Your garden is more than an attractive arrangement of plants.
It’s a refuge, a statement, and an extension of you.
The opulent Italian garden, with its precise shapes, water features, and emphasis on art, definitely makes a ringing statement.
Though there are a couple of Italian garden styles, we’ll focus on the Italian Renaissance garden. This design features sharp geometrically-shaped hedges, impressive fountains and other water features, and artistic statuary.
It’s a bold style, so bold that it might feel a bit intimidating.
- First, you may wonder if you have enough space to pull it off.
- Then, you might be wary of your ability to create an authentic design that works for you.
- Finally, you might think there’s no possible way to afford such a luxury.
But we’ve got amazing news:
Even if you don’t have acres of space — and let’s face it, who does? — you can still bring that Italian Renaissance feeling to your garden.
What’s more, you can do it in a way that’s environmentally friendly, won’t bust your budget, and will provide you unique, personalized enjoyment for years to come.
The key to building an Italian garden is to understand the design elements and the purpose and symbolism behind them.
That’s how, even if you don’t have the resources to recreate one of the famous Italian gardens to the letter, you can still bring the spirit of the Renaissance to your home.
Italian Garden Design History: It’s More Interesting than You Think
The Italian garden is more than just a pleasing landscape design.
It has a history, a purpose, and a philosophy.
Understanding these foundations is the key to creating a design that is both authentic and unique.
We’ll get to looking at these awesome gardens, after this:
Renaissance: more than a big, hard-to-spell word.
“Renaissance” literally means “rebirth.”
The European Renaissance was a time of great optimism. Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages.
Society was bubbling over with new ideas and new learning, from philosophy to science and technology, to religion and the arts. It was a time of great economic and intellectual expansion.
Garden design reflected this with clever, highly-structured features:
- Box hedges and mazes were popular.
- Carefully designed pathways and layouts reigned supreme.
- Clever water features and art reflected the artistic explosion.
There was an idea that as God reigned over humanity, humanity reigned over the earth.
A tightly-controlled garden was one way to demonstrate this newfound feeling of mastery.
But, there is so much more!
Before the Renaissance, European gardens were walled, private, utilitarian (boring yet useful) spaces.
People grew food, as well as medicinal plants. The intention of the design was to create safety and privacy.
THAT’S NOT THE CASE WITH ITALIAN GARDENS!
Renaissance garden design rediscovered the classical Roman model and repurposed it for the times.
Instead of building walls…
…the Renaissance garden sought to break them down.
The spaces of house, garden, and the great outdoors were more closely integrated.
Rather than keeping the outside out, Renaissance gardens took a page from gardens in ancient Roman villas:
to invite, impress, and delight.
And, unlike the strictly functional medieval garden, decoration became important.
Influences of literature and the arts
The ideas of order and mathematical perfection of form were part of the new rational humanism that pervaded the thinking of the time.
Garden designers took these ideas very much to heart.
However, it wasn’t a sterile and boring form.
The Renaissance garden also had a whimsical side.
In 1499, Francesco Colonna, a monk, penned the romantic adventure “Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream”. This story follows Poliphilo through lush, fantastical landscapes, as he searches for his lost love.
Back then, television was called “books,” and this one was a hit.
The landscapes captured the popular imagination and inspired the spectacular garden designs that characterized that period.
And we can’t forget the classical influence:
Just as the Greek and Roman philosophies of garden design came back into fashion, so did the classical arts.
For this reason, many Italian-style gardens feature classical sculptures and statues.
The spirit of the Renaissance age resulted in specific principles of design.
These principles can help you to build your own Italian garden:
Several ideas form the basis for the philosophy behind the Italian garden:
order, symmetry, and precision are vital components of this design.
this design sees the garden as an inviting, contemplative place for the homeowner. Hence, the emphasis on art.
the garden is an inviting place to delight and surprise others:
You might find hedge mazes, for example, or interesting water features.
the garden is a statement to the world.
Look at me world!
Great Renaissance families used their gardens to impress and demonstrate their wealth.
You might not want to be ostentatious with your display. On the other hand, everyone likes to show off a bit.
And a garden is a fun and social way to do it.
Don’t stop there!:
During the Middle Ages, churches and people alike focussed not on the present world…
…but on the afterlife.
The Renaissance brought a renewed focus on the now — and on the human, rather than the divine.
This switch in focus from the religious to the secular found its way into the arts, as well.
You can include your own symbolism, too.
During the first half of the sixteenth century, the great Medici family used their opulent gardens to symbolize their power.
The powerful of Italy followed suit, hiring architects, arborists, artists, and others to design impressive, imaginative features for their gardens.
In addition to order and whimsy, opulence and majesty are cornerstones of the Renaissance garden vision.
Ready to take a look?:
Famous Italian Renaissance Gardens
The best way to get a feel for Italian garden design is to have a look at the gardens that define it.
The original Renaissance gardens were so impressive that many of them have been carefully preserved.
Hundreds of years later, people still flock to see them.
The Medici family of Florence came to prominence in the 13th century.
They became very wealthy from banking and commerce.
However, they would become even more famous in the 15th century for their patronage of the arts. It was through their generous financial support that Florence would become the center of Renaissance art.
It’s arguable that the tradition of the great Italian Renaissance garden began with them.
The Medici Villas in Tuscany are the first and last word in Renaissance garden design. The villas, which together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contain twelve residences and two expansive pleasure gardens. These gardens are the Boboli Garden and the Pratolino Garden.
Neptune’s fountain at Boboli Gardens. The statue dates back to 1565-1568 (CC by SA-4.0, by Dingy, via Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]
The Boboli Garden contains an impressive collection of classically-themed statues dating from the 16th to 18th century, as well as Roman and Egyptian antiquities.
There are grottoes, elaborate fountains, and even an amphitheater. The garden is laid out along two axes, with wide gravel roads — a logical, organized structure beneath the lavish decor. The layout works to seamlessly integrate garden and living spaces.
It’s an impressive space that draws huge numbers of tourists every year. And if you’re looking for inspiration for your own Italian garden, the Boboli Garden can definitely provide that.
Pratolino Utens Image: Public Domain, by Wikimedia Commons
The garden at Pratolino Villa outside of Florence embodies another aspect of the Renaissance spirit. Not only did the creators fill it with artistic masterpieces, but also with wonders of technology.
Water features are a prominent aspect of the Italian garden, and the Pratolino Garden showcases them to perfection. A network of aqueducts provides water to a (then) high-tech hydraulic system.
This system, in turn, powers not only fountains but also pneumatic devices and water-powered automatons.
The map of the original layout shows the strict planning, structure, and organization that typifies the grand Renaissance garden.
Palazzo Piccolomini Garden
The Palazzo Piccolomini was built in the second half of the fifteenth century, in the town of Pianza in Tuscany. It was commissioned as a summer home for Pope Pio II.
That Pope shared the humanistic vision of the times and designed the town itself to be a model town, demonstrating how people should live.
The design of the garden follows the Renaissance ideal of incorporating nature into human-created structures.
It also showcases the spirit of technological innovation.
This was the era’s first “hanging garden” — that is, a terraced ornamental garden that required complex engineering to build. Other typical features include sculpted box hedges and a central fountain.
Cortile del Belvedere
Have you ever wondered about the courtyard at the Vatican?
Today is your lucky day.
In the 16th century, Pope Julius II wanted an attractive, functional way to connect two pontifical palaces — the ancient traditional one, and the one built later for Pope Innocent VIII.
The Cortile del Belvedere, designed by Donato Bramante, was the result. Julius II was a great admirer of both art and architecture. He maintained a vast collection of statues and sculpture, which eventually became part of the Cortile.
This is an important feature in many Italian gardens:
The Cortile — or courtyard — was as interesting as it was useful.
Some of its typical Renaissance features included terraced gardens, structural elements that were also highly decorative, loggias, and, of course, an impressive collection of art.
Villa Madama Garden
The Villa Madama is a property used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs outside of, and to the north of Rome.
Pope Leo X’s cousin Cardinal Giulio de’ Medic commissioned the design for the residence from Raphael. Raphael, unfortunately, passed away before the residence was completed. The duty passed on to the team of prominent artists and architects that Raphael had assembled.
It passed through various owners, over the centuries…
…and today belongs to the Italian government.
The garden featured a courtyard with a long flight of stairs, a circular court surrounded by formal gardens, an outdoor theatre cut into a hill, and a terraced garden.
In addition, the original garden had a hippodrome (a racetrack for horses and chariots) and art, including a statue by Giovanni da Udine.
Must-Have Elements of an Italian Garden
Now that you know a bit about the history and philosophy of the Italian Renaissance garden:
It’s time to think about how to apply it to your space.
Few of us have the resources of the Vatican or the Medici family.
However, you can use Renaissance ideas and design principles to bring the Italian spirit to your own space.
Form and Function
Remember the main purposes of the Italian Renaissance garden:
First, the space is meant to blend human-made elements with nature.
Second, your Italian garden is a place to invite, impress, and delight.
Finally, your garden should exhibit order and balance.
Art and nature
One of the most striking features of the Italian garden is the blurred lines between indoor and outdoor spaces.
One way Renaissance people accomplished this was by placing works of art in their garden space. Sculptures and statues, because they do well outdoors, were and remain a great choice.
Choose Greek and Roman style statuary to bring a classical feel to your Italian garden.
Impress with innovation
Historically, the Italian garden made great use of engineering, architecture, and hydraulic developments. Terraced gardens were popular — especially those that were built into the side of a building or hill.
Water features were another common feature. Fountains, reflecting pools, ponds, and other clever decorations add interest to any garden.
One modern sculpture, the large ball spinning on top of a fountain of water, would be an excellent feature for a modern Italian garden.
You can even build one yourself pretty easily.
The idea behind these features is to delight your guests and invite conversation.
Structure, symmetry, and balance
Symmetry and balance are vital to your design:
Combined with order, they make your Italian garden a place for rest and contemplation.
Think geometric shapes: perfect circles and sharp, well-maintained angles.
Hedges lend themselves to this purpose — particularly a hedge maze. You don’t have to have acres and acres of land to construct a hedge maze (although it helps).
In fact, with a few tools, and a bit of imagination, you can create your own right in your backyard.
Check out these incredible mazes for inspiration:
If you’re not up to building your own hedge maze…
consider bordering part of all of your garden with an attractive, low-cut living wall.
You could also try your hand at topiary.
Just make sure to trim it regularly to keep it looking Renaissance-sharp. Creating a paved walking path or even a labyrinth is another period-appropriate way to add purpose and structure to your garden.
You may have noticed:
The typical Italian garden is light on flowers.
It might seem strange when one of the main purposes of this kind of garden is decoration.
Remember the spirit of the times.
Just as the functional medieval garden grew edible and medicinal plants for the owners, the Italian Renaissance garden was a showcase of innovation.
The field of botany grew by leaps and bounds during this time. John Hooke invented the microscope, and Anton von Leewenhoek observed a cell for the first time.
Also, Europe’s first formal system of plant classification was born. This allowed the systematic study and classification of plants like never before.
In addition, sailors and explorers brought back samples of foreign flora from their travels. Scientists used these new contributions to increase their knowledge of plant life.
Garden designers incorporated new plants and new strains into their gardens.
What does this mean for the plants in your modern Italian garden?:
Well, first, it means that you have a lot of choices. Choose things that surprise and delight. Choose exotic plants, as well as those that add visual interest. We’ll discuss this in more detail later.
Design Your Own Italian Garden
Planning is the key to any great feat, and that includes installing an Italian garden.
It’s possible to DIY it from start to finish:
This way gives you ultimate control over every step of the process. It may also allow you to save quite a bit of money.
On the other hand, working with a professional can save you a lot of hassle. A landscape designer might even give you insights and ideas you might not have come up with on your own.
Here are the basics:
Step one in your plan is deciding on your layout.
What goes where? How do you want to handle traffic flow? And how will you arrange for any necessary mechanical or electrical support?
Hiring a landscape designer
Landscape professionals come in many different flavors.
A landscape designer or landscape architect can draw up a plan for your garden. They may also either have, or hire a crew to do the physical work.
Different kinds of landscape technicians install plants and other features. Landscape maintenance professionals can keep your garden looking sharp.
Landscape architects are licensed by the states in which they practice. Choosing a licensed architect ensures that your architect has the education and good business practices to do the job right.
But, this is the kicker:
If you’re thinking about hiring a landscape architect, we recommend interviewing several before choosing.
It’s important that your designer shares your vision. It’s also important for you to know what services you’re paying for. Here are a few questions you might ask the designers on your list.
- Which services do you offer?
- Can I see examples of your work?
- Will you provide references?
- Do you do consultations?
- Are you licensed?
If you’re willing to do some or all of the work yourself, you can save money and retain creative control.
Designing your garden layout isn’t difficult if you do your homework. There are a number of free and paid garden design software suites that you can use to bring your ideas to life.
You could also use good, old-fashioned pen and paper. If you want a hybrid solution, some landscape architects are willing to draw up plans with plant choices and leave the physical work to you.
Even if you don’t have a lot of space, one or more of these typical Renaissance-inspired structures can add flair and interest to your Italian garden.
Renaissance-era Italian gardens like the Boboli Garden make great use of views.
Your backyard might not provide a sweeping view of some grand vista.
However, if there’s a corner of your space that has a natural point of attraction like a tree or an ornamental bush, you can organize your space to feature it.
Likewise, if your property has a balcony or a raised deck, you can use it as a viewpoint to look out over your beautiful Italian garden. You could even design the garden layout to appear a certain way when seen from above.
Terraces and hanging gardens
A terraced garden just means that your plants are arranged along different levels.
You can accomplish this on a large scale or a small scale. A landscape architect can add retaining walls, as well as raised and lowered areas to your garden plan.
If you live on a hillside, that’s even better if you want a terraced garden.
Check out the video below:
Alternately, you could incorporate existing stairs and steps into your design. Terracing is a great way to get a lot of use from a small area.
Renaissance gardens often have grottoes and other “secret” areas.
“Grotto” simply means cave.
It can refer to either a cave or enclosed area, or to an alcove that holds a statue.
Making a grotto?
You can create a grotto or secret corner from foliage or existing walls. If the smaller-sized option appeals, you can buy a grotto and a statue to go inside it at larger garden supply stores.
You’ll also find a wide selection at your local garden statuary supplier.
Few of us have room for a hedge maze.
However, you can plant and sculpt hedges of various heights to great effect in the space that you do have. High hedges can also block noise and provide privacy. Low hedges, on the other hand, can divide your spaces and create interesting visuals.
Topiary, or hedge sculptures, are another way to add Renaissance flair to your Italian garden.
The great thing is, you can create a topiary sculpture with very little space. If you have room enough for a large pot, you can have a topiary sculpture to delight and entertain.
No, no. Not THAT Labyrinth!
A labyrinth is a walkable maze.
Unlike a maze, however, it’s not meant as a puzzle. Rather, a labyrinth is a path for contemplation.
Many cultures have used the labyrinth as a symbol, including the ancient Greeks, the medieval Europeans, and the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona.
Labyrinth patterns have even been found in Neolithic and Bronze Age carvings. That’s pretty old.
Most importantly, however:
A labyrinth is an easy, low-tech, period-authentic decoration for your Italian garden. Once you design your labyrinth, you can dig it into the ground, or outline the path with bricks or painted stones.
If you want to get really fancy:
You can pave it — garden bricks and paving stones work well –and decorate it with plants. It’s a unique, highly customizable option that you can add with very little money or hard labor.
If a labyrinth isn’t to your taste, you can also add interest to your Italian garden with a walking path. Like a labyrinth, this is something you can design yourself.
You can also construct it according to your needs. Your path can be as long, short, simple, or complicated as you like.
Would you like a clean, simple path carved out of the turf? Perhaps bordered with bricks? One step up from that is a gravel path.
Gravel is inexpensive, and comes in many different colors and grades. You can pave with bricks laid out in different patterns, or with large, flat paving stones.
You can also use pallets!
Check out the video below to learn how to make an awesome pallet garden walkway:
The only limits are your imagination and your budget.
If you’re adding additional features like topiary or statues, you can lay them out along your path to create an interesting tableau.
Water features were prominent in Italian Renaissance gardens.
Not only did they showcase the owner’s wealth and add interest for visitors; water features also tapped into the inventive spirit of the time. They used high technology to create spectacular effects.
You can do the same in your garden, and for probably a lot less money than you think.
How they work
The main attraction of water features is movement. Fountains and water-powered attractions use water to amuse and delight. Ponds and reflecting pools, on the other hand, offer peaceful beauty.
Some water features are simple and don’t require a lot of maintenance.
Others, on the other hand, can be quite complicated.
So before you rush to install something that has caught your eye, make sure you know how it works, how to keep it looking and running great, and how to troubleshoot it when things go wrong.
What you need to know:
Some of the equipment you may encounter includes pumps, electricity, pipes, and more. So before you buy, make sure you have a safe, outdoor power supply that’s fairly close to where you want to put your water feature.
Your pond probably won’t be large enough to paddle on but it’s nice to dream, right?
Ponds and reflecting pools are a simple, generally low-maintenance way to incorporate water into your Italian garden.
It’s pretty easy to build your own pond:
In fact, you can do it in less than a day. Just keep in mind that it will need to have at least six hours of sunlight per day to keep the water clear — and the fish happy if you’re planning on keeping fish in your pond.
What you need to know:
Some of the equipment you may encounter includes pumps, electricity, pipes, and more. So before you buy, make sure you have a safe, outdoor power supply that’s fairly close to where you want to put your water feature.
If a pond sounds like a lot of work, a fountain might be more up your alley.
You can buy a prefabricated fountain at many garden supply stores. These come with varying degrees of complexity.
But, keep this in mind:
Many will come with everything you need to install it yourself, quickly and easily. A small decorative fountain is also pretty easy to clean and care for.
A lot of people love to watch the birds a fountain will attract to your Italian garden.
Recirculating water basin
You’ve seen these before. Water drips from a decorative pipe into a basin below. When the basin gets full, it overflows onto artistically placed rocks.
Beneath the rocks is a reservoir that recirculates the water back to the spout.
This is a drought-friendly water feature that is both attractive and highly customizable. It’s also pretty low-maintenance.
Some common materials include copper, stone, wood, aluminum, and bamboo.
Care and Maintenance
Some water features will require more maintenance than others. Depending on your setup, and where you live, you may have to deal with one or more of the following:
- wildlife (water attracts critters, some more desirable than others)
- leaking or degrading pond liners
- dirty or murky water
- mechanical failure
- electrical or power source issues
Again, knowing your feature and how to care for it can help it last for a long, long time.
Environmentally responsible water features
In many places, particularly the American West, water is in short supply. A garden feature that uses a lot of it is irresponsible.
But, not impossible:
It can also be expensive. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use water in your Italian garden.
In fact, the Huntington Children’s Garden in Pasadena, California is filled with delightful water features that recycle the water that they use. Other features use just a small amount of water.
Desert living tip:
If you live in a desert or drought-prone area, you can use water features in your Italian garden, but you’ll need to be water smart. Choose features that recycle water, use still water, or that only use a small amount of water.
Art and statuary
The Medicis and other prominent Renaissance-era individuals used their gardens to show off their vast art collections.
You might not have a vast art collection. However, with some careful choices, you can make your Italian garden into a work of art in its own right.
The Renaissance took a lot of artistic inspiration from the classical ages of Rome and Greece.
Traditional Italian garden art choices reflect these influences. Think statues of well-proportioned young men and women in the Greek or Roman style.
Style tip, incoming:
For a whimsical touch, how about a mischievous Pan or Bacchus? Or Atlas carrying the Earth on his back? Perhaps Diana with her stag or Athena with her owl?
Urns and terra cotta pots are also traditional choices. Even better, both are inexpensive and easy to find at your local garden store.
Contemporary and regional options
Because innovation was such a part of the Renaissance spirit, you could go with something more modern.
Ready to know how to get this all to your place?:
Your local garden store or statuary retailer may have something to suit your tastes. And you can always go online, though the shipping costs for a stone or cement statue may be exorbitant.
If you live in the Southwestern United States (or even if you don’t), statues of the saints and the Virgin are popular and easy to find. Many people favor Saint Francis, who watches over animals and children, for example.
Most places you can order from deliver.
Now, finally, it’s time to talk about plants.
What kind of plants should you use for your Italian garden?
Well, that depends on your taste:
Traditional Mediterranean plants will bring the flavor of Italy to your garden.
The original Italian Renaissance gardens, you may have noticed, were light on flowers. Hedges and greenery dominate. That doesn’t mean you can’t use flowers at all — just that you should be discriminating in your choices.
The most important consideration:
Know your growing zone. So that you can choose plants that will thrive.
If your climate isn’t amenable to traditional Mediterranean plants, choosing native plants that you find pleasing will echo the Renaissance spirit of novelty and inventiveness.
Also, don’t forget to choose unique plants, as well as those that you find pleasing. This will honor the spirit of whimsy and inventiveness.
Traditional Mediterranean plants
When many people think of the Mediterranean, they think of warm sunshine and sun-baked terraces.
Traditional plant choices are those that do well in bright sunshine. If you live in a climate that is warm and sunny for most of the year, then it should be easy to keep your Italian garden happy and healthy. The plants you choose will depend on their role in your garden.
Most of all:
Your Italian garden should be a feast for the senses.
For the eyes
Italian cypress is a mainstay of gardens in Tuscany. Its foliage is dark green, and it naturally grows into a tall, thin column.
It’s beautiful and easy to care for (in hardiness zones 7 through 10). It grows fast, though — 12 to 24 inches per year — and can reach heights of 40 to 60 feet tall (and 10 to 20 feet wide). Consider using it to build a border around your yard. You could also have a single Italian cypress as the focal point of your garden.
The bay laurel (USDA hardiness zones 8 through 10) is an interesting choice for function as well as form.
The tree naturally grows in a pyramidal shape, which is attractive enough. It’s also easy to clip it into a shape of your choosing. If that’s not enough, the bay laurel is the source of the fragrant and edible bay leaves that give a unique flavor to savory dishes.
For flowers, choose bright colors and interesting shapes.
Geraniums (zones 9 through 11) are pretty — and pretty easy to care for. You can grow them in an urn, in a garden bed, or display them in a hanging pot.
Gardenias (zones 6 through 11) are gorgeous and fragrant. However, it’s notoriously difficult to coax them to bloom.
For the nose
When feasting your senses, don’t forget your nose — or mouth!:
Jasmine (zones 7 through 10), wisteria (zones 5 through 9), and roses (many different zones) make good choices. These three also have lovely flowers that will grace your garden.
Fragrant and hardy herbs like mint, rosemary, and lavender can be useful as well as attractive.
What if you live in a cold climate?
Not to worry:
You can still build your Italian garden with cold-hardy plants.
Fast-growing bamboo can create walls and borders. It can also be used sparingly for visual effect.
Though it prefers zones 5 through 9, there are some cold-hardy varieties as well.
Hibiscus hybrids thrive in a number of climates, including cold ones (with proper care).
The pink and red flowers could be the pride of your garden.
There are hundreds of varieties of roses, and some thrive in cold climates. Buck roses and the Morden/Parkland and Explorer varieties developed by the Canadian government are good choices.
Are You Ready to Design Your Own Italian Garden?
Now you know the when, the why, and the how of the Italian garden. Innovate, surprise, invite, and delight. Your garden can be your refuge and your place to showcase your creativity. Are you ready to get started