The Landscape Guide

Farm gardens in Italy

All the gardens named so far have been the seats of Italian renaissance princes. But the farm garden of the time, according to Soderini’s Treatise on Agriculture, has a certain artistic leaning of its own. He lays stress on harmony between garden and house (ground-plan and façade), which must be made to suit one another both in size and in the arrangement of angles and corners. The pleasure-garden ought to lie in front of the windows of the villa, which is to stand rather high; behind is a fruit-garden, and then the real orchard with fishponds and meadows at the sides. The view should reach beyond all this, over the level to the sea or the mountains. Every garden, and even every field, must be divided up into squares of equal size, and intersected by wide convenient paths. Next to the renaissance villa must be planted evergreens, but they, as well as fruit-trees, must be so treated with sickle and shears that none exceeds another in height, and that they look “ like a green meadow.” It was an unquestionable postulate at that time that fruit-trees should be planted in quincunx form, after the fashion of the ancients. Like Alberti, Soderini must have his pergolas walled in, or like a vine arbour, “as one prefers them nowadays.” And they must be so made that the padrone can walk right out to the field without being bothered by sun or bad weather. In the garden stand vases of flowers and dwarf fruit-trees of every kind. In winter he must have flowers, but at first these are medicinal plants, and in his demand we recall antique ideas. The custom of writing the owner’s name in box on the beds seems to him a very agreeable one, and he praises as modern the custom of setting out coats of arms, clocks, animals; and human figures in immortelles, and in thyme or other sweet-smelling plants. In this Soderini displays acquaintance with old authors, especially Pliny, and he also shows an attempt to take Alberti’s advice. At this stage of progress the farm garden remained fixed for centuries in Italy as in the North, and in the gardens of the poor the old conditions hold unchanged even to the present day.

In Italy, development seems to have been very unequal in different districts: things moved slowly in districts where the nature of the land meant few estates as round about Venice, and where the need for mere business cultivation was greater, as in Lombardy. Scamozzi, a pupil of Palladio, was a writer of the time when, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the art of gardening in the rest of Italy had reached its highest point. He had, however, seen but little of the magnificence of Roman gardens, then supreme; at any rate his meagre descriptions do not advance a step beyond those of Soderini. Furthermore, he has no notion of farm gardening, but, like Bembo, has in his mind the gardens at Asolo, and only gives the name of Park to the orchards because of their great size. But since Bembo’s time these, like the other gardens, seem to have remained as they were. Scamozzi, who spent a long time on the other side of the Alps, possessed great influence in the North. His writings were widely circulated, and until the eighteenth century he passed for an authority with many makers of gardens, and for the Italian garden this book, which appeared in 1615, meant a pause lasting for a hundred years.

Garden architecture was in a backward condition about 1500, for the ground-plan was of the very simplest nature, and there was nothing more than hedges, leafy walks, and clipped trees. The size of an ornamental garden was still very small, whereas the gardens for fruit and vegetables, so soon to be carefully hidden in the background, were large and important. The princely estate is at its best, however, in the park. In the early years of the Renaissance the love for keeping wild and strange beasts in cages, and the desire to have them to hunt, grew enormously, as it had done among the ancients. For this purpose a wide place was desirable, where large aviaries and fìshponds could be kept up. Men of smaller property had such features close to their villas—Soderini, for example, having fishponds on both sides of his own house.

A park of this sort could not of course have any pretensions to artistic unity, but we may suppose the place was mapped out and ornamented with a few things here and there. Thus the French poet describes the park at Poggio Reale as having barricades for wild beasts, and meadows for domestic animals at grass, and also aviaries and vine- yards. There is a fountain “ big enough to supply the whole town," and there are also grottoes. Concerning other parks, such as the one belonging to the Cardinal Aquileja, and the one set up by Prince Ercole close to the gates of Ferrara, we only know the actual fact that they were there. In Filarete’s architectural romance, he has much fanciful description of a park, but the whole tale of buildings and gardens of fabulous size and splendour must have been born of his own imagination. He gave the reins to an architect’s dream, so often balked by hard fact, for at the court of Francis I. the Renaissance ideas of Sforza certainly never materialised: the hanging gardens of his Prince Zagaglia are just an attempt to outdo in a fairy-tale the gardens of Semiramis in Diodorus.

he park is more easy to understand, for here the writer had in his mind that in front of the gates of Milan. Filarete’s princely park was encompassed by a great wall, and lower ones intersected the gardens to separate the wild beasts from the tame; also there were large ponds for ducks and herons, as these birds were hunted with hawk and falcon. Watch-towers were set up on artificial mounds, from which to view the chase. At the top of a large round hill at the place of the wild animals the prince had a church built in a thick shrubbery of pines and laurels, and inside it a hermitage, where a hermit lived. It had always been considered an advantage to have a holy man living on the estate. No doubt the romantic and picturesque surroundings were mingled with a certain sentimentality, for a hermitage, like ancient ruins, seems to be a thing people like to come upon, and this kind of feeling was natural at a period when men were so much concerned with their own past. In the love dialogue of Bembo one of the speakers says that he found a pretty round wood on the rocky hill at the end of the garden, where a hermit had made his abode among the thick shady walks.


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
Horace's account of life on his farm in the Sabine Hills contributed to the
renaissance love of farm gardens. The photograph shows the site of
 Horace's farm.