Old Italian Gardens


Bird’s-eye plan view of the gardens at Villa d’Este (Tivoli), Italy, Étienne Dupérac, 1560-1575

by Vernon Lee


There are also modern gardens in Italy, and in such I have spent many pleasant hours. But that has been part of my life of reality, which concerns only my friends and myself. The gardens I would speak about are those in which I have lived the life of the fancy, and into which I may lead the idle thoughts of my readers.

It is pleasant to have flowers growing in a garden. I make this remark because there have been very fine gardens without any flowers at all; in fact, when the art of gardening reached its height, it took to despising its original material, as, at one time, people came to sing so well that it was considered vulgar to have any voice. There is a magnificent garden near Pescia, in Tuscany, built in terraces against a hillside, with wonderful water-works, which give you shower baths when you expect them least; and in this garden, surrounded by the trimmest box hedges, there bloom only imperishable blossoms of variegated pebbles and chalk. That I have seen with my own eyes. A similar garden, near Genoa, consisting of marble mosaics and coloured bits of glass, with a peach tree on a wall, and an old harpsichord on the doorstep to serve instead of bell or knocker, I am told of by a friend, who pretends to have spent her youth in it. But I suspect her to be of supernatural origin, and this garden to exist only in the world of Ariosto’s enchantresses, whence she originally hails. To return to my first remark, it is pleasant, therefore, to have flowers in a garden, though not necessary. We moderns have flowers, and no gardens. I must protest against such a state of things. Still worse is it to suppose that you can get a garden by running up a wall or planting a fence round a field, a wood or any portion of what is vaguely called Nature. Gardens have nothing to do with Nature, or not much. Save the garden of Eden, which was perhaps no more a garden than certain London streets so called, gardens are always primarily the work of man. I say primarily, for these outdoor habitations, where man weaves himself carpets of grass and gravel, cuts himself walls out of ilex or hornbeam, and fits on as roof so much of blue day or of starspecked, moonsilvered night, are never perfect until Time has furnished it all with his weather stains and mosses, and Fancy, having given notice to the original occupants, has handed it into the charge of gentle little owls and furgloved bats, and of other tenants, human in shape, but as shy and solitary as they.

That is a thing of our days, or little short of them. I should be curious to know something of early Italian gardens, long ago; long before the magnificence of Roman Cæsars had reappeared, with their rapacity and pride, in the cardinals and princes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I imagine those beginnings to have been humble; the garden of the early middle ages to have been a thing more for utility than pleasure, and not at all for ostentation. For the garden of the castle is necessarily small; and the plot of ground between the inner and outer rows of walls, where corn and hay might be grown for the horses, is not likely to be given up exclusively to her ladyship’s lilies and gillyflowers; salads and roots must grow there, and onions and leeks, for it is not always convenient to get vegetables from the villages below, particularly when there are enemies or disbanded pillaging mercenaries about; hence, also, there will be fewer roses than vines, pears, or apples, spaliered against the castle wall. On the other hand the burgher of the towns begins by being a very small artisan or shopkeeper, and even when he lends money to kings of England and Emperors, and is part owner of Constantinople, he keeps his house with businesslike frugality. Whatever they lavished on churches, frescoes, libraries, and pageants, the citizens, even of the fifteenth century, whose wives and daughters still mended the linen and waited at table, are not likely to have seen in their villa more than a kind of rural place of business, whence to check factors and peasants, where to store wine and oil; and from whose garden, barely enclosed from the fields, to obtain the fruit and flowers for their table. I think that mediæval poetry and tales have led me to this notion. There is little mention in them of a garden as such: the Provençal lovers meet in orchards—“en un vergier sor folha d’albespi”—where the May bushes grow among the almond trees. Boccaccio and the Italians more usually employ the word orto, which has lost its Latin signification, and is a place, as we learn from the context, planted with fruit trees and with pot-herbs, the sage which brought misfortune on poor Simona, and the sweet basil which Lisabetta watered, as it grew out of Lorenzo’s head, “only with rosewater, or that of orange flowers, or with her own tears.” A friend of mine has painted a picture of another of Boccaccio’s ladies, Madonna Dianora, visiting the garden, which (to the confusion of her virtuous stratagem) the enamoured Ansaldo has made to bloom in January by magic arts; a little picture full of the quaint lovely details of Dello’s wedding chests, the charm of the roses and lilies, the plashing fountains and birds singing against a background of wintry trees and snow-shrouded fields, the dainty youths and damsels treading their way among the flowers, looking like tulips and ranunculus themselves in their fur and brocade. But although in this story Boccaccio employs the word giardino instead of orto, I think we must imagine that magic flower garden rather as a corner—they still exist on every hillside—of orchard connected with the fields of wheat and olives below by the long tunnels of vine trellis, and dying away into them with the great tufts of lavender and rosemary and fennel on the grassy bank under the cherry trees. This piece of terraced ground along which the water—spurted from the dolphin’s mouth or the siren’s breasts—runs through walled channels, refreshing impartially violets and salads, lilies and tall flowering onions, under the branches of the peach tree and the pomegranate, to where, in the shade of the great pink oleander tufts, it pours out below into the big tank, for the maids to rinse their linen in the evening, and the peasants to fill their cans to water the bedded out tomatoes, and the potted clove-pinks in the shadow of the house.

The Blessed Virgin’s garden is like that, where, as she prays in the cool of the evening, the gracious Gabriel flutters on to one knee (hushing the sound of his wings lest he startle her) through the pale green sky, the deep blue-green valley; and you may still see in the Tuscan fields clumps of cypresses clipped wheel shape, which might mark the very spot.

The transition from this orchard-garden, this orto, of the old Italian novelists and painters to the architectural garden of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is indicated in some of the descriptions and illustrations of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a sort of handbook of antiquities in the shape of a novel, written by Fra Francesco Colonna, and printed at Venice about 1480. Here we find trees and hedges treated as brick and stone work; walls, niches, colonnades, cut out of ilex and laurel; statues, vases, peacocks, clipped in box and yew; moreover antiquities, busts, inscriptions, broken altars and triumphal arches, temples to the graces and Venus, stuck about the place very much as we find them in the Roman Villas of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But I doubt whether the Hypnerotomachia can be taken as evidence of the gardens of Colonna’s own days. I think his descriptions are rather of what his archæological lore made him long for, and what came in time, when antiques were more plentiful than in the early Renaissance, and the monuments of the ancients could be incorporated freely into the gardens. For the classic Italian garden is essentially Roman in origin; it could have arisen only on the top of ancient walls and baths, its shape suggested by the ruins below, its ornaments dug up in the planting of the trees; and until the time of Julius II. and Leo X., Rome was still a mediæval city, feudal and turbulent, in whose outskirts, for ever overrun by baronial squabbles, no sane man would have built himself a garden; and in whose ancient monuments castles were more to be expected than belvederes and orangeries. Indeed, by the side of quaint arches and temples, and labyrinths which look like designs for a box of toys, we find among the illustrations of Polifilo various charming woodcuts showing bits of vine trellis, of tank and of fountain, on the small scale, and in the domestic, quite unclassic style of the Italian burgher’s garden. I do not mean to say that the gardens of Lorenzo dei Medici, of Catherine Cornaro near Asolo, of the Gonzagas near Mantua, of the Estensi at Scandiano and Sassuolo, were kitchen gardens like those of Isabella’s basil pot. They had waterworks already, and aviaries full of costly birds, and enclosures where camels and giraffes were kept at vast expense, and parks with deer and fishponds; they were the gardens of the castle, of the farm, magnified and made magnificent, spread over a large extent of ground. But they were not, any more than are the gardens of Boiardo’s and Ariosto’s enchantresses (copied by Spencer) the typical Italian gardens of later days.

And here, having spoken of that rare and learned Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (which, by the way, any one who wishes to be instructed, sickened, and bored for many days together, may now read in Monsieur Claudius Popelin’s French translation), it is well I should state that for the rest of this dissertation I have availed myself of neither the British Museum, nor the National Library of Paris, nor the Library of South Kensington (the italics seem necessary to show my appreciation of those haunts of learning), but merely of the light of my own poor intellect. For I do not think I care to read about gardens among foolscap and inkstains and printed forms; in fact I doubt whether I care to read about them at all, save in Boccaccio and Ariosto, Spencer and Tasso; though I hope that my readers will be more literary characters than myself.


The climate of Italy (moving on in my discourse) renders it difficult and almost impossible to have flowers growing in the ground all through the summer. After the magnificent efflorescence of May and June the soil cakes into the consistence of terra cotta, and the sun, which has expanded and withered the roses and lilies with such marvellous rapidity, toasts everything like so much corn or maize. Very few herbaceous flowers—the faithful, friendly, cheerful zinnias, for instance—can continue blooming, and the oleander, become more brilliantly rose-colour with every additional week’s drought, triumph over empty beds. Flowers in Italy are a crop like corn, hemp, or beans; you must be satisfied with fallow soil when they are over. I say these things, learned by some bitter experience of flowerless summers, to explain why Italian flower-gardening mainly takes refuge in pots—from the great ornamented lemon-jars down to the pots of carnations, double geraniums, tuberoses, and jasmines on every wall, on every ledge or window-sill; so much so, in fact, that even the famous sweet basil and with it young Lorenzo’s head, had to be planted in a pot. Now this poverty of flower-beds and richness of pots made it easy and natural for the Italian garden to become, like the Moorish one, a place of mere greenery and water, a palace whose fountains plashed in sunny yards walled in with myrtle and bay, in mysterious chambers roofed over with ilex and box.

And this it became. Moderately at first; a few hedges of box and cypress—exhaling its resinous breath in the sunshine—leading up to the long, flat Tuscan house, with its tower or pillared loggia under the roof to take the air and dry linen; a few quaintly cut trees set here and there, along with the twisted mulberry tree where the family drank its wine and ate its fruit of an evening; a little grove of ilexes to the back, in whose shade you could sleep while the cicalas buzzed at noon; some cypresses gathered together into a screen, just to separate the garden from the olive yard above; gradually perhaps a balustrade set at the end of the bowling-green, that you might see, even from a distance, the shimmery blue valley below, the pale-blue distant hills; and if you had it, some antique statue, not good enough for the courtyard of the town house, set on the balustrade or against the tree; also, where water was plentiful, a little grotto scooped out under that semicircular screen of cypresses. A very modest place, but differing essentially from the orchard and kitchen garden of the mediæval burgher; and out of which came something immense and unique—the classic Roman villa.

For your new garden, your real Italian garden, brings in a new element—that of perspective, architecture, decoration; the trees used as building material, the lie of the land as theatre arrangements, the water as the most docile and multiform stage property. Now think what would happen when such gardens begin to be made in Rome. The Popes and Popes’ nephews can enclose vast tracts of land, expropriated by some fine sweeping fiscal injustice, or by the great expropriator, fever, in the outskirts of the town; and there place their casino, at first a mere summer-house, whither to roll of spring evenings in stately coaches and breathe the air with a few friends; then gradually a huge house, with its suits of guests’ chambers, stables, chapel, orangery, collection of statues and pictures, its subsidiary smaller houses, belvederes, circuses, and what not! And around the house His Eminence or His Serene Excellency may lay out his garden. Now go where you may in the outskirts of Rome you are sure to find ruins—great aqueduct arches, temples half-standing, gigantic terrace-works belonging to some baths or palace hidden beneath the earth and vegetation. Here you have naturally an element of architectural ground-plan and decoration which is easily followed: the terraces of quincunxes, the symmetrical groves, the long flights of steps, the triumphal arches, the big ponds, come, as it were, of themselves, obeying the order of what is below. And from underground, everywhere, issues a legion of statues, headless, armless, in all stages of mutilation, who are charitably mended, and take their place, mute sentinels, white and earth-stained, at every intersecting box hedge, under every ilex grove, beneath the cypresses of each sweeping hillside avenue, wherever a tree can make a niche or a bough a canopy. Also vases, sarcophagi, baths, little altars, columns, reliefs by the score and hundred, to be stuck about everywhere, let into every wall, clapped on the top of every gable, every fountain, stacked up in every empty space.

Among these inhabitants of the gardens of Cæsar, Lucullus, or Sallust, who, after a thousand years’ sleep, pierce through the earth into new gardens, of crimson cardinals and purple princes, each fattened on his predecessors’ spoils—Mediei, Farnesi, Peretti, Aldobrandini, Ludovisi, Rospigliosi, Borghese, Pamphili—among this humble people of stone I would say a word of garden Hermes and their vicissitudes. There they stand, squeezing from out their triangular sheath the stout pectorals veined with rust, scarred with corrosions, under the ilexes, whose drip, drip, through all the rainy days and nights of those ancient times and these modern ones has gradually eaten away an eye here, a cheek there, making up for the loss by gilding the hair with lichens, and matting the beard with green ooze; while patched chin, and restored nose, give them an odd look of fierce German duellists. Have they been busts of Cæsars, hastily ordered on the accession of some Tiberius or Nero, hastily sent to alter into Caligula or Galba, or chucked into the Tiber on to the top of the monster Emperor’s body after that had been properly hauled through the streets? Or are they philosophers, at your choice, Plato or Aristotle or Zeno or Epicurus, once presiding over the rolls of poetry and science in some noble’s or some rhetor’s library? Or is it possible that this featureless block, smiling foolishly with its orbless eye-sockets and worn-out mouth, may have had, once upon a time, a nose from Phidias’s hand, a pair of Cupid lips carved by Praxiteles?


A book of seventeenth-century prints—“The Gardens of Rome, with their plans raised and seen in perspective, drawn and engraved by Giov: Battista Falda, at the printing-house of Gio: Giacomo de’ Rossi, at the sign of Paris, near the church of Peace in Rome”—brings home to one, with the names of the architects who laid them out, that these Roman villas are really a kind of architecture cut out of living instead of dead timber. To this new kind of architecture belongs a new kind of sculpture. The antiques do well in their niches of box and laurel under their canopy of hanging ilex boughs; they are, in their weather-stained, mutilated condition, another sort of natural material fit for the artist’s use; but the old sculpture being thus in a way assimilated through the operation of earth, wind, and rain, into tree-trunks and mossy boulders, a new sculpture arises undertaking to make of marble something which will continue the impression of the trees and waters, wave its jagged outlines like the branches, twist its supple limbs like the fountains. It is high time that some one should stop the laughing and sniffing at this great sculpture of Bernini and his Italian and French followers, the last spontaneous outcome of the art of the Renaissance, of the decorative sculpture which worked in union with place and light and surroundings. Mistaken as indoor decoration, as free statuary in the sense of the antique, this sculpture has after all given us the only works which are thoroughly right in the open air, among the waving trees, the mad vegetation which sprouts under the moist, warm Roman sky, from every inch of masonry and travertine. They are comic of course looked at in all the details, those angels who smirk and gesticulate with the emblems of the passion, those popes and saints who stick out colossal toes and print on the sky gigantic hands, on the parapets of bridges and the gables of churches; but imagine them replaced by fine classic sculpture—stiff mannikins struggling with the overwhelming height, the crushing hugeness of all things Roman; little tin soldiers lost in the sky instead of those gallant theatrical creatures swaggering among the clouds, pieces of wind-torn cloud, petrified for the occasion, themselves! Think of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, a group unfortunately kept in a palace room, with whose right angles its every outline swears, but which, if placed in a garden, would be the very summing up of all garden and park impressions in the waving, circling lines; yet not without a niminy piminy restraint of the draperies, the limbs, the hair turning to clustered leaves, the body turning to smooth bark, of the flying nymph and the pursuing god.

The great creation of this Bernini school, which shows it as the sculpture born of gardens, is the fountain. No one till the seventeenth century had guessed what might be the relations of stone and water, each equally obedient to the artist’s hand. The mediæval Italian fountain is a tank, a huge wash-tub fed from lions’ mouths, as if by taps, and ornamented, more or less, with architectural and sculptured devices. In the Renaissance we get complicated works of art—Neptunes with tridents throne above sirens squeezing their breasts, and cupids riding on dolphins, like the beautiful fountain of Bologna; or boys poised on one foot, holding up tortoises, like Rafael’s Tartarughe of Piazza Mattei; more elaborate devices still, like the one of the villa at Bagnaia, near Viterbo. But these fountains do equally well when dry, equally well translated into bronze or silver: they are wonderful salt-cellars or fruit-dishes; everything is delightful except the water, which spurts in meagre threads as from a garden-hose. They are the fitting ornament of Florence, where there is pure drinking water only on Sundays and holidays, of Bologna, where there is never any at all.

The seventeenth century made a very different thing of its fountains—something as cool, as watery, as the jets which gurgle and splash in Moorish gardens and halls, and full of form and fancy withal, the water never alone, but accompanied by its watery suggestion of power and will and whim. They are so absolutely right, these Roman fountains of the Bernini school, that we are apt to take them as a matter of course, as if the horses had reared between the spurts from below and the gushes and trickles above; as if the Triton had been draped with the overflowing of his horn; as if the Moor with his turban, the Asiatic with his veiled fall, the solemn Egyptian river god, had basked and started back with the lion and the seahorse among the small cataracts breaking into foam in the pond, the sheets of water dropping, prefiguring icicles, lazily over the rocks, all stained black by the north winds and yellow by the lichen, all always, always, in those Roman gardens and squares, from the beginning of time, natural objects, perfect and not more to be wondered at than the water-encircled rocks of the mountains and seashores. Such art as this cannot be done justice to with the pen; diagrams would be necessary, showing how in every case the lines of the sculpture harmonise subtly, or clash to be more subtly harmonised, with the movement, the immensely varied, absolutely spontaneous movement of the water; the sculptor, become infinitely modest, willing to sacrifice his own work, to make it uninteresting in itself, as a result of the hours and days he must have spent watching the magnificent manners and exquisite tricks of natural waterfalls—nay, the mere bursting alongside of breakwaters, the jutting up between stones, of every trout-stream and milldam. It is not till we perceive its absence (in the fountains, for instance, of modern Paris) that we appreciate this Roman art of water sculpture. Meanwhile we accept the fountains as we accept the whole magnificent harmony of nature and art—nature tutored by art, art fostered by nature—of the Roman villas, undulating, with their fringe of pines and oaks, over the hillocks and dells of the Campagna, or stacked up proudly, vineyards and woods all round, on the steep sides of Alban and Sabine hills.


This book of engravings of the villas of the Serene Princes Aldobrandini, Pamphili, Borghese, and so forth, brings home to us another fact, to wit, that the original owners and layers out thereof must have had but little enjoyment of them. There they go in their big coaches, among the immense bows and curtsies of the ladies and gentlemen and dapper ecclesiastics whom they meet; princes in feathers and laces, and cardinals in silk and ermine. But the delightful gardens on which they are being complimented are meanwhile mere dreadful little plantations, like a nurseryman’s squares of cabbages, you would think, rather than groves of ilexes and cypresses, for, alas, the greatest princes, the most magnificent cardinals, cannot bribe time, or hustle him to hurry up.

And thus the gardens were planted and grew. For whom? Certainly not for the men of those days, who would doubtless have been merely shocked could they have seen or foreseen…. For their ghosts perhaps? Scarcely. A friend of mine, in whose information on such matters I have implicit belief, assures me that it is not the whole ghosts of the ladies and cavaliers of long ago who haunt the gardens; not the ghost of their everyday, humdrum likeness to ourselves, but the ghost of certain moments of their existence, certain rustlings, and shimmerings of their personality, their waywardness, momentary transcendent graces and graciousnesses, unaccountable wistfulness and sorrow, certain looks of the face and certain tones of the voice (perhaps none of the steadiest), things that seemed to die away into nothing on earth, but which have permeated their old haunts, clung to the statues with the ivy, risen and fallen with the plash of the fountains, and which now exhale in the breath of the honeysuckle and murmur in the voice of the birds, in the rustle of the leaves and the high, invading grasses. There are some verses of Verlaine’s, which come to me always, on the melancholy minuet tune to which Monsieur Fauré has set them, as I walk in those Italian gardens, Roman and Florentine, walk in the spirit as well as in the flesh:—

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur;
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau
Qui fait rèver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.


And this leads me to wonder what these gardens must be when the key has turned in their rusty gates, and the doorkeeper gone to sleep under the gun hanging from its nail. What must such places be, Mondragone, for instance, near Frascati, and the deserted Villa Pucci near Signa, during the great May nights, when my own small scrap of garden, not beyond kitchen sounds and servants’ lamps, is made wonderful and magical by the scents which rise up, by the song of the nightingales, the dances of the fireflies, copying in the darkness below the figures which are footed by the nimble stars overhead. Into such rites as these, which the poetry of the past practises with the poetry of summer nights, one durst not penetrate, save after leaving one’s vulgar flesh, one’s habits, one’s realities outside the gate.

And since I have mentioned gates, I must not forget one other sort of old Italian garden, perhaps the most poetical and pathetic—the garden that has ceased to exist. You meet it along every Italian highroad or country lane; a piece of field, tender green with the short wheat in winter, brown and orange with the dried maize husks and seeding sorghum in summer, the wide grass path still telling of coaches that once rolled in; a big stone bench, with sweeping shell-like back under the rosemary bushes; and, facing the road, between solemnly grouped cypresses or stately marshalled poplars, a gate of charming hammered iron standing open between its scroll-work masonry amid empty vases, under its covered escutcheon. The gate that leads to nowhere.

Essay first published in 1912. Via