The Landscape Guide

Roman Renaissance gardens

 Belvedere garden court at the Vatican
 Donato Bramante's influence on garden design
 Raphael's design for the Villa Madama garden

Rome, comparatively late in developing the new form of gardens, was also behind Florence in ornamenting her gardens with statues. It was the man who made Rome’s future, and stood on the very threshold of the new city, Pope Julius II., who set the finest example. Already as cardinal he had vied with the Medici in collecting statues, which he placed in the garden at the great Penitentiary at S. Pietro in Vinculi. When he became Pope, he transferred them to the Vatican, and placed them in the court of Innocent VIII., undoubtedly the Belvedere, and thereby laid the foundation of what is probably the most important sculpture collection in the world. The Belvedere court was at that time for practical purposes greater than it is now, for the corridors and corner rooms where the statues are had not then been made. In the vast space there was a garden, which the ambassadors from Venice, who were left there for a while in 1523, described in glowing colours (Fig. 159). [Evelyn's description of the Belvedere in on the CD, with a note on gardens in Baroque Rome]
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 “At the end of the loggia” (the present Chiaramonte), they say, “one steps into a very lovely garden, one half of which is full of bright flowers and laurels, mulberries and cypresses, and the other half-paved with square terracotta tiles. At each corner stands a fine orange tree, and there are a great many of these, all in excellent order.”

Nothing but the Belvedere can be meant, for this alone lies at the end of the loggia, and we can only talk of two halves if the whole thing hangs together as one. All the same, this garden is no more than about thirty metres square, and the treatment of it as half orangery and half pleasure-garden is surprising; but it only goes to show once again how small the space allotted to a garden always was, even when there was a large area of ground to dispose of. It also shows how the fancy of spectators could fashion great things out of little.

An asylum was found here for those statues that for centuries to come were to be the Mecca for the votaries of art, and a starting-point for learned research by renaissance scholars  into the art of the ancients. At that time the statues were well arranged. Of the eight groups and single pieces, which made the whole collection in 1523, six stood in alcoves that were attached to the wall. In the middle of the south wall was the finest piece of all, the Laocoon, between the Apollo and the Venus Felix, and opposite to the Cleopatra and a river god. The two colossal figures of the river gods of Nile and Tiber, now in Braccio Nuovo, stood in the middle of the garden on pedestals, from which fine fountains played. Later there were added others, such as the torso of Hercules. Thus care was taken to consider the nature of each separate work; and in green surroundings, with running fountains and sweet odours, they gave a very different picture of beauty and poetry from that which they give to-day in their cold room indoors.

Naturally the cardinals were soon eager to emulate the Pope. The pictures of early museum gardens have been preserved in certain sketches made by artists from the North, who visited Roman palaces in the sixteenth century. One of the oldest and most important was laid out by Cardinal Andrea della Valle as a hanging garden at his palace, Villa Capranica, which Lorenzetto built (Fig. 160).

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 On the façade he had antique pillars set, with their pediments and capitals. In the renaissance sketch, which shows the gardens in an unfinished state, there are statues on the longer side placed opposite one another in two rows, and the short sides are filled in with open colonnades, sarcophagi treated like friezes, and other fragments of reliefs, and below these are pieces of the Ara Pacis, let into the walls, The intermediate walls, which are open to the air, are covered with lattice-work, concealed by green climbing plants set in boxes. A significant novelty originated in these gardens: according to Vasari, the cardinal allowed well-known sculptors to come and restore the statues; and this had such an effect in Rome that it was imitated everywhere.

A great part of the collection of antiques passed later into the possession of Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, who had them set up at his villa at Monte Pincio. This happened at the time when Rome was being encompassed by a wonderful girdle of lordly villas, in which the statues formerly in the town gardens, and strictly confined there, were now to display themselves as the finest of all treasures. This great development of art could occur quickly in Rome, because in the earliest decades of the century the city had taken an important step in its history and growth through the revival of terrace schemes in the garden. The different surroundings of the Middle Ages had let terraces disappear and be forgotten; and it had been thought that a garden was at its best when it was quite flat. Even Alberti never asked for terraces, in spite of the increasing demands for villa and garden that were made in his day. He only gets from Pliny the idea of the slightly raised situation of the house, and the gentle easy slope of the paths, and in that Soderini fully concurs. Filarete’s fanciful terraces are only the feverish dream of an architect copying the antique, and they lack any sort of foundation in reality. It is most characteristic of him that, as soon as he has anything real to talk about, as in his work De Architectura, he does not say a word about terraces apropos of that double garden which he is laying out behind his own villa. In the same way at Bembo’s garden in his Asolani—which could so easily have been turned into a terrace-garden, situated as it was against a rocky wall—the whole place seems to be quite flat. And this is the same as we have found it in all the Florentine villas.

In spite of this, the terrace was not quite unknown in Italy at a much earlier date, being used always for vineyards. Moreover, poets sometimes mention it, and so early as the middle of the fourteenth century we have a very attractive description of terraces in Boccaccio's Decameron. On the fourth day the poet represents the ladies as in a valley surrounded by six hills, which form a circle round the place “as though it were made not by nature but by an artist’s hand.” [Editor's Note: this quotation in fact comes from the Tenth Story of the Sixth Day, and is on the CD] The sides of the hills, crowned with little castles, slope in steps as at a theatre; and these steps are all in circles, one above another. On their southern side there are vines, olives, almonds, cherries, figs, and other fruit-trees, and on the north there are woodland trees. At the bottom of the valley, which is only accessible from one side, there stands a thicket, as fine as the best artist could make it, of pines and cypresses, giving on a flowery lawn with a cistern in the middle, which is fed by little brooks that rush down from the rocks.

This valley, partly vineyard, partly orchard, and partly wood (whereat the poet was so surprised because it was nearly as good as art), had certainly no direct connection with a garden; but we have a model here which is able to show how, a century and a half later, an important movement might be effected, viz. the introduction of a terrace scheme into gardens that the artist really made. As a fact, this is no more than the revival of old ideas, for the ancients had fine terraces in their own gardens. But, above all others, the Italians not only rediscovered this plan, but developed it for the other gardens of Europe in original and unexpected ways. We ought to bear in mind how far removed from their thought was the idea of the villa of the olden time—that is, of one huge enclosed estate forming a congruous whole—and we ought to realise that there is nothing in literature or in monuments to justify us in assuming that the ancients employed architectural stairways of an imposing kind in the same way as the artists of the Renaissance. The want of unity in the whole plan was increased by having no terraces in their gardens.

The Italian Renaissance artists, taking as one of their chief tasks the creation of the terrace in architecture, could boast that they were the first to grasp the significance of stair- ways in the garden scheme. It is only by its alliance with the terrace walk that architecture really appears in the garden, linking it with the house. The lengthened lines are easily perceptible to the eye: the axial line is prolonged in the chief garden walk, and the balustrades on the terraces supply the horizontal cross-lines that the eye desires: thus both are united in the scheme of the steps. The walls between give a good opportunity for grottoes on one side, and for a repeat of the façade-plan with pillars or corridors on the other.

By the use of this great novelty, Rome becomes influential in garden history, though comparatively late in experiencing the passion for buildings of a Renaissance type. At a time when in Florence the rich burghers were striving to outdo each other in the grandeur of their palaces and country houses, Rome was still a small unimportant town huddled together on the bends and curves of the Tiber. Mediaeval Rome was desolate, "the very recollection of ancient times was all but vanished. The Capitol was a hill where goats grazed, the Roman Forum was a pasture for cows.” Still, as early as the days of Nicholas V., the conception had arisen of making Rome, through its buildings, the greatest city in the world. In his famous speech to the cardinals on his death-bed. Nicholas conjured them, for the honour of God and the Church, to see that Rome was filled with noble edifices.

It was not, however, until Julius II,, a Pope of dauntless energy, sat in the papal chair, that such plans could materialise, At the beginning of his rule he summoned the greatest architect of his time, Donato Bramante. Everything was to be done to carry out the projects of Nicholas V., and to build up the Vatican so that in size and area it should be the greatest palace in the world. St. Peter’s was to be a wonder on earth. Innocent VIII. had already enlarged the palace with new buildings, and added the Belvedere, the battle- mented castle, above it. Julius II commissioned Bramante to connect this pleasure-place (which, because of its high situation, was also called Tower of the Winds) with the palace below. With the Belvedere Court, Bramante fulfilled his task in a wonderful way (Fig. 161).

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What he had to do was to find a means of passing from a garden terrace attached to a villa, without losing a sense of proportion, and always going gradually, to a palace court. He treated the uppermost terrace entirely as garden ground, and yet he could not and would not have it joined on to the Belvedere, for the house was much too small to serve as the end piece after so long a stretch as 306 metres. He therefore decided on another decorative erection—a garden structure within the colossal semicircular niche, with a loggia on the top, giving the finest possible view over landscape and town. On both sides of the garden there were colonnades, open on the inside, but walled in outside so as to give that feeling of seclusion which the garden needed, In the middle the Pope had an antique shell fountain set up in the second year. The length of 306 metres was given to Bramante, and he chose to have the comparatively narrow width of 75 metres, because of the situation of the somewhat high terraces; seen from below the width seemed quite the right proportion (Fig. 162).

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 Bramante continued the colonnade of the upper garden terrace at the same height, and the building that was thereby necessitated below (completing in the third or bottom story a three-storied façade) gave all the effect of an inner court on the lowest floor. A semicircular end was here also attached to the chief palace in correspondence with the one above. There were theatre seats in half-circles, by the help of which this court could be used as an arena, and there were straight wide steps as well leading to the second terrace, which pro-vided seats for spectators, and would accommodate a great many—it was said 60,000— if the open loggias on both sides were used as well.

Drawings that were made about 1565 prove that this place was really intended for entertainments. In that year Pius IV., who completed the great building, held a festival in honour of the wedding of his nephew Hannibal of Hohenem with Hortensia Borromeo, and the court which had just been finished was inaugurated with much pomp and pride and with a wonderful tournament [ed: see note on weddings in gardens]. There are two pictures, one showing the place in full festival, spectators crowded shoulder to shoulder, and the tournament in mid-career; the other showing the court full of statues, and also the beautiful stairways, the first leading up from the lowest terrace, quite straight, and the second a set of wide steps with balus trades leading on to the highest terrace. Between them in the dividing wall there was space for alcoves flanked with pillars, in which probably there were fountains playing. The uppermost terrace was laid out with various beds. The whole makes a very effective building, and it loses nothing in beauty or depth of meaning if we seek out the sources of those ideas which the architect borrowed from antiquity, and assimilated with his own original work.

Rome to this day exhibits as a garden scheme the immense alcoves that look down from the imperial palace on the Palatine into the so-called stadium, where Bramante’s treatment achieves the desired end of giving a view over the garden and beyond. As has been already pointed out, this was one of the favourite objects among Romans right up to Byzantine times. Similarly, the colonnades on both sides are taken directly from an antique model. How far Bramante was inspired thus in his great scheme for stairways, it is more hard to determine. The worthlessness of Ligorio from the historical point of view has already been remarked upon in reference to his plan at Monte Pincio, but it might have served as a study sketch for Bramante. Then again we have to remember that at Constantinople in the court of the Sigma there was an ornamental staircase leading from court to hall, where stood the emperor’s “ box,” and this served much the same purpose as Bramante’s grand straight stairs that led from the court to the first terrace. It is quite possible that some inspiration came to him from these and similar models.

In spite of pressure from the impatient aged Pope, Bramante did not get on fast enough to be able to see more than a small, meagre beginning of the work before his death. A view of the fortuitous condition of things at the time of his death is shown in a picture (Fig. 163). The eastern colonnade only was completed, and that in such haste that it often fell down later on, and very likely some of Raphael's frescoes were buried under it. Again we call in the aid of the Venetian legates to visualise the state of the place nine years after Bramante died (Fig. 163). 

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They hurried through the loggias, and said that these were so long that if one man stood at the top, another at the bottom, and a third in the middle, they could not recognise each other, All the same, they observe three terraces, the lowest one turfed, the second a monticello (rising ground). On the top one there were clumps of trees. The corridor they walked through is supported on one side by pillars; on the other balconies are built out for the sake of the view over the “ prati di Roma.”

The report of the ambassadors says nothing about steps, but their silence does not mean that steps were non-existent; for they hurried with all speed through these parts of the Vatican so as to be able to enjoy as long as possible a dearly-bought permission to see the antiques in the Belvedere. The western corridor was finished by Ligorio, architect to Pius IV., nearly half a century after Bramante’s death. This Pope had a careless and artistic nature, and loved gaiety and feasting. But the place was only undisturbed for a very short time, and soon ceased to provoke envy and wonder. The short period of the Pope’s rule proved fatal, as so often in other cases, to the works of art which he created, A Pope who had enjoyed his own completed work was often followed by a very different person, and the difference came out in their artistic surroundings. To Pius V. the feasts of his predecessor were both impious and hateful. First the theatre, and then all the rest of the court that contained any heathenish statues, had to be stripped, and wagon-loads of these made their way to Florence and other towns.

Care was taken by Sixtus V. that the old splendour should never return; for on the second terrace, that cuts off the lower court on the garden side, he erected the so-called library crosswise, and so dealt the death-stroke to Bramante’s great masterpiece, only twenty- five years after its completion. The uppermost garden did, to be sure, receive its greatest glory in the seventeenth century with the pineapple fountain. Paul V. had this sacred object (from the old basilica where it had stood under a small temple in the atrium) moved away from its place to make room for the structure of St. Peter's. The great alcove in Bramante’s garden, at that time still empty, was worthily adorned with it, and the garden from then onwards has borne the name of Giardino della Pigna. But through this crossway building the place had become little more than an inside court; and even the Braccio Nuovo (put up in front of the second terrace in the nineteenth century) could scarcely do further injury to the cause of art and beauty.

Though Bramante could not accomplish all the different parts of his work, he exercised a far-reaching and lasting influence on future development in gardens. It was inevitable that rich men in Rome, who were ever more and more responsible for the form that the new city was to take, should see their model in the Vatican. More than half a century before, Pope Nicholas had dreamed of setting up a palace so vast that all the cardinals could live within it. Now they were beginning to build, not only their own town palaces, but also handsome country houses. Busiest of all were naturally the nephews of the reigning Pope.

They staked their all on the duration of their kinsman’s life, and the short time had to be used to the best advantage. Their haste enriched Rome with numerous works of art, but many beautiful and lordly places were either never finished or soon left to fall into decay, and nothing could suffer more severely than garden sites.

Leo X,’s nephew, Giulio de’ Medici, was in the forefront of it all. He brought with him a passion for villa life that he had inherited from his family. In front of the Ponte Molle stretched the long range of hills, rich in water, of Monte Mario, which half-way up has a moderately large flat terrace with a lovely view; on one side stands the town, far enough off to give the feeling of open country and yet easily reached by the well-kept Via Flaminia. On the other side the river with its bridge winds through the green plain stocked with vines, and behind is the encircling Sabine Range. The cardinal was enchanted, and resolved to build a castle in the grand style. He summoned the best artists of that day, and no less a man than Raphael undertook to plan and construct.

If fate had allowed the building to proceed, a jewel comparable with anything the Renaissance can offer would be now before our eyes, but changes of fortune have left only the ruins of a fragment. Scarcely was it built than it was destroyed in a savage attack; for when Giulio became Pope as Clement VII., the villa was scarcely half made, and two years later it was the first victim of the revolt headed by Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, who tried to show his revenge in a flaring light by burning the Pope’s darling villa on Monte Mario while its master was a prisoner at the Engelsburg. Such part as was burned was afterwards rebuilt; but the whole villa was never completed. It has its present name, Villa Madama, from Margaret of Parma, who when travelling by used to stay there. Today it is a melancholy picture of decay, yet in it one can trace the features of ineffaceable beauty.

A set of original plans, some by Raphael, some by San Gallo, have been found in quite recent years, and they help one to understand the complicated architecture of the place, Though much must be simply guesswork, one can mentally reconstruct Raphael’s part of the building, of which only a bare half was ever completed. Of the gardens two terraces are preserved on the side of Ponte Molle (Fig. 164).

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 The upper one is cut off at the south end of the narrow side by a fine, triple-arched loggia, and on the north there stands a high wall with a door in it. flanked by two gigantic figures. On the side next to the hill there are three imposing niches in the wall, of which the middle one shows portions of an old decoration, viz, a sort of covered-in box, and at the back an elephant’s head (Fig, 165), which pours water out of its trunk into a highly ornamented bowl. There are festoons looped across, fastened with masks, and out of these again flows water into basins fixed lower down.

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In the other niches stand colossal antique statues: in the first, the one next to the loggia, there is the so- called “ Genius,” which was taken to Naples by Margaret of Parma with most of the other pieces. In the exedra of the loggia itself is a seated Jupiter, still to be found there in the eighteenth century but now wanting. Perhaps this upper terrace was first of all intended as a garden for statues, because planting unfortunately did not interest the designer. In the middle, a little to the side of the axis, is a very large rectangular tank. From the terrace, stairs, of which only the one on the south is preserved, lead to a very much lower one, almost entirely taken up with a cistern of great size. A well-arranged series of grottoes runs along the wall from north to south, and this is all there is to be seen.

Of the plans of San Gallo (who to begin with worked with Raphael and then managed the building of the place) we have a large hippodrome outside the door of the giants, planted with chestnuts and fig-trees (Fig. 166).

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 A smooth elongated level indicates that this part was actually carried out. On the east an elegant double stairway leads to the low-lying orange-garden. One of the corresponding stairways leads down to a third terrace, which, if we may rely on slight sketches, should include a wide flower-garden ending in a semicircular fountain. The southern side of the villa and all garden parts appertaining, do not even seem to have been touched. But a drawing of them has been found, perhaps from Raphael’s own hand (Fig. 167). In this design the garden is again in three terraces. The uppermost one contains a square flower-garden. The next, a round one (possibly a rosary), has a fountain in the centre. The lowest and largest terrace is an oval having two fountains, and with wide stairs leading from one terrace to the other. 

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The whole scheme, most intelligently thought out, looks like an illustration of what Alberti asked for—circles and semicircles in the garden—and all the more if one looks at the building plans. According to the last plan put forward, the central feature was to be a round court, and the finished half makes the south façade a semicircle. But on the hillside there ought to be, behind and above, another half-circle of a theatre, overlooking the court and the whole of the villa. Around this middle court there ought to be rooms attached to north and south, and gar- dens stretching in front. Lastly, belonging to the complete scheme is the nymphæum, which was to be in a fold of the valley between Monte Mario and Collina del Romitorio, extending from east to west on the north side of the hippodrome.

There are certain remains which show that this part of the garden was also actually made, just as Vasari describes it in his life of Giovanni di Udine. Raphael had not only consulted with his pupils about the inside decorations of the villa, but he is also the artist of the elephant grotto, wherein he worked in admitted rivalry, according to Vasari, with the decorations, then just discovered, of the so-called Temple of Neptune, thus gaining great honour (and pay as well) from the cardinal. “ Then,” says Vasari, “ he made yet another fountain for a country scene (selvatico) in the depths of a woodland cleft; he skilfully contrived that the water should trickle in little streams over porous stone, to look perfectly natural, and on the top of the blocks of stone he set a lion’s head with maidenhair fern and various grasses cunningly woven about it. One would hardly believe how charming this looked in the pleasant selvatico, which was indescribably lovely in all its details.” The cardinal was so enraptured with this piece that he made the artist a Knight of St. Peter.

The impression we get of the place as a whole from these miscellaneous plans is quite overwhelming. Now we can interpret the enthusiastic tales about the villas of these days with their “ amenissimi giardini.” We now see realised, by the help of old writers, both the fancies of antiquity and the works that have perished, all that Alberti and men of his kind desired to see. A painter, the greatest of them all, was the first who conceived this beauty as a whole, and throughout we feel we have an artist’s work. What is not yet here is the seclusion of later Italian gardens, and also the close relationship with the house. Gardens are composed of at least three terraces, and these are connected just as the slope of the mountain requires them to be. For the architect is still far from imagining that he can actually alter the lie of the land; even the terraces with steps between them are not throughout orientated by one main axis. ‘The nymphæum, for instance, is on one side in a little valley by itself. It is the same with the treatment of water, which has to be in separate places for the different garden groups, and how- ever attractive in special parts, does not present the beauty and grandeur of one imposing whole.


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The Villa Madama  is now an official residence belonging to
Italy's foreign ministry.