The Landscape Guide

Late Baroque Garden Design in Italy

Villa Castellazzo
Caserta Royal Palace and Garden (Caserta Palazzo Reale La Reggia)

We do not find the southern countries of Europe, especially Italy, so much inclined as Russia to adopt a deep change. Italy had no doubt given up the leadership to France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was fully conscious of that country’s superiority. So the art of Le Nôtre was supposed to have done the impossible, and villas like Ludovisi and Albani were quoted as works of his, whereas one was much before his time and the other was made after his death. But this want of precise knowledge at Rome was the best possible proof that the spirit of Le Nôtre and his northern feeling for style had not vanished from Roman minds. Only thus could it have been possible for such a really Roman villa to be created as the Villa Albani so late as the year 1740. Certain concessions made by the cardinal to the taste that was then the fashion penetrated (somewhat timidly and, so to speak, unintelligently) into nooks and corners. 

The small Albani  garden, sunk below the so-called coffee-house, tries to be a sort of bosket in the park. At the side of the coffee-house there are steps leading down to an artificial ruin, such as was talked about so much, and this one was built as a bird-house. The part at the back of the coffee-house had a country-like appearance, and it looked out on a cascade, which plunged down into an elongated basin like a canal. But the canal passed between walls to the back entrance of the garden. This part, which was quite small, would have found its proper place in a northern park; but here, shut in by walls on every side, it looks most odd when one walks down to it from the thoroughly Roman parts on the upper terraces.

All the classical alterations made in the larger villas had been at least hinted at before; and there was seldom any progress made in this direction, even though there was nothing at present so fatal as the English landscape style, whose approach was imminent.

In  Northern Italy the French style was more important, because the level ground of the plains of Lombardy was suited to it. The nobility of Milan and Turin always had French sympathies, and, like the towns on the other side of the Alps, these looked to France for the patterns of their own villas. Moreover, country houses sprang up on what there was of terra firma in Venice, and these were clothed with French gardens and parks. A collection of Da Costa’s engravings, called Delizie del Fiume di Brenta (The Beauties of the River Brenta) show the villas and palaces (Fig. 525), as they were when Goethe saw them, when leaving behind “ many a lordly garden, many a lordly palace,” he proceeded by the beautiful Brenta to Venice, his longed-for goal, on 28 September, 1786.

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Nowadays the gardens of these villas of the Venetian terra firma have either completely vanished or have been badly kept. The largest and most important of them is Palazzo Pisani, built in grand style for the noble family of the Pisani about 1740. The garden is on large lines, but has no importance for the history of art. In the same way the neighbourhood of Milan felt the influence of France; and of the gardens there, we have engravings on copper in Ville e Delizie di Milano by Dal Res, published in 1773. Almost all are of much the same design: parterres and groves in the French style, and a small summer-house here and there in the park.

The Villa Castellazzo has in some measure preserved its old state. The great parterre, with boskets all round and mostly on the north, lies in front of a side wing in which is the principal room of the house. The park begins behind at a closed door, near a semicircular plot with a Hercules on it. By the side of the boskets, which enclose fountains, labyrinths, and statues, a wide avenue leads past a green theatre to the Diana fountain, a very charming but quite Italian spot, which is the more important through having to the north of it a thicket with bird-decoy and aviary, forming the end of the garden.

Wherever the Bourbons came with their changing fortunes we perceive French influence. When the son of Philip V. of Spain, Charles III. (who was sole heir through his mother of the Farnese family), came to Parma in 1731, he laid out the great public garden that is still there by the side of the little Palazzo del Giardino, built in the sixteenth century. In its present condition this garden suggests something foreign that has pushed in from the North, especially as the high box hedges bordering the paths that run through the boskets are stripped of their statuary, and the parterres are not kept up with their old patterns. Charles proceeded to Naples as king in 1734, and after he had at length se- cured recognition from the Powers, he desired to give proper expression to his might and dignity by building a gigantic castle in the fashion of his northern ancestors. In 1752 the architect Vanvitelli began to make a castle at the little town of Caserta, and this was to be the greatest palace in the world (Fig. 527).

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There was no doubt in the mind of the founder that this place would rival Versailles, garden and all. The building, with its four great courts, was entered through a gigantic fore-court, oval in shape. By the side were parterres of flowers, and an orangery was on lower ground on the east, as at Versailles. On the other side there was a riding-course bordered by avenues in the Roman fashion. A series of steps leads from the castle terrace to the great parterre, which was embedded in boskets with basins and fountains (Figs. 526, 527).
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 Neither the parterre nor the surrounding groves show any original features. The effect of the whole must have depended on the cascade, which fell from the hill opposite into the main axis of the castle. Above, it is cut off by a terrace which gives a fine view. The water falls sheer fifty feet down into a pond, which is decked out with groups in Carrara marble, representing the story of Diana and Actæon (Fig. 528). 

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FIG. 528. CASERTA, ITALY—THE POOL OF THE GREAT CASCADE (Photograph by Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond.)

Thence it falls from step to step, so superabundantly beset with statues that their white curving bodies are mingled with the foaming, plunging waters, looking now like a solid stream, now like a moving shape, till they end at last in a great basin with statues representing Neptune’s seat, close to the great parterre. There were tall hedges the whole length of the canal, and at the different stages there were marble steps on the bank. It made a majestic view, most astonishing for anyone who saw it suddenly from the frame of the gate as he emerged from the great corridor of the castle. But like the house with all its vastness, the cascade is wanting in good proportions, and one is struck by the absence of a great connected coherent scheme. We have only to compare with Caserta places of the good period, such as Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati, which show intelligent consideration of every detail, and therefore are never wearisome, but keep the whole picture uniform and noble.