The Landscape Guide

Renaissance Gardens in Northern Italy

Palazzo del Te garden
Villa Imperiale at Pesaro
Villa San Vigilio
Botanic Garden in Padua

Unhappily most of the country houses of the golden age of  Renaissance Rome shared the fortunes of the Villa Madama, and with gardens it went worse than with buildings. Nothing finished, everything destroyed or altered— that is the story of all the gardens of the first half of the sixteenth century. It needs a very careful scrutiny to make a picture, from our scanty material, of those years when so many great artists created numbers of fine and characteristic works in the way  of garden architecture. As a fact, Rome itself after the death of Leo X. was so factious, restless, and actually unsafe, that men's minds began to turn to the peaceful life at a country house. Then the great artists turned their backs on the city for a while, or perhaps for ever, and were received with open arms by other princes in other towns. Raphael’s best pupil, Giulio Romano, who after his master’s death became the architect of Villa Madama, found plenty of work and also a permanent home in Mantua, the town of the intellectual and artistic family of Gonzaga. Frederick, son of that noble lady, Isabella Gonzaga, received the artist with much show of favour, and one of his first commissions was the erection of a pleasure-house south of the town, the Palazzo del Te (Fig. 168).

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Giulio Romano had a very different task here from the one his master left him at Villa Madama. For the Palazzo del Te he had to design a country house on a flat ground, with no view, and it had to depend for all its beauty on itself alone. The amount of bright decoration in painting and sculpture used for chambers and loggias gives us an idea of the joie de vivre that characterises this family, as well as of the rather extravagant fancy of the artist, to whom his patron gave carte blanche. The splendour of indoor decoration leads us to inferences merely about the gardens, which are unfortunately almost entirely gone. The court and façade, now covered with an excruciating yellow distemper, were once adorned with bright frescoes. We know from a description of the sixteenth century that there were gardens round two sides of the house. In front of the present façade, on the north side looking towards the town, there were fine ornamental gardens. On both sides of the loggia at the entrance there were two little gardens, such as the Italians call “ giardini secreti “—small secluded flower gardens, which must later on have had a special dividing wall, when the ordinary walls between the parts were given up. These walls were ornamented with niches, but we know nothing further of the “ large and very beautiful garden “ in front. A spacious meadow reached all the way to the town.

The only garden at the Palazzo del Te that still shows some signs of its former state is the one in the court east of the house, with either buildings or high walls round it. Stepping out of the middle arch of a large triple-vaulted loggia, whose architecture and ornament, according to Strada, “surpasses anything one could dream of,” one stands on a bridge that goes over a cistern between house and garden, and is as wide as the house itself. The canal takes the place of a mediaeval castle moat—a last survival of a style that Italy had finished with long before the more northerly nations, The garden itself had pretty flower-beds on a lawn even at the end of the eighteenth century. At the opposite side it was finished with a half-circle of columns. This end-piece is on the same level as the flat garden, and seems to have had from the start a rather dull, heavy look. But in Romano’s mind there was originally a more open, cheerful, not to say frivolous idea for this end, as we know from a little picture that he himself painted on the window wall of one of the rooms over- looking these gardens. This room was one of the first to be painted; even in 1527 we hear of it as nearly finished, and so it would be ready before the garden received its last form. In the picture the semicircular ending is shown with the pillars and arches, exactly like the garden loggia, but round it is a balustrade walk, on which persons are seen enjoying the view of the garden; another balustrade ends below the curve in a broad stairway of four steps leading to a water-cistern with a fountain. On both sides there are standing out of the water some curious little chests like small houses, the significance of which has not been cleared up.

Romano likes to have his architectural work, which he is chiefly concerned with, always treated in an artistic style. The design of the unfinished building, still only at a stage of preparation, of the Villa Madama, holds a proud place in a corner of the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican. In accordance with the artist’s original plan, the garden ought to have a pond round it. The feeling of seclusion would be helped by the cheerful pillared halls, which allow one to see out over the green surroundings. Above the corridors of the lower story the garden façade of the house was made beautiful with frescoes by Polidoro Caravaggio, depicting “divers natural forms, trophies, cornices and balustrades.”

Even now the gardens are of a mediaeval fashion—really indoor gardens in an en closure. The attraction towards the terrace form was still wanting, so Romano could do nothing in that direction in spite of his example at Villa Madama; he used all his art and all his Renaissance cunning in the secondary parts of the structure—in ornamenting loggias and alcoves with stucco and mosaic; and for such work as this the town house of Gonzaga supplied the very finest models. Here too there were only indoor gardens, now entirely destroyed; and hanging gardens resting on fine arches, to-day all gone but for the joints of the vaulting and a couple of niches, are the same thing carried farther, Indeed, everywhere that a piece of garden might have opened on the waters some wall or pillared walk shuts off the view. The walls themselves, however, were decorated very gaily with mosaics and stucco. The best ones dated from the happy times of Isabella d’Este; and her rooms, well preserved, express her personal taste. Romano was especially anxious to imitate at the Te Palace the little casino that Isabella had; there were two rooms, and round them a small but good court for flowers. Isabella kept the place sacred to the arts, especially music, and it still has the air of a calm retreat suitable for quiet music. A similar casino, but of larger size, was built by Romano at Te in one of the corners at the back of the garden. Comparing the two, we can see the bolder but somewhat coarser spirit of the later Renaissance. The fine mosaic and the tender outlines of stucco in Isabella's rooms are replaced by stronger lines and colours. Most of all is the tufa conspicuous; it is used to cover the alcoves, though but sparingly, and this is the first appearance of a grotto decoration destined to take a prominent place in the gardens of the future.

Although the Palazzo del Te has often been destroyed, it is not lost to living eyes, whereas Marmirolo, which Romano also built for Frederick I., and which was much admired by Leandro Alberti for its size and splendour, has entirely vanished from the face of the earth. It was not a mere small pleasure-house with dining-halls and bedrooms such as Te, but was an extensive building capable of entertaining the princes and all their retinue. Above all in the gardens the fruit-trees are commended, with great bunches of grapes hanging beneath the lopped branches, “Here anyone who is heated can get cool in the shade, and also in the teasing play of waters which the prince never failed to surprise his guests with—sprays of rain springing from unseen sources. "This family of princes owned many another house of entertainment; the plans were supposed to be by Mantegna or some great master employed by the Gonzagas; their gardens were indeed renowned, but except for a mere list of names which can at best only give us a notion of great activity in building, everything has perished.

The traditions of this noble house were conveyed to the court of the Prince of Urbino by Isabella’s fair daughter Leonora Gonzaga, when, at the age of sixteen, she married Duke Francesco Maria della Rovere. After many vicissitudes of fortune, which involved husband and wife in exile and much danger, the brave leader thought he was about to enjoy some happiness and honour. In July 1529 the Venetian Republic made peace with Pope and Emperor both, and offered proofs of their esteem and gratitude to their commander. At last the noble lady hoped to keep her beloved husband by her side in days of calm delight, and in her joyfulness she felt she could not mark this blessed prospect better than by building a country place that she would like to have as a museum, such as Castiglione was said to be in the time of her ancestors. And Pietro Bembo caught the true meaning of her idea, when for the motto of this new house (inscribed like a coronet on the frieze) he chose the words; “ Fr. Mario Duci Metaurensium a Bellis redeunti Leonora Uxor Animi Ejus Causa Villam exedificavit.”

In this way arose the new palace of the Villa Imperiale at Pesaro, that jewel of the High Renaissance, which inspired all contemporaries with enthusiasm, which exceeded the dreams of Bembo, which Titian (friend of Francesco, for whom he painted his best pictures) saw as a guest, which the poet Bernardo Tasso, Torquato’s father, made his home for many years (Fig. 169). 

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But now this paradise (as Leandro Alberti called it) is only a shadow of its past beauty, and the “ amenissimi giardini,” that Vasari admired, are gone, leaving no trace behind. But the pleasure taken by so many noble spirits has borne fruit for a later day. Our imagination is helped by plans, copies, and verbal descriptions, so that we can get an idea of what it was. Leonora, as we know, found to her hand an old castle of the early Renaissance. The tradition of the antique villa was preserved in the inside arrangement of rooms round a central pillared court that enclosed a marble fountain, but the outside showed the marks of a mediaeval castle in warlike times. Leonora had the rooms inside painted with the martial deeds of her husband. Most of the frescoes were done by Girolamo Genga, who was also architect for the new house, which was a little to the west of the old one that lay at the foot of the hill, and clung to the slope behind.

It is worth noticing that the architect who designed this house of the golden age was also a painter, and one whose great skill became famous by his scene-painting. Genga’s building was narrow from back to front, all the rooms faced outwards, and the best rooms seemed to be almost in one piece with the garden. It even looks as though the place was not meant to be a dwelling-house at all: it gives the impression, as did the Te Palace, of a stage for a theatre, a background for the festivities. We see the villa in this light in the description of a contemporary, Ludovico Agostino, an academician who came from Pesaro, He made an expedition with six of his friends to look at the villas in the vicinity of the town, in order „ to cast aside the grievous anxieties that were spoiling his life.” This was in i 574, in the last years of the rule of Guidobaldo II., who succeeded after the sudden death of Francesco Maria.

The seven men first visited the Villa Imperiale, which stands in one of the most glorious positions on the Adriatic Coast, upon the lovely Monte San Bartolo. Entering from the east, they first strolled through a wood of lofty oaks, then on to a wide meadow with a wall round it, “ which was gay with many sorts of flowers.” At the entrance stood a kind of lodge containing two rooms. On the south the ground fell away, and this was useful for a garden of citrons and other fruit planted against the wall. Above this “prato” there was a wood shaped like an amphitheatre, and through the prato one came to the chief entrance of the old palace, which had the mediaeval form of a tall tower. By one way we can pass on directly from the private rooms of the prince into the orange-garden. This garden group, belonging to the old palace, shows mediaeval features, especially in the bordered flower-meadow. To the friends, as they approach, the only things that belong to a later age are the white marble statues, which seem to them to be the sole inhabitants of this villa.

An utterly different spirit apparently reigns here since Francesco Maria died. The garden is higher on the hill and joined to the upper story of the old building by a covered way. It was possible also to walk from the meadow into a court which was approached by a beautiful avenue. The gardens proper rise behind the house (which touches them at the first story level) in three terraces right up the hill. The lowest terrace was devised as a sunk court, planted with laurels, and made brighter with two fountains. To this part one entered from the house by a triple-arched loggia, which at one time had been a favourite room in the house with its ornamental painting and covered-in roof. This was further ornamented with a marble fountain and an ancient statue of a youth, probably the Idolino, ‘which Genga himself put up and restored. Opposite the loggia one passed through the wall used as the palace façade into a grotto lighted from the terrace above. The back of ‘this was a fontana rustica of tufa. A great many water-devices made this place lively, for ‘behind there were tiny bathrooms, and stretching along the whole width of the grotto was one large water-cistern; round this seats were put, and the grotto was used as a summer dining-room. Over grotto and basin lay a garden terrace of the same height as the pian nobile of the house, accessible from side wings on either side of the court.

The flower-garden (called in the documents “ giardino secreto “) had a stairway in ‘front, and behind this was a pretty lawn with a great deal of topiary work, of which three ships cut out of myrtle were famous. There were three fountains, and between them stood tubs of laurel and other plants. The dividing walls showed espaliers of lemons, oranges and other fruit. On the third terrace was the chief garden, in a square with a wall round it, also planted with fruit espaliers. According to the old plans it was divided into four fields, the paths shaded with pergolas of vine and clipped laurel, and on the beds myrtle, box, roses, and rosemary. This garden, reaching as high as the house roof, was again accessible from there by ways that led along the side wings. Through a door in the back wall one walked hence by a gently rising path through an oak wood into a spacious meadow enclosed by a wall and planted with olive-trees. Here stood the last and highest object, a little casino, the so-called Vedetta, painted inside with arabesques. Outside ‘there was a walk with a balustrade round this pretty building, with steps leading up to it. From this spot one could enjoy the view over the sea and the landscape. The vedetta was planned in Agostino’s time, but unfortunately was so badly built at a later date that it fell down and had to be taken away.

Looking at the picture as a whole, one is struck by the fact that the gardens are far more enclosed and symmetrical than those of Madama and the others. In the centre axial line are the court, the first and second terraces, and the clump of oaks; the meadow is be- hind, and at the end of all is the vedetta, The view from the roof paths must have shown a very imposing general garden scene. The use of a dividing wall for a fine grotto had never before been carried out so boldly. Against this there is the striking lack of steps, and it almost looks as though Genga has taken pains to avoid them. Neither house nor garden is anywhere accessible or joined together by stairways visible outside, but these are turned off into spacious side wings, with considerable waste of space. In this arrangement no Roman influence can be detected, while the bold terraces lead us unmistakably to the model of the Palazzo Ducale at Pesaro, rising up on its colossal terraces. Water also is handled by Genga with some reserve and timidity. There are only single fountains in the loggia, the court, and the first terrace. Indeed the great reservoir, constructed to work so well as an object of art both at Madama and at Te, here is treated like the stairways, and hidden underground behind the grotto. And the planting of the gardens (the orange, lemons, and myrtle playing so great a part) reminds one of the Early Renaissance, although we also have the ornamental terrace, leading up to the myrtle-garden, and closed in with a clump of trees behind; consequently we get both the harmony and the dissonance of two artistic schemes.

The Villa Imperiale was only one, though doubtless the queen, among a circle of villas that, as Agostino says, “ vied with each other in beauty and grace,” and were only a few hours’ journey apart. He gives a fine picture of festal delights and pleasant, cheerful company. The seven travellers were received everywhere in the kindest way, and met with the most friendly hosts and brilliant society, each host trying to outdo the rest, First of all the duke himself acted as cicerone, showing them the beauties of his villa and then leaving them to do whatever they pleased. At his table the meal was enlivened by clever talk on subjects which they had in common, and afterwards came poetry and music. Towards evening the friends strolled off to another villa, where they would pass the night. The next day was given up to fowling, and when they came back it was to find a company of cheerful people, who bade them welcome, and at once started some interesting conversation. Agostino gives a little sketch of each villa he visited, but not more, unfortunately, than a ground-plan and a section, so that we see nothing of their gardens and are told merely of unimportant details, Each villa has a peculiar charm of its own; and by connecting paths the guests pass through cypresses and shrubberies from one to another. This excursion among villas is simply a little extra bit of Castiglione’s great work Il Cortegiano, and exhibits a happy side of the Renaissance; the cheerfulness of villa life is like a wreath of flowers round the history of all these men, so clouded by gloomy fate otherwise. Some of the villas on the hills round Pesaro still retain certain traces of their old traditions. One beautiful garden is seen with four terraces belonging to the Villa Caprile (Mosta), which itself has been entirely modernised. Below it is closed in with a cypress wall clipped into the form of battlements.

Charmed by descriptions such as this, the eye seeks for the few relics of the great days of Italian art, but of gardens there are seldom more than fragments left, On a narrow hill-ridge south of Florence stands the fine Villa dei Collazzi with its view over both sides of the Florentine plain, built in 1530 for the Dini family, Raphael’s friends. This has led to the mistaken idea that Michael Angelo made the plan and the painter Santi carried it out. Not more than three-quarters of the building as planned was ever put up, and therefore the real centre part of the façade, a grand court, looking out on an ascending terrace, now appears to be on one side. Through this court one passed into a gigantic hall which covered the whole length from back to front, as it did at Poggio a Cajano and other Tuscan villas of that date. A remarkable seclusion and privacy (suggested by the main entrance beside which was a Florentine fountain) is united with an equally remarkable size in the proportions of the reception hall, Round Florentine steps lead downward, and the upper terrace comes to an end with a wavy wall that has niches at the side. In a very much lower terrace one arrives at an ugly stairway at the side, which certainly does not belong to the original plan of laying out.

Far more interesting in what remains of gardens is the Villa San Vigilio on Lake Garda. This was the place where artists of the first half of the sixteenth century could most easily go, where their individuality would be least fettered. And in this work of art we see a special individuality, made as it was by the great architect San Michele about 1540, and built at the order of the Veronese nobleman, Agostino Brenzoni. His task was to build upon a little tongue of land stretched out on the loveliest part of the lake, just where the narrow part widens into coves (Fig. 170).

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Opposite and similarly placed is the ruined darling villa of Catullus on Sirmio, to the west; the great sweeping line of the other shore gives a feeling of grandeur and even of severity to the beauty of the scene. On the projection there was a little chapel, a Gothic structure dedicated to St. Vigilius, and close to it an inn. Here San Michele solved a difficult problem, and changed the notion of a fortress into a villa, cheerful though less large. The inn and the chapel, which occupied the tip of the little tongue of land, were built round, and joined together with a garden terrace. The inn then had as chief façade a two-storied loggia, and enclosed, opening outward in a semicircle, a little harbour, the chapel being taken into the villa garden. This garden had to accommodate itself to the irregular shape of the promontory, and the house stood within it.

The two-storied loggia was repeated at the villa, showing no ornamentation outside, though it may have been painted at one time—a place with a view so incomparably beautiful that it was to those who took their pleasure there a real “ mistress and queen of the peaceful lake,” In front of the villa and leading down to the water there was a garden of cypresses, which the clipping-shears converted into a fortress with battlements, walls, towers, and bulwarks. The stone wall round the garden carried out the idea so universal in Northern Italy, of “ swallow-tail “ outworks. Unfortunately the main garden adopted in the nineteenth century the very popular style that was known as English. But happily one precious jewel was preserved: there is a hill on the side towards the chapel that was treated as a small castle. The approach is made by paths that circle round it and are themselves hemmed in by castellated walls. At the very top there is a round enclosure (Fig. 171)  containing twelve tiny chapels with busts of Roman emperors in their several niches.

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From the side front of the house a path leads upward, planted with tall old cypresses. It is unlikely that these cypress avenues, which are the chief beauty of San Vigilio today, were part of the first plan, for it was not till the seventeenth century that there was any appreciation of the majesty of dark masses of trees, and even in the days of the High Renaissance cypresses were only treated as individual trees (as Alberti advised) or as topiary work. The scanty descriptions which we find speak with great admiration of  “broad paths between laurels and myrtles,” and “charming gardens of citrons, oranges, and lemons,” but nowhere of avenues of cypress. Besides the main garden there was, in the usual fashion of the day, a series of little separate ones, and one of these at least has kept its old form, Towards the land near the wall and the chapel there is the low-lying citron-garden (Fig. 172). 

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A large pergola built on pillars that support the golden fruits of these “ godlike trees,” opens out on a simple small lawn with myrtles. The path in front of the loggia ends in an alcove with a Venus, which still stands in a raised place, with two figures of boys, as at a fountain. There is a second statue of Venus with a dolphin between the pillars, and after her the garden, according to an inscription on the outside wall, was named, On the north was a second garden, also enclosed and with two entrance gates. This was once planted with the apple of Paradise, and therefore was known as Adam’s Garden.

The most noteworthy of these separate gardens has, however, only preserved its doors and inscriptions. It lay to the side, cut off by the road. The founder of the house himself describes it thus:

There is a third, the so-called Garden of Apollo, full of lemons and oranges, and in it there is also a strong tall laurel, the most beautiful on the whole shore. At one side of it is set up a head of Petrarch, and from his hollowed eyes there springs a fountain, which waters the foot of the laurel so that the stream trickles through to the roots. On the other side (so that the laurel stands between the two) there is a great figure of Apollo in very fine marble. Petrarch in an inscription thus addresses Apollo: 

"O may thy glance inspire the spring 
Of this our love, as now my tears 
On hidden roots such blessings bring 
That Earth all sweet and green appears.”

These inscriptions, which speak to us even to-day as we pace the garden, were very dear to the master’s heart, Agostino Brenzoni was a scholar, a humanist, and a famous advocate and Doctor of Laws. Neither the inscriptions nor the statues are now in their old place, yet they bear witness, more than they do in any other garden, to the joy that men felt in the revival of the past. The spirits of Virgil and Catullus haunt the place. Tribute is paid to Catullus at the entrance to the terrace between chapel and guest-house; there, where one looks across to his property at Sirmio, in a shrine close to the Christian chapel, his bust is set up, and below it one reads the verses. slightly recalling his own:

Venus grieving behold, and all the love-gods beside her,
Grieving for loss of the lyre of Catullus, sweet singer of old,
All the Muses and Graces and Nymphs are piously weeping,
Pouring their holy tears at a shrine that is sacred to him.

Few of the statues in this garden are genuine antiques. Like the verses, they are mostly the slight trivial imitations favoured in the Renaissance time. But the humanistic spirit of reverence for the past, and the kindly affection for contemporaries, are perfectly genuine. This feeling is expressed excellently in an inscription wherewith the master greets his guests: 

Whoever thou art, visiting this house, Observe these twelve rules: 

1.  Honour in the sanctuary the best and highest God. 
2. Leave your troubles in the town. 
3. All girls must be banned. 
4. Keep your servants’ hands off the garden. 
5. Meals must not be luxurious. 
6. Drink the cup that will quench your thirst. 
7. Turn your mind to joyful things. 
8. Lift your heart in honest play. 
9. Fill your hands with boughs, flowers, and fruit, 
10. Then go back to town and duty. 
11.. Let not Brenzoni’s invitations bring harm to your host. 
12. Let the honour of the place be its noblest law.

We get to know Brenzoni by his friendliness and hospitality, when in the year 1552 he received a company of young friends, mostly students from Padua, who came like the party from Pesaro twenty years later, on a holiday tour, and met on the shores of Lake Garda. One of their twelve days (described by Silvano Cattaneo, a member of the party) was spent at San Vigilio. Although the account of house and villa is lamentably short, the true character of Doctor Agostino Brenzoni stands out as that of a man “ noble, courteous, worthy, and honourable.”

It was in those years when this work of art appeared on the Lake of Garda that the first monument of science arose in the department of gardening; for in 1545 was founded the Botanic Garden at Padua (Fig. 173), the admirable model for all the later ones, both in the north and in the south. The Republic of Venice was

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rightly proud of so fine a contribution towards the advancement of learning. Ten years earlier the University of Padua had been the first to establish a Chair of Botany, and hither had come medical students from every part of the world to learn the science that was so essential to the art of healing; and now this garden was laid out on the initiative of Professor Francesco Bonafede. The original scheme of the old part is still to be seen: there are four squares enclosed in a great circle, which has on the outside high barriers and balustrades. 

Two of the squares are laid out in concentric circular beds —a plan that seems to have been thought convenient for a survey of medicinal herbs, and so has often been imitated, Many of the fountains which are there now are of a later date, but there were certainly some in the middle, and probably some in the side-walks, from the beginning. The statues of Theophrastus and King Solomon behind the fountains must have been erected very early.