The Landscape Guide



Leon Battista Alberti

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see historian Villani, although proud of the beauty of his native town, shook his head gently when recalling the excess luxuries of  villa life. The poet Boccaccio shows his little group of friends walking about, free, careless, happy, untroubled by the breath of plague that brooded over the town at their feet. They are surrounded by the elegance and beauty of early renaissance gardens. Still it is not till a full century later that a new voice is heard in Italy praising with songs of delight the loveliness of a country life. When Leon Battista Alberti in his Della Famiglia describes the joys of a villa, he is proud of being on the side of Cicero, Horace and Pliny. He loves to breathe the pure air of Florence, where, in a bright clear atmosphere and cheerful surroundings and lovely Italian views, everything is healthy and clean, with very little fog and no bad winds. In such a place he thinks men are bound to be good and just, "where there is nothing, as elsewhere, of fear or of treachery, and one is not cheated by debtors or attorneys. Nothing secret goes on here, nothing that may not be seen and known by all."

This theme is dwelt on pleasantly at some length in the dialogue. But “the great Alberti,” as Burckhardt calls him, with whom the sun of the Renaissance arose and shone over Florence, and Italy, has something more weighty to say on the question of villas and gardens. For he is an architect. Alberti is the first in any field to try, with conscious intention, to knit together the glorious past of his people with the flowering time of the new Roman world. How far this union was purely literary is nowhere so clearly seen as in the architecture of villas and gardens. In Alberti’s work De Architectura the villa appears in all its beauty and gaiety. Its open halls, disposed quite arbitrarily, “wherein the artist ought to keep his main lines in strict proportion and regularity, lest the pleasing harmony of the whole should be lost in the attraction of individual parts,” seem to welcome with a smile the arrival of a guest. 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 splendour, go farther.

The garden which the visitor sees around him is just as cheerful; because all that makes for melancholy is to be avoided, and dark shadows must be kept in the background. Porticoes and pergolas on the sides protect the garden from the hot sun, as also the cool grottoes of tufa, which Alberti will have introduced “ after the fashion of the ancients.” He also approves of their customs of using decorated pots for flowers, and of writing the master’s name on the beds in box. All the garden paths are to be bordered with box and other evergreens. Bright streams of water must run through the garden, and above all must start up unexpectedly, their source a grotto with coloured shell-work. Cypresses with climbing ivy must be in the Italian pleasure-garden, but fruit-trees, and even oaks, are relegated to the kitchen- garden. Comic statues may be tolerated, but nothing that is obscene is admissible. Circles and semicircles, considered beautiful in courts, he desires to see in the garden as well, and these he would have made with laurel, citron, and yew, with interwoven branches.

It is plain to see how strongly Alberti is leaning towards the two villas described in Pliny's letters. We can find the origin of  nearly every one of his "renaissance" demands with a passage from Pliny. Indeed, Alberti's zeal for imitation goes so far that he is led astray, and thoughtlessly copies his model, when Pliny arranges to use box borders only where they are protected by houses. At Pliny’s Laurentinan Villa, rosemary had to be used instead of box in places exposed to the wind from the sea and to splashing foam, because under such conditions box would dry up and perish. Laurentinum was close to the sea; but when Alberti recommends evergreen borders, and adds that it is better not to use box unless it is protected by walls from wind and foam, the advice sounds rather unnecessary, as he is first and foremost thinking of his own inland villa at Florence.

In spite of this marked inclination towards a Roman model, Alberti's Renaissance villa turns out to have a very different character. Although he seems a little vague about the garden as compared with the clearly designed house, both are certainly regarded as making one coherent whole. Alberti expressly demands that the circular and semicircular parts that occur in halls shall be repeated in the garden, for a garden leads into the house, and the two meet at the threshold. Therefore gardens also ought to exhibit the cheerfulness of the early Renaissance. They should refuse to tolerate dark shadows except as a background, in opposition to the heavy and serious grandeur of the Roman times. The ancients sought rural retirement to their country seats, escaping the many cares and burdens that oppressed them. The days were still far distant when Italian renaissance gardens could compete with the size and grandeur of Roman antiquity. But Alberti, so far as his theory goes, was ahead of his time, and it is only somewhat later that we can see his principles actually carried out. Indeed, when he himself is acting. as a practical man, he, like the others, is very slow to relax the fetters of mediaeval tradition.

 Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


By a happy accident there has been preserved an exact description of an Italian renaissance garden that with great plausibility may be set down to Alberti. This is at Villa Quaracchi, the country house of Giovanni Rucellai, a rich Florentine merchant for whom Alberti acted as architect and friend. Commissioned by Rucellai, he made the plans for the façade of Santa Maria Novella at Florence, the palace in the Via della Vigna (opposite the so-called Loggia dei Rucellai), which “outside Florence, on the right of the road that leads to Pistoia, is a great palace with trenches for water and beautiful gardens,” As Alberti held staunchly to his main principle that an architect is only the designer and not the builder, and accordingly made nothing but plans, it is difficult to be quite certain about his works; but we are fully justified in saying that this villa and garden appear to be the true child of his genius.

We can see a portrait bust of Giovanni Rucellai in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, an intelligent, somewhat pensive head, showing a curious mixture of kindliness and strength. An unwelcome time of leisure, caused by the plague in 1459, was the occasion for his beginning a kind of diary. In this little book, “which contained something of everything,” he set down important family events, mercantile news, philosophical and moral remarks, and poetry, and also talked of  “all the beautiful and attractive parts of his garden” Owing to the superabundance of these, it is not very easy to get a picture of the complete plan of the Villa Quaracchi. The pergolas are the most striking feature, three of them passing right through the garden, the length of which is a hundred ells [Ed. an ell is a measure of length equivalent to 45" or 1.14m]. These pergolas supply the necessary shade on the paths, and are sometimes of a barrel-like form, as in the chief avenue, and cut out of evergreen oaks, sometimes clipped to a point. The open paths have lattice-work on either side, with fine vines trained on it and white roses between,  “which when they are in flower are so lovely that no pen can give the sense of joy and peace that the eye receives.”

The chief pergola starts from the front door, and has a small loggia above it. It has sidewalks on either hand, and breast-high espaliers of box, over which the arms of the family and their relatives are placed as an ornament in a festoon. At the end of this pergola there is another door leading into a little walled-in garden which includes a small meadow: here we find terracotta vases and perhaps beds, with pots set all round, which contain Damascus violets, marjoram, basil, and many other sweet-smelling herbs. Here also there are hedges of box cut into divers shapes which we shall speak of later— especially one fine round bush made into steps, the peculiar joy and pride of a garden at that date. In the same line as the chief pergola there runs perfectly straight on the farther side of this procinto a continuation which takes the form of an avenue of lofty trees and wild vines reaching all the way to the Arno, a distance of 160 ells [= 183 m]. The master, dining at his table in the chief hall, was able to see the vessels passing by.

The house of the Villa Quaaracchi, whose situation on level and healthy ground is insisted upon, would also (as Alberti, the designer, desired) be set on a gently rising eminence. The main garden, however, was mostly orchard, with a wide hedge round it, composed of laurel, plum, juniper, and various clipped shrubs. It had plenty of seats in it, and there was a pretty, neatly kept footpath. Inside this hedge there was a great variety of fruit-trees, some foreign and rare; among them was a sycamore of which Rucellai was particularly proud, and which he may have brought home from an expedition to Palestine. There was a rose-garden within the same hedge, and close to the pergola a tangle of rose and honeysuckle round a circular stone, one arbour of firs and laurels, and another of honeysuckle. The home for birds—indispensable feature of an Italian garden—was of course there, and also the spiral hill, covered with evergreens, with eight paths winding round to the top. Near the house, perhaps at the side of it, was a balustraded fishpond, shaded by evergreens.

Now all this magnificence was visible not only to the owner but to the passers-by. Between garden and river was the Pistoia road; and on this road, just where the long avenue started from the gate to pass down to the river, there was a clump of trees (alboreto), and in it a small house for the ball games. This place, as Rucellai insists, was intended first and foremost for pedestrians—a spot where they were protected from the sun’s heat and could enjoy the beauty of the garden when they had refreshed themselves, if they liked, in a little stream that was close to the edge of the trees. The inhabitants of San Piero appreciated this generosity, for at a church assembly held in 1480, the men of the small parish resolved that, seeing how the beauty and fame of the garden redounded to their own glory, and wishing to evince their gratitude for the many favours shown them by the House of Rucellai, two of their members should be appointed to keep up the garden in all its pride and beauty at the cost of the parishioners. These Florentine peasants have indeed shown here an example of the advanced state of Italian horticulture.

In this account we hear little about water arrangements, and the house is surrounded, in the fashion of the Middle Ages, by a moat with a fishpond at the back. The stream, "as clear as amber” in the trees before the gate, does not appear to touch the chief garden at all, and the Arno is only useful for the view. The description is also silent on the subject of sculpture, and terracotta vases are all that it mentions. But stress is laid upon the clipped box, which apparently takes the place of statuary, as it does almost always in the Middle Ages. It appears in every imaginable form. In the flower-garden, which is best seen from the Pistoia road, the box cut into five steps is the central object: there we find giants and centaurs, ships, galleys, temples, arrows, men, women, popes, cardinals, dragons and all kinds of animals, and much else in a fine conglomeration. Sometimes they are cut out of the hedge, and sometimes they are stuck up as separate individuals. Alberti says nothing at all about this opus topiarium, and the other writers of the early Renaissance hardly mention it. The Italian garden of the High Renaissance period draws away more and more from this childish style of ornamentation, which of course exhibits gardener's skill rather than æsthetic meaning. We know how widespread the fashion for tree-clipping had become in the days of later Roman antiquity, but still the art had been so perfected (as we see it in the Quaracchi gardens) that it is impossible to think it is derived from faint indications in Pliny and other ancient writers; rather it must be due to long practice in the Middle Ages, and never since abandoned, although the threads are hard to follow.