Formal Gardens in the 17th Century: Ideas from Italy

Other… Italian glories and pompous beauties may be one day bought (as farre as ye tempers of ye climate will give leave) into English gardens.

John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum (1700)

Prior to the seventeenth century, the prodigy houses of the Elizabethan age were those sites privy to landscaping on the scale that we can later expect from Britain’s grand country house gardens. This period of the Renaissance ushered in strands of Italianate influence, greatly received by a proportion of courtiers and gentry. Properties such as Kenilworth, Theobalds and Wollaton exhibited the gardening design work of styled gentlemen as a mirror to Italy. Of course, at this point in the study, it must be stressed that the flavour of Italy was held in esteem – something which endured to an extend throughout the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries and beyond.

 Villa D’Este, Tivoli.

Associated with splendour and sophistication, this current of artistry reached England through the circulation of contemporary accounts. John Dixon Hunt rightly asserts the theory of emulation in his account of English garden history, whereby, in gardens as in art we can note the continental themes that informed its disposition; detecting even a certain level of ‘Antique’ tonality from our Italian neighbours[1]. Indeed, a group of Oxford dons in 1659 had high hopes of England securing its own signature stamp in the gardening arts when writing to hasten the completion of John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum (1700):

Other… Italian glories and pompous beauties may be one day bought (as farre as ye tempers of ye climate will give leave) into English gardens. Tis true wee have neither Materials nor Mechanicians like those in Italy but we suppose [that if] this Gentlemen yet writes piece [he will] find wayes to helpe ye Nation in this particular[2]

This extract highlights the importance of influence in the shaping of the English garden and this fascination can be read into what we recognise in the history of art as The Grand Tour whereby travel equated to cultivation in terms of the fine arts. Indeed, Lassels advises tourists to ‘learn of Italy how to make a fine house’[3]: This fashion perhaps had its first flowering in the sixteenth century, when English men were writing about their encounters with Italian gardens and, from this, their determination to introduce the pattern to England. The late Renaissance Italian garden offered an attraction; an earthly paradise that functioned as an ideal to the English imagination. John Raymond wrote of the Villa D’Este (fig. 1) as an aspirational model, of something that he wished to translate for his own ‘Countrey seat’[4]. For Coryate, the Giusti Gardens (fig. 2) were a novel propostion ‘contrived with as admirable curiosity as ever I saw’[5] and the master of Wilton House was able to bring his own garden up to date in the newest style along with Sir Thomas Hoby (1530-1566), who, on his return from Italy added Italianate stylings of both house and garden to Blissham in Berkshire[6].

Fig 1. Bird’s-eye plan view of the the Villa d’Este and gardens (Tivoli) in 1560-1575.

At this point in history, the compendium of ideas offered by Italy could be extracted and sampled – financial resources allowing. Private gentlemen of significant means were able to indulge in the fashions of the Renaissance, which brings into focus the prodigy houses of the Earl of Leicester, Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Willoughby. Theobalds, in particular, was styled by the enthusiast Lord Burghley, who installed contrivances of the Italian garden such as fountains, grottoes and classical motif[7]. All these were added as a part of the courtly glitter that attracted Elizabeh I to such residences. An understanding of the Italian Renaissance villa and gardens and its later influence in the English court ought to ground any study in Inigo Jones and formal garden design thereafter. Italy offered a view to drama, the classical sculptures of antiquity, architectural features, innovative water tricks and the principles of planting. Indeed, it was the division and adornment of a space that anchored the formal garden in conception, planning and implementation.

Fig. 2: Giusti Garden, Verona.

A careful balance between ornamentation and geometric exactitude in gardening reflected the defining principles of Alberti and Vitruvius ‘architect-gardener’. The architect-gardener, in design, would work according to firmitas, utilitas and venustas (i.e. strength of foundation, usefulness and beauty) and, as formal theory would have it, a design would be ‘good’ if it had been implemented using one’s faculties of knowledge and logic[8]. This stringent view towards gardening implies that there should be a protocol in place for proper garden design – something on which the great formal gardens depended for their very existence in the 17th century. Groen charts the development and endurance of gardening as a formal activity, practised among ‘aficianodos’[9] who produced notable exemplars. When considering gardening as both a logic and an art, the work of Inigo Jones could perhaps be a precursor to those ‘great gardens’ executed in Baroque England.

The Elizabethan Prodigy House here…
Marie Antoinette at Versailles here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!

Sources Used:

[1] John Dixon Hunt, ‘My patterne for a countrey seat’, in The Italian Renaissance Garden in the English Imagination, 1600-1750 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 104.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Colin Platt, The Great Rebuildings Of Tudor And Stuart England: Revolutions In Architectural Taste (Routledge, 2013),p. 120.

[4] John Dixon Hunt, ‘The British Garden and the Grand Tour’, Studies in the History of Art, 25 (1989), p. 333.

[5] H. Wantanabe-O’Kelly, Court Culture in Dresden (Springer, 2002), p. 68.

[6] Hunt, ‘My patterne for a countrey seat’, p. 103.

[7] Martin Andrews, ‘Theobalds Palace: The Gardens and Park’, Garden History, 21(1993), p. 130.

[8] Zahid Sardar, New Garden Design: Inspiring Private Paradises (Gibbs Smith, 2009), P. 21.

[9]  Lucia H. Albers, ‘The Perception of Gardening as Art’, Garden History, 19 (1991), p. 163.

2 thoughts on “Formal Gardens in the 17th Century: Ideas from Italy

    1. Thank you so much Jo, I’m so happy that you enjoyed reading this as much as I did discovering new ideas! You can certainly spot them at some National Trust properties when you know what you’re looking for. I have a couple of other posts on the way that relate to gardens so with any luck you will hopefully enjoy those also!


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