First created in the villa gardens of Florence and Rome near the end of the fifteenth century, Italian Renaissance gardens were designed with a classical aesthetic dependant on order, harmony, and beauty. This Italian style with its symmetry and other ideal elements strongly influenced the gardens of Europe, particularly in France and England. Just as the art of the Italian Renaissance took center stage during this time period, so too did the magnificent gardens of Italy’s villa estates command Europe’s attention.
The gardens of these Italian villas were large and grand, but they also displayed a sense of balance and proportion that was in line with classical ideals about art. These gardens were not only meant to be seen, but were also designed with an eye to impress any who strolled the grounds or enjoyed a garden view. During the Middle Ages gardens tended to be largely functional extensions of the kitchen and were typically enclosed in walls. Vegetables, fruit, and herbs were typically planted. Monastery gardens were often designed to encourage silence and prayer. Renaissance gardens began to develop after garden plans from ancient Rome began to surface; Roman writers often wrote about the pleasure and solace derived from their gardens.
There are various elements that might comprise a Renaissance garden in Italy, though not every villa garden would necessarily employ them all. Balance might be achieved by symmetrical plantings—geometrical flower beds or ornamental shrubs. Hedges would also be pruned to maintain their elegant shapes so that the ideal of order was always evident. Most villa gardens were designed using a formal plan and even colors were meant to show restraint and balance. Statuary played an important function in the gardens and was typically classical in nature; statues of Grecian urns or nymphs would have been highly desired in these gardens much as they are still used today in classically formal gardens. Other features were often porticos, structures to support climbing vines, grottoes, fountains, and even water organs.
During the Renaissance, many Italian villas boasted well-designed gardens, but there were several that became famous for their beauty. The Medici villa at Fiesole was designed between 1455 and 1461 on a hillside overlooking the city of Florence. It was famous for its terrace gardens that were eventually used as a popular meeting place for poets and artists of the city. Rome’s Villa Madama gardens were begun by Pope Leo X and later added to by Cardinal Giulio de Medici and featured renowned frescoes. The garden was famously designed by the artist Raphael.
As the Renaissance continued, gardens began to grow more elaborate in grandeur though the principles of balance and order were still strictly maintained. Terrace gardens began to grow in popularity—or at least a defining feature such as a hill or a sunken labyrinth might serve as a focal point for the design. With a greater command of hydrology, water features also became more illustrious and commanded top billing in the garden. Italy has many preserved Renaissance gardens today which are popular tourist destinations.