The Landscape Guide

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Michel was born in the Chateau de Montaingne, 30 miles east of Bordeaux in 1533. His father was a prosperous merchant. He is an important figure in European literature on account of his Essays and is known to garden historians on account of the descriptions he recorded in a personal diary of his 15-month journey (from September 1580 to November 1581) through France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. It was published in 1774 and lets us see the amazing gardens of renaissance Italy through the wide eyes of an observant northerner.


[While not describing any famous German gardens, Montaigne writes of the rich society which made renaissance gardens and of its enthusiasm for novelties and water tricks].

On Monday we went to see, in the church of Notre-Dame, the ceremony of the marriage of a rich young lady, belonging to the town, with one of the Foulcres' factors, a Venetian: we did not observe a single pretty woman in the place. The Foulcres, who are a large family, and all very rich, occupy the principal position in the town. We saw two of the rooms in a house of theirs. One was lofty, large, and paved with marble. The other, a low room, was richly decorated with medals, ancient and modern. At the end of this room there was a small antechamber. They were the most splendid apartments I ever witnessed. We also saw some of the German dances. At the close of every measure, they break off, and the gentlemen lead the ladies back to their seats, which are two rows of benches on each side of the room, covered with red cloth. Here the gentlemen leave the ladies, as it is not the custom for them to sit down together on these occasions. After a short rest, the gentlemen return to their partners, and kiss their hands. The ladies do not kiss the hands of the gentlemen, but, putting their hand under their partner's arm-pit, touch checks, and then place their right hand upon the gentleman's shoulder. They dance and converse uncovered. The dresses were plain. We saw some more of the Foulcres' houses, in other parts of the town, most of them pleasure-houses for the summer. The town must be greatly indebted to these gentlemen for the expenses they are constantly incurring in embellishing the different parts of it. In one of these houses we saw a clock which is worked by water. In the same place were two great fish-ponds, under cover, full of fish. There are several small pipes, some straight, others bent upwards, through which the water descends into these fish-ponds in a very agreeable manner, some of the pipes discharging the water directly into the ponds. The others, first throwing it up as from a fountain, to the height of about a pike. Between these two ponds there is a space of some ten paces wide, closely boarded with planks, in which are a number of brass jets, so small that you cannot readily see them. While the ladies are amusing themselves with looking at the fish, those in the secret have on1y to touch a spring, which sets these jets in operation, and incontinently the petticoats and legs of the fair spectators are invaded with a refreshing coolness from these tiny water-spouts. In another place, where there is a very charmingly constructed fountain, while you are looking at it, any one that likes can play water upon you in a hundred places from invisible jets; over the place there is this Latin sentence: Quaesisti nugas, nugis gaudeto repertis ['You were in search of trifling amusements: take them, and make much of them']. There' is also an aviary twenty paces square, and twelve or fifteen feet high, surrounded on all sides with close-knitted wire-work. Inside this are ten or twelve low fir trees, and a fountain. This immense cage is full of birds. We saw here some Polish pigeons, or, as they call them, Indian pigeons, a sort of bird I have seen elsewhere; birds of a large size, with bills like a partridge. We had here pointed out to us the ingenuity of a gardener, who, foreseeing the early arrival of frost, had transplanted into a small covered place a quantity of artichokes, cabbages, lettuce, spinnach, endive, and other plants which lie gathered, as though for immediate use. By putting their roots into a particular sort of earth, he had hopes of keeping them fresh and good for two or three months; and, in fact, though there were a hundred artichokes which had been thus gathered for more than six weeks, none of them were withered. We also saw a leaden instrument, bent archwise, open at both sides, and pierced with holes [a siphon]. This being filled with water both ends are held up, and it is then suddenly and dexterously turned down, so as for one end to go into a vessel full of water, while the other discharges the water outside, and the pipe is thus kept constantly filling as fast as it empties itself. The arms of the Foulcres, which the Emperor Charles the Fifth gave them when be ennobled them, are a crown mi-parti; on the left, a fleur-de-lys, azure on a field of gold; on the right, a fleur-de-lys, gold on a field azure. We went to see some people who were conveying two ostriches from Venice to the Duke of Austria; the male is of a darkish hue, with a red neck. The female is of a grey colour, and lays a great many eggs. They were conveying them on foot, and told us that the birds got much less tired than they did; they said the beasts were constantly trying to get away from them, but they held them fast by two collars, one of which girded them over the reins above the thighs, and the other above the shoulders, encircling the whole body, and so, by means of these and two long leashes, they were able to stop or turn them as they wished. On the Tuesday, by the courtesy of the authorities of the town, we were shown a postern in the wall, through which, at all hours of the night, any person can enter, whether on foot or horseback, upon stating his name, and the person to whose house, or the inn to which he is bound. Two faithful men, paid by the town, are posted at this gate. Persons on horseback pay two batz for their admission there, and persons on foot one. The outer door, on the other side of the fosse, is sheathed with iron: at the side there is an iron handle, attached to a chain, which the person who wants to be Jet in pulls; this chain, after winding about a long way, ascends to the bed-room of one of the porters, which is situated at a considerable height above the postern, and there rings a bell. The porter thus roused gets up in his shirt, and, without leaving the room, by means of certain machinery opens the outer door, through distant a good hundred paces from where he stands.

Pratolino [Also see Evelyn's description of the Boboli]

[Montaigne's criticism of the scenery as 'sterile and rugged' is surprising, as is his remark that 'the view from it consists merely of hills'. He is however delighted by the water features and describes the famous statue of Apininus being built.  Since so much of the garden has disappeared, Montainge's description is of great value].

We left Scaperia next morning, our landlord acting as guide, and proceeded along a fine road, between hills, which seemed well cultivated and thickly inhabited. We turned out of our way two miles on the right, to see a palace that the Duke of Florence built here twelve years ago, and has ever since been exercising his seven senses in embellishing. He would seem to have expressly selected an inconvenient site, sterile and rugged, and utterly without water, merely that he might have the pleasure of bringing the water from five miles off; and his other materials of every description from another five miles off, in an opposite direction. There is no unity of design about the place. The view from it consists merely of hills, which is the general feature of the country. The place is called Pratollino, and has a most despicable appearance from the distance. But when viewed nearer it looks handsome enough, though not nearly so well as the better sort of palaces among us in France. The furniture is pretty enough, but does not at all partake of the magnificent. There is, however, a grotto, consisting of several cells, which is the finest we ever saw. It is formed, and all crusted over, with a certain material, which they told us was brought from some particular mountain. The wood-work is all ingeniously fastened together with invisible nails. Here you see various musical instruments, which perform a variety of pieces, by the agency of the water; which also, by a hidden machinery, gives motion to several statues, single and in groups, opens doors, and gives apparent animation to the figures of various animals, that seem to jump into the water, to drink, to swim about, and so on. On touching a spring, the whole grotto becomes full of water, and all the seats spout minute streams against you. When, flying from the grotto, you seek a refuge on the stairs that lead to the castle, the motion of another hidden spring gives play to a thousand jets of water, that inundate you with their showers, till you reach the top. The beauty and richness of this place cannot be conveyed by any description, however detailed. The approach to the castle is through a walk fifty feet wide, and about 500 paces long, which has been constructed at a very heavy expense. On each side of this walk there are, at every five and ten paces alternately, handsome fountains, standing upon elaborately sculptured stone pedestals, so that as you look down the walk, you see ranges of fountains spouting forth water to a great height on both sides. At the bottom there is a very large fountain, which discharges its waters into an immense basin, by the medium of a marble statue, representing a woman washing. She is wringing a tablecloth, also of white marble, the droppings from which keep the basin full. Near this is another vessel, where the water seems boiling, to make lye with [Editor's note: lye is an alkaline solution used for washing]. In the dining-room of the castle there is a marble table, with places for six guests. In each of these places, upon raising a small lid, formed in the marble, you find a ring connected with a vessel under the table. From each of these six vessels, on pulling up this ring, there rises a fountain of fresh water, in which you may either cool or cleanse your glass, and in the centre is a similar fountain, or rather well, for the bottle. We also saw some deep pits in the ground, where they preserve a quantity of snow throughout the year, the snow being placed on layers of broom, and the heap, which is made in a pyramidical form, being finally covered over with thatch, like a barn. There are a great many of these snow-pits. They are now erecting the statue of an enormous giant, with one eye, which alone is three cubits wide, the rest of the body being in proportion; this they intend for an immense fountain. There are a thousand reservoirs and ponds, supplied from the two principal fountains, by infinite earthen pipes. We saw a very large and handsome aviary, in which we noticed some little birds, like goldfinches somewhat, only they had two long feathers at the tail, resembling those of a cock. We had a very singular sort of stove shown us. We stopped here for two or three hours, and then resumed our journey, along several high hills, to Florence, seventeen miles, a place smaller than Ferrara, situated in a valley, surrounded by richly cultivated hills. The river Arno passes through the town, and is crossed by several bridges. We saw no fosse around the walls.

Villa Castello, Florence

[The garden survives very much as Montaigne describes it, though the vegetation in the garden is now much thinner and the sun finds it all too easy to penetrate. As elsewhere, Montaigne is delighted by the water tricks. Perhaps he would admire the Theme Parks of modern Europe.]

The city of Florence is paved with flat stones, but in no sort of method or order. After dinner, the four gentlemen hired a guide and post-horses to go to a country place of the duke's, called Castello. The house itself is not worth looking at; but there are several gardens admirably laid out, all of them on the slope of a hill, so that all the straight walks are upon a descent, but a very gentle and easy one; the cross walks are level and terraced. In every direction, you see a variety of arbours, thickly formed of every description of odoriferous trees, cedars, cypresses, orange trees, lemon trees, and olive trees, the branches of which are so closely interwoven that the sun, at its meridian height, cannot penetrate them. These arbours will only hold three or four people. In the centre of one of the pieces of water, there is an artificial rock [Editor's note: presumably pumice stone, now overgrown with moss and ferns], which looks all frozen over, an effect produced by means of the same material with which the duke has cowered his grottoes at Pratolino. At the top of this rock there is a statue in brass, representing a very old grey-haired man, seated in a melancholy attitude, with folded arms, from whose beard, forehead, and face, the water is incessantly running, drop by drop, so as to represent tears and perspiration; and these are the only outlets by which the fountain discharges its contents. In another place, they had an amusing experience of the trick I have mentioned before; for as they were walking about the garden, looking at the various objects of interest, the gardener, who had just before left them for the purpose, while they were standing to admire some marble statues they came to, discharged upon them, from under their feet and legs, an infinity of springs of water, so small that, till you looked closely, they were invisible, and which had just the appearance of small rain, and they got regularly wet through, in the lower part of their persons. The springs which the gardener worked were more than two hundred paces from the spot; but they were so ingeniously planned, and so well made, that with the least motion he set them in operation, or stopped them, just as he pleased, and in a moment. They have this sort of trick in a good many places in this part of the country. We went to look at the principal fountain, which discharges its contents through two large figures in bronze, the lower of which has taken the other in his arms, and is squeezing him with all his might. The latter, almost senseless, has his head thrown back, and discharges the water from his mouth. The machinery is so powerful that the fountain rises to a height of two hundred and twenty-two feet above the figures, which themselves are twenty feet high. In another part of the gardens there is a small room, constructed among the branches of an evergreen tree, of a foliage much fuller than any they bad ever seen before, so full that you cannot see out of the room through its thick green walls, except by pushing the smallest of the branches aside. In the centre of this, by some means which you are not made acquainted with, there rises a small fountain of water, through a marble basin, into which it falls. They have some machinery here for water-music; but they had not time to go and see it, for it was getting late, and we had to ride back to the city. They saw the duke's coat of arms here, over the gate, formed of the branches of trees, which are so trained by exquisite art as to compose the different parts. The time of year was that most un favourable to gardens, which made them wonder all the more at the condition in which they found this. There is also a very handsome grotto, in which are to be seen all sorts of animals, sculptured the size of life, which are spouting out water, some by the beak, others by the mouth, or the nails, or the nostrils. I forgot to mention, that in one of the rooms of the palace there is to be seen, placed upon a pillar, the body of an animal of a very strange form. The breast is all covered with scales, and all up the backbone there grows a sort of excrescence, like a horn. They told us it was found in a cavern, among the mountains, some years ago, and brought here alive. It is now bronzed over. We went to see time palace' where the Queen Mother was born. In order to ascertain all the particulars respecting the mode and expense of living in this place, he went to look at several apartments that were to be let, and at several boarding-houses, but he did not see anything at all desirable.

Villa D'Este, Tivoli [Also see Evelyn's description of the Villa d'Este]

[The garden fell into decay during the nineteenth century and much of the sculpture was removed. Restoration work has taken place and the garden is extremely popular with visitors.]

Tivoli, fifteen miles. This is the ancient Tiburtum a town seated on the very roots of the mountains, just where the first rise takes place, so that the views from it, and the situation itself, are exceedingly rich and picturesque; an uninterrupted prospect over a vast plain, with that fine old Rome full in the distance. Before you the eye reaches as far as the sea; behind you rise the mountains. It is bathed by the Teverone, which river, just at this place, takes a tremendous leap from the high ground down into a basin of rock, five or six hundred paces below, and then flows on into the plain, where, after infinite meanderings, it joins the Tiber, a little above the town. Here are to be seen the famous palace and gardens of the Cardinal of Ferrara; a fine work, but incomplete in many of its parts; nor does the present Cardinal have anything done towards finishing it. I examined every feature with great attention; and I would attempt to give some description of the place here, but there are already accounts of it in books, and representations of it in pictures. The water-works here, which send forth an infinite number of streams on your touching only one spring, and that at a good distance, I had seen elsewhere during my journey, both at Florence and at Augusta, as I have mentioned There is a real organ, which plays real music, though always the same tune, and this is effected by the means of water, which, falling in a large body, and with a sudden descent, into a round, arched cave, strikes upon the air in it, and compels it to make its exit through the pipes of the organ, which are thus supplied with wind. Another fall of water turns a broad wheel, furnished with teeth, so fixed in it as to strike in due order the keys of the organ, and thus produce the tune to which the wheel is set. By the same machinery they imitate the sound of trumpets. In another place, you hear the notes of birds blended in harmony, an artificial effect, produced by the same means, on a smaller scale, as those I have just described. On touching a spring, you give motion to an artificial owl, which on presenting itself on the top of a rock causes a sudden cessation of the previous harmony, the little birds being supposed to have become alarmed at his presence; then, on touching another spring, the owl retires, and the birds re-commence, and you can continue this sport as long as you like. In one place, you hear a roaring sound, like artillery. In another, you are startled with the sharper discharge of gun-shots; both of these sounds being also produced by water, which falls into hollow places, and ejects the air. All these contrivances, or similar ones, I had seen elsewhere; but there was one thing in particular, that I had never before observed: there are several large water-tanks, or reservoirs with a margin of stone all round them; on this margin stand a number of high stone pillars, at about four paces one from the other. From the top of these pillars the water dashes out with great force; but, instead of spouting up, the current discharges itself into the reservoir. These various streams cross each other midway in the air, and produce a continuous and heavy rain, which descends violently into the water below, and the rays of the sun falling upon it, produce a rainbow well nigh as brilliant as that we see in the sky. Under the palace, are constructed a number of hollow places and air holes, which communicate in the hottest weather a most refreshing coolness throughout the lower part of the mansion. This part of the structure is, however, not quite completed. I saw several excellent statues here; especially a sleeping nymph, a dead nymph, a Minerva, a model of the Adonis at time Bishop of Aquino's; one of the bronze wolf, and another of the Youth extracting a thorn, the originals of which are at the Capitol; another of the figure of Comedy, also at the Capitol; one of the Laocoon, and another of the Antinöus, at the Belvidere; another of the Satyr, at Cardinal Sforza's country-seat; an other of the new production, the Moses, the original of which is in the church of St. Pietro in Vincula; and another, of the fine female figure, that lies at the feet of Paul III. in the new church of St. Peter. These are the statues that pleased me most at Rome. A very natural comparison arises in the mind between this place and Pratolino. In the variety and beauty of its grottoes, the Florentine grounds infinitely surpass the Ferrarese; in the abundance of water, the latter have the advantage; in the variety of amusing and agreeable water-works, they are about equal; if the Florentine artist, perhaps, displays somewhat more elegance in the arrangement of his details, the Ferrarese compensates for this by his fine statues and time splendour of his palace. The Ferrarese, in charm of situation and beauty of prospect, far surpasses the Florentine; and I should be inclined to say that, in every respect, nature had given him greatly the advantage, were it not that, with the exception of one small founain, rising in a small garden on an eminence, the water of which is conducted into one of the apartments of the palace, all the water here is river water, derived from the Teverone by means of a canal cut for that purpose. Were this water as clear and drinkable as it is otherwise, the place, in all natural qualifications, would be incomparable, more especially from its grand fountain, which is the most extraordinary construction, and the most beautiful of its kind, that ever I saw, here or elsewhere.

Villa Lante, Bagnaia

[Montaigne presages the modern assessment of the Villa Lante as one of the finest gardens of the Italian renaissance]

Saturday, 30th of September, I left Viterbo early in the morning, and took the road to Bagnaia, a country seat belonging to Cardinal Gambara, one of the most richly ornamented places I ever saw. It is so well provided with fountains, that in this respect it not only equals, but surpasses, both Pratolino and Tivoli. In the first place, there is a fountain of spring water, which is not the case at Tivoli; the water of this fountain is abundant, which is not the case at Pratolino. This water has been made available for an infinity of ornamental designs, under the direction of Signor Tomasi, of Sienna, the constructor of the water-works at Tivoli, who, in addition to the admirable effects which his genius originated elsewhere, has here introduced some novelties, which infinitely surpass all his former efforts. When the decorations here are completed, it will be the finest place of the sort in the world. One of the more remarkable features, is a pyramid, which spouts forth water in different directions. At each base of this pyramid, is a small lake, full of pure and limpid water. In the centre of each lake is a stone boat, wherein stand two figures, in the costume of cross-bow men, who, through their cross-bows, shoot continuous streams of water against the pyramid. The grounds are traversed by a number of well-planned walks, with carved stone seats at short distances. The palace is small, but well arranged. The cardinal was not at home; but, as he is French at heart, his people received us with the utmost kindness.

Palazzo Farnese, Caparola [Also see Evelyn's description of the Caparola]

[Montaigne has more to say about the palazzo than about the grounds. It is interesting to find him identifying portraits of the family of Marie di Medici, who became Queen of France. European royal families inter-married and carried knowledge of the latest developments in garden art from country to country.]

Thence we proceeded to Caprarola, a palace belonging to the Cardinal Farnese, and which is highly spoken of throughout Italy. And well it may be so; for I have seen no structure at all comparable to it, in the whole of this fine country. It is surrounded by a wide deep fosse, cut out of the soft gravel stone, on which the place is built; and the roof of the palace on each side forms a fine terrace, by which arrangement a very unseemly feature in ordinary domestic architecture is avoided. The form of the building inclines to the pentagonal, but it presents to the eye the appearance of a perfect square. Its internal form is exactly circular; and a large vaulted corridor, whose walls are covered with pictures, encircles the whole building, winding round and round it, from the base to the summit, and connecting the different floors. The rooms are all square. Among the other splendid apartments which adorn this structure, there is one, the vaulted ceiling of which represents a celestial globe, with all the figures accurately depicted. Upon the walls of the apartment is represented the terrestrial world, with all its various continents and regions, forming a complete cosmography. These paintings, which are all in the richest colours, entirely cover the walls and ceiling. In other rooms are depicted, in pictures of various sizes, the life and actions of Paul III., and the other distinguished members of the House of Farnese. Besides these, there are portraits so admirable, that those who have seen the originals at once recognise them all at the first glance of our Constable [Anne de Montmorency], the Queen Mother [Catherine de Medici], her children, Charles IX., Henry III., the Duke of Alençon, the Queen of Navarre [Margaret, first wife of Henru VI] and King Francis II., the eldest of them all, as well as Henry II., Piero Strozzi, and others. In the same room with these, are two busts, one at each end. One, which stands in the place of honour, of Henry II., with an inscription upon it, in which he is designated the preserver of the house of Farnese; and the other, which stands at the other end of the room, that of King Philip II. of Spain, the inscription on which sets forth, that it was placed there in memorial of the numerous benefits which the Farnese family had received from him. In the grounds, also, there are several things well worth seeing, and, among others, a grotto, whence the water showering out into a small lake, gives to the eye a close imitation of the fall of real rain. This grotto stands in a wild and desert spot, and the water whence it is supplied has to be brought from Viterbo, which is fully eight miles off. Leaving this magnificent place, we rode on, over a wide plain, where, every now and then, upon barren and grassless spots, we found springs of cold water, clear and pure to the sight, but so impregnated with sulphur, as to cast the odour of it for some distance around.