The Renaissance garden was Italian in origin. It had two distinct phases, the first running through the Quattrocento and whose defining work was the great architect Leon Battista Alberti ‘s De Re Aedificatoria ( 1451 ), the second signalled by the work of another major architect, Donato Bramante , in his orchestration of the papal Villa Belvedere in 1503 – 4 (see Vatican Gardens ). The garden in its Renaissance phase was over by c.1540 when one which can be categorized as mannerist was under way. The principles of the Renaissance garden revolution, however, were to take a century and more to cross Europe and reach its outer fringes like England and Scandinavia.
The Renaissance garden was a typical product of the principles of humanism, the earliest phases of which stressed the role of reason and order in relation to man in the workings of both the mind and of society. Central to that was the microcosm–macrocosm principle, of man as a direct reflection of a universe created by God according to mathematical principles. All Renaissance art expresses this aspiration, to recast the physical world in order to place man at harmony with his Maker. That was achieved first by subjecting the space around man to his optical perception. It was the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi who invented linear perspective, placing man at the centre of a new visual perception by siting buildings according to the new optics. The medieval approach to the orchestration of space was variable, for instance in the incorporation of many viewpoints simultaneously. As a result medieval town planning was a jumble. Under the aegis of Brunelleschi that changed, and buildings together with town and villa planning worked from the principle of monocular perspective, that converging lines meant distance, that items became smaller as they became closer to the vanishing point. This was an optical revolution teaching people to look in terms of vista, recession, and avenue. In this new scheme of things man no longer saw himself as just part of God’s creation on which God looks down, but as himself the image of God reducing the physical world around him by his own perception through the application of geometry, itself a reflection of the structure of the cosmos. The first person to apply this to gardens was Alberti in his De Re Aedificatoria in his revival of the antique villa garden. None survived except in ruins, like Hadrian’s Villa which had to be recreated in the main from the letters of Pliny the younger along with what could be gleaned from the 1st-century Roman architectural writer Vitruvius. Collectively these record a delight in views, the siting of the villa on a southern slope, the existence of topiary, fountains, pattern planting, naturalistic areas, grottoes, and seats and places for dining. Above all they record that the garden, like the house, was arranged as a series of geometrical shapes, circles, squares, and rectangles using pergolas, colonnades, and porticoes, all linking house and garden as a single unit. To the design revolution that such principles embodied must be added a changed social use. That we owe to Francis Petrarch ( 1304 – 74 ), who had also studied antique sources in which he discovered that the garden in the country was cast as a setting for cultural activity, philosophical and religious contemplation, as well as for pleasure. Petrarch himself had two gardens, one dedicated to Apollo and the Muses, and hence the arts, the other to Bacchus, god of wine, and therefore to pleasure.
The impact of all this on actual garden making was gradual, in the main reflected in reordering elements of the medieval garden in terms of the new imperatives. Michelozzo ( 1396 – 1472 ), for instance, reordered the garden at the Medici Villa Carreggi in the 1450s, by introducing a pergola to define separate gardens and thus link them to the house. The best extant garden which encapsulates these new impulses is that of the humanist Pope Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini at Pienza, laid out in the 1480s. There palazzo and garden are locked into one geometric space, a rectangle quartered incorporating cross-axes and a central axis culminating in a vista to landscape (see Piccolomini, Palazzo ).
The aspirations of the new gardening are summed up in one book, Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili ( 1499 ), later translated into French ( 1546 ) and English ( 1592 ). This includes a long description of a fantastic garden in which the old medieval elements are given a classical overlay. The illustrations, like those for patterned flower beds, the earliest knots, exotic topiary, and that for a circular arcade, were to be hugely influential. Six years after the publication of that book, in 1502 – 4 the architect Donato Bramante ushered in a new phase by looking back not only to Pliny but to descriptions of the Roman Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea when responding to Pope Julius II’s demand that the existing papal Villa Belvedere be linked to the Vatican. Bramante set out to recreate a Roman imperial villa garden by reshaping the terrain, excavating terraces and flights of steps facilitating a gradual descent from the villa to a vast courtyard for fêtes. Into that scheme he incorporated the papal collection of classical antiquities. Previously such items had adorned humanist gardens but now, for the first time, they were integrated into an architectural framework, statues being set into niches and ancient river gods deployed as sources for water.
The impact of these innovations can be followed in the plans for Pope Clement VII’s Villa Madama ( 1516 ), in the Villa Giulia ( 1553 ), and at the Palazzo Farnese , Caprarola ( 1556 ). But, by 1540 , the true Renaissance phase was over, although from it stem the fundamentals which still pertain to the formal style. These established the garden as the province of the architect, the subjection of the terrain to relandscaping in terms of humanist architectural principles, the central role of perspective in uniting house and garden in terms of axes, cross-axes, and vistas, the deployment of statuary, topiary, and trained elements like hedges, the importance of views and vistas, the concept that the garden was the setting for learned debate, dining, and festival.
To all of this we must add the mannerist phase, which assimilated all that its predecessors had achieved but superimposed onto such elements complex allegorical and symbolic programmes, in the main to the glorification of the owner, reflecting vividly the late 16th-century refeudalization of Italian society in a new age of the princes. The Medici led the way in a great series of gardens beginning with the Villa Medici , Castello ( 1537 ) and culminating in Pratolino ( c.1569 ), both dynastic apotheoses. The other great gardens of this phase were the Villa Lante ( 1573 ), the Villa Orsini, Bomarzo ( 1532 – 8 ), and the Villa d’Este , Tivoli ( 1560 ). During the mannerist phase the garden became far more complex and esoteric, responding fully to late Renaissance concerns with hieroglyphics and hermeticism, the purveyance of hidden mysteries by means of image and word. It also developed to the full its role as an arena for developments in the sciences, its deployment of water, for instance, in rills, fountains, jets, cascades, and the animation of automata—a response to the Renaissance rediscovery of the mechanics of the 3rd-century BC School of Alexandria . The mannerist garden thus belongs firmly to an era when science and magic have not as yet parted company. The spread of all of this northwards was a piecemeal process, the adoption at first of certain features like a classical fountain as at Gaillon ( 1502 – 9 ). But it would be true to say that the most influential gardens by far were those of the mannerist phase whose aims coincided with those of a Europe moving towards its absolutist phase. Two great gardening families stand out as purveyors northwards of the new ideals, the de Caus , who worked in France, the Low Countries, England, and Germany, and the Mollet family, who worked in France, England, the Netherlands, and Denmark.
By far the most comprehensive introduction to the subject is Claudia Lazzaro , The Italian Renaissance Garden ( 1990 ). In addition see Terry Comito, The Idea of the Garden in the Renaissance ( 1979 ) and David R. Coffin, The Villa in the Life of Renaissance Rome ( 1979 ) and his Gardens and Gardening in Papal Rome ( 1991 ). Georgina Masson’s Italian Gardens ( 1961 ), although now very dated, is still worth reading as a pioneer work.