History of Landscape Design – Week 2: Italian Renaissance

At the heart of it, gardens have always been  a place of recreation.

We started the class by going a little more into Medieval gardens again, specifically monasteries/abbeys, and how they were more than just places of contemplation. These locations were usually functioning agricultural estates aka places of activity, not just one dude meditating under a tree.


Looks like a party.

La Zisa

Chardiwan fountain

Then we dove into the many gardens of Italy/Sicily, including La Zisa, which is one example of how the invading Normans adopted Muslim design traditions on the interior (in this case, a gold mosaic fountain) along with an English facade. Cultural respect or exotic exploitation?


Granada/Alhambra/Generalife is probably the best instance of the hot mess that can be produced by the decorative tweaks of centuries of power changes  – making attempts to date (or even properly name) all the features near impossible.

You have the original Islamic influence left intact after the fall to the Crusaders, fountains running down the “banisters” of “water stairways” (a Roman feature adopted by the Christians by way of the Muslims), cheap and fast stucco work (when you don’t know how long your employer is going to be in power, you better get PAID) and water jets added during the Renaissance to hide top secret conversation amongst the Myrtles.

Sidenote: Washington Irving squatted here, along with other underpaid authors and artists, during the early 1800’s. He wrote “[I am] determined to linger here, until I get some writings under way connected with the place.” Get a job, hippie. Just kidding! I love writers…

sunken garden example

One of my favorite features were sunken gardens, which were planted in Italy for a couple reasons: 1. Many of these gardens were designed to be viewed from above, so an even “carpet” of plants didn’t obstruct the view & 2. It helped with the irrigation in such a hot, dry climate. Which brings me to perhaps the most important features of Italian gardens – The Grottoes!

Boboli Garden Grotto

Boboli Grotto inside

This one specifically is the Great Grotto in the Boboli Garden, originally owned by members of the Medici family. Grottoes were not just a place to keep cool from the hot Italian sun while in a setting that worshiped water nymphs, but the first chance for artists to play with the juxtaposition between art and nature. Smooth statues of Venus emerging from rough tufa stone and shell work exhibited Northern Europe’s fascination with the nature of the New World. This Naturalia was masterfully done by local artists like Giambologna and this one guy named Michaelangelo – he was big in Italy.

Villa Medici in Fiesole

Overall, I love how natural all the Italian gardens were – no perfectly manicured hedges with nothing but a mass of lawn stretching to the horizon (think Baroque/Versailles). Partly I think this was due to the terrain (you couldn’t blast your way through rocky cliffs at that time) and partly because the Italians were purposefully going for a humanist design. Not extravagant – just taking the existing landscape and adding to it in a respectful way. Well, besides digging up ancient statues to use as lawn ornaments.

That’s all the learnin’ you get for now. I’m off to my Giardino Segreto!


3 thoughts on “History of Landscape Design – Week 2: Italian Renaissance

  1. Of course you should! I’ve been enjoying everyone’s presentations actually – it breaks up the class and adds extra history in a real personalized way.

    I am adding your blog to my links too! 😉

  2. Thanks! I already have it on Google docs. I need to clean it up and expand it a bit, then I can embed it on the blog.

    You’re now listed in the “Brooklyn Gardeners …” section in the sidebar of my blog.

    See you next Tuesday!

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