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Italian Gardens and Their Villas, by Edith Wharton (reproduction of 1904 edition)

Italian Garden Design


If there is one garden design style that grandfathered current garden design, it is the Italian. American Pulitzer prize winning author Edith Wharton (who wrote The Age of Innocence and The House or Mirth, among others) wrote a seminal work about garden design in 1904, Italian Villas and Their Gardens [Kindle edition available.]


She studied 75 villas in different geographic regions of Italy and made some astute observations.


First, the concept of the Italian villa, like the concept of the English country house such as Downton Abbey, included both the building and the surrounding landscaping. The two were, in fact, one entity. As such, the design of the garden had to be in keeping with the design of the house. 


Second, the proportions of an Italian garden design were critical to its success:  proportions of walls, terraces, stairways, columns, and pathways all had to be pleasing to the eye, functional, and harmonious.


Third, a garden must take into account the climate and the needs of its owner in order to be successful. A lawn for playing bocce and outdoor rooms were common.   


Fourth, container gardening was pioneered by the Italians. Flowers were typically grown in decorative pots around the house so that they could be watered often. In summer, the Italian sun is relentless.


Clipped box hedges, strong verticals provided by cypress trees, sculpture, and a central fountain are used in garden design of the Giusti Gardens in Verona, Italy.

Clipped box hedges, strong verticals provided by cypress trees, sculpture, and a central fountain are used in the Giusti Gardens in Verona, Italy. CREDIT: Lazy Katt

The Ogre in Park of the Monsters, in Bomarzo, Italy. Grottoes provided cooling shade.

The Ogre in Park of the Monsters in Bomarzo, Italy. CREDIT: Alessio Damato

Key elements of Italian garden design:


Architectural elements – Columns, colonnades and balustrades (low decorative railings constructed from marble or other stone, surrounding a patio or deck) are widely used in Italian landscaping. These architectural elements have been around since Roman times 2,000 years ago. They saw a resurgence in the Renaissance and became garden fixtures by the 18th and 19th centuries.


Bosco sacro - A grove of trees filled with allegorical statues of animals, giants and fantastic creatures.


Grotto – A constructed cavern from stone, concrete, or terrazzo to escape the heat of Italian summer before the days of air conditioning. Some grottoes featured fountains which added to the cooling effect. Some lucky owners actually had a real cave that was part of their landscaping, which they turned into a grotto, with seating.


Loggia – A roofed pathway for contemplative strolling in the heat of summer while still keeping cool.


Outdoor rooms – A family could enjoy snacks, meals, and conversation in outdoor rooms, complete with furniture but no roof. Clipped or natural hedges became walls; arbours became doorways.


Secret garden – A cutting garden for flowers was situated right next to the house.


Water features – Water cascading over steps, sprayed into the air, or burbling from a formal, whimsical, or grotesque fountain were features in many Italian gardens. As with Islamic garden design, water acted as both a spiritual and thermal cooling device. A favourite amusement was concealed, trick fountains (giochi d'acqua), that drenched passers-by with water.

The One Hundred Fountains at the Villa d'Este (1560-1575), in Tivoli, Italy, acted as early air conditioning.

The One Hundred Fountains at the Villa d'Este (1560-1575), in Tivoli, Italy. CREDIT: Adrian Pingstone

Garden design and landscaping consulting in Oakville, Milton, Burlington, Mississauga, Etobicoke, and Toronto.

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