Toskanische Villen

Italian Renaissance villas and gardens

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From the beginning of the period that we call the early Florentine Renaissance in the 15 C, a Tuscan villa was a large country house, sometimes fortified but completely unlike a mediaeval castle in appearance, and usually situated on an agricultural estate. Some of these villas, notably those constructed by the Medici and their friends, became increasingly centred around the pursuit of scholarly leisure, and, as classical literature became more accessible, were remodelled according to the ideals and also probably the practice of Augustan Rome.

In both Rome and Florence, and later near other Italian cities, notably in the Venetian hinterland, a new type of villa evolved that was not part of a working estate but instead was situated just within or outside the city walls. Belonging to popes, cardinals, aristocrats and wealthy families, these villas were used to entertain guests and as a retreat from the noise, turbulence, heat and foul-smelling conditions of the streets and piazzas of the cities. 

Both types of villa were often surrounded by formal gardens. Like the buildings, these gardens were intended to reflect the magnificence of their owner, but in addition, they were an integral part of the overall architecture - the garden was an extension of the interior of the villa, to the extend that the term Tuscan villa implies the presence of an elaborate garden.

Tuscan villa

Villa Gamberaia and its garden, Tuscany

Although seeking a refuge from urban life, the owners of villas were greatly involved in civic activity. This meant that their villas were usually close to the main political centres: Rome (papal villas at Frascati), Florence (Medici villas at Fiesole and in the Mugello), Milan and Venice (Palladian villas of the Veneto), and later Pisa, Sienna and Lucca. For both practical and aesthetic reasons, owners chose their site with care. The need for flowing water - to supply the villa, irrigate the garden and power the fountains - led them to prefer hillside locations with natural springs. These sites offered dramatic views over valleys, rivers and lakes, and, never to be overlooked, also cool breezes in mid-summer.

Tuscan garden statuary

Intense study of classical literature, both in the original latin and later in Italian translation, allowed Renaissance scholars and other members of the reading classes to conceptualise Roman garden layout in a manner that subsequent archaeology and the discovery of frescoes illustrating gardens show to have been remarkably accurate.

Hadrian's villa (Villa Adriana) near Tivoli

Part of the garden of Hadrian's villa (Villa Adriana) near Tivoli.

Consciously emulating the gardens of ancient Rome, Renaissance grandees adorned the grounds of villas with an array of statuary. Excavated Roman statuary was re-used, restored, modified or displayed in fragments. In addition, new works were commissioned. Some were copies of Roman sculpture - gods, goddesses and fantastic creatures taken from mythology. Sculpture of animals, both wild and domestic, was also popular. The placement of these works was carefully planned and integrated into the overall design of the garden. Garden statuary was used to decorate fountains, line paths, mark the corners of compartments and act as monumental centrepieces to a design.

Tuscan villa garden statues

Villa Peyron al Bosco di Fonte Lucente

The use of water in Tuscan gardens

During the Renaissance the manipulation of water, through spectacular fountains, rushing cascades and ingenious follies, became the greatest manifestation of garden art.

Preceded by the elegant use of water in the gardens of Moorish Spain and Sicily, Italian water features of the late 16 C reached new heights of inventiveness and technical achievement. All water play was powered by gravity and controlled by the size of pipes and their apertures. Effects ranged from powerful jets and gushing chains of water to fine mists and drips.

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Piping water through sculpted animals, especially lions, was an ancient Roman tradition enthusiastically adopted in Renaissance Italy. This example of a fountain basin, dated around 1450 and said to have come from the courtyard of a house in Padua, has four such beasts, their mouths drilled to allow a playful flow of water.

Designers often used fountains as isolated decorative elements in a vista. This would visually link separate parts of the garden and encourage visitors to wander throughout the grounds. These water features often incorporated figure sculpture that integrated water with wider decorative schemes.

Villa d'Este at Tivoli near Rome

Water features at the Villa d'Este at Tivoli near Rome

Tuscan villa garden design

Horticulture, particularly the distribution of the plants, was central to the design of Italian Renaissance gardens. It was the principal means of dividing and adorning the space, and through its subtle manipulation of planting schemes - the placement, normally highly symmetrical, and height of hedges, for example - it determined how visitors experienced a garden. At the turn of the 19 C, the presence of permanent community of Anglo-Florentines deeply involved in the restoration of their villas resulted in the fashion for the giardino all'inglese, essentially a non-symmetrical garden with flowering plants predominating and deciduous trees in evidence. During the past forty years, the fashion has swung back to the giardino all'italiana, in effect, a Renaissance garden, to the extent that the visitor to Tuscany has to search hard to find extensive flower beds forming part of the garden of a Tuscan villa.

The three main categories of vegetation were forests, orchards and olive groves, and shrubs, herbs and flowers. Despite a shift from the agricutural to the ornamental, many of these plants were cultivated for their usefulness. Orchards were harvested for fruit and nuts, while herbs were grown for medicinal and culinary purposes. Other plants were purely ornamental, prized for their beauty, their literary associations or their value as status symbols. The selection and range of plants increased dramatically from the 15 C as new species arrived in Italy from the Far East and the New World.

Badia a Coltibuono Renaissance garden

Renaissance garden at Badia a Coltibuono

Architecture of Renaissance gardens

The architectural legacy of the Roman world was the inspiration for many of the structures that were integrated into Renaissance gardens. Open-air theatres, covered walkways and monuments consecrated to nymphs were modelled on ancient Roman precedents, in some cases rivalling or surpassing in splendour the originals from which they drew their inspiration. With their allusions to the classical world, they provoked associations in the mind of the visitor, as well as providing for stage events or simply escape from the heat of the sun. Much of the architecture in gardens was both decorative and structural. Terraces needed the support of vast retaining walls, often embellished with niches and sculpture and topped with elaborate balustrades, while monumental staircases were required to link the levels of gardens.

Villa d'Este waterfall

Fountains and retaining walls at the Villa d'Este at Tivoli near Rome

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