspiration on Miguel Ximenez de Embun's Pinterest boards


Visit the website Italian Garden Design by Ecologica, for lots more tips on Italian gardens.


Italian Villa Garden Prints for inspiration and decoration



Visit my page about two important garden inspirations for Renaissance gardens.


Elizabeth von Arnim's two garden books, very inspiring for any gardener, new or experienced, on this site.