The Landscape Guide

Islamic gardens in Italy

In Sicily everything is gone, and travellers in the fourteenth century, such as Alberti and Fazello, could find only poor remains of Islamic gardens, which were strung round the city of Palermo, like a “necklace on a fair lady's neck”.  Alberti does describe the villa La Zisa, which is still standing, but it is so completely rebuilt that one can scarcely find the court with the fountain that he admired so much. The whole of the house floor is traversed by a stream, with a fine decorated hail above it of two stories and a vaulted roof. In front of the hall Alberti saw a wonderful fish-pond, into which streamed the fountain water, and in the middle of this was a good kiosk, attached by a bridge to the land.

Another Arab villa, which lay between Palermo and Monreale, is particularly interesting, because Boccaccio mentions it in the sixth tale of the fifth day, calling it Cuba, from the Arab kubba or domed pavilion. Traces of an important orchard, about two thousand feet long, have been preserved. “ There was a splendid garden,” says Fazello, following older accounts, “ with all possible combinations of trees, and ever-flowing waters, and bushes of laurel and myrtle. From entrance to exit there ran a long colonnade with many vaulted pavilions for the king to take his pleasure in, One of these is still to be seen. In the middle of the garden is a large fish-pond, built of freestone, and beside it the lofty castle of the king.”

Looking at these mighty erections of Arab princes, we are on the threshold of the great period for art in Italy, known as the Renaissance; but the movement in Western Europe goes to another measure, though now and then very insignificantly affected by Oriental influence, and has such different curves and lines, and such a different rate of progress, that this Arabian pocket of land in Western Europe can only be regarded as a little excrescence, outside the continuity of the great Asiatic culture. The centuries are linked together, and their cohesion prevents the possibility of any violent and vehement development such as happened in the West. However that may be, it behoves us to deal discreetly with the few relics that Western Asia has left us, spared from the storms and furies of the Middle Ages.