Lush, glorious and full of history, Italy’s public gardens are a sight to behold
We can list countless reasons to visit Italy. The history, of course. The food. The balmy weather, the amazing people, the exquisite craftsmanship, the landscapes and romantic villages. One gem that doesn’t get enough attention, though? Its public gardens.
They are everywhere – from tiny borghi to bustling cities – and, like all-things Italian, they are a delightful feature you shouldn’t miss when visiting the Bel Paese. Not just because they offer idyllic natural escapes: Gardens are a big part of our life and culture.
The history of Italian style gardens can be traced back to the middle ages, when King Frederick Barbarossa brought back from his travels in Turkey many plants that had never before been seen in Europe. These new plants were incorporated into existing gardens, which at that time were primarily used for growing vegetables and herbs, paving the way for the concept of the garden as a place of pleasure and recreation.
It wasn’t until the late Renaissance, however, that the Italian garden as we know it today really bloomed. Its appearance was characterized by a symmetrical and balanced design, which defined perspective spaces and scenographic wings – an effect obtained through evergreen hedges cut in geometric shapes, linear rows of trees and vegetable sculptures of various shapes created by pruning evergreen bushes (the so-called Ars topiaria).
Other recurring elements were pergolas, columns, terraces, mazes, statues and grottoes, effectively making these gardens a reflection not just of their owners’ wealth – gardens generally surrounded the palaces of noble families around Italy – but a sign of cultural refinement, too.
Because of their elegance, it wasn’t long before Italian-style gardens began influencing gardening across the continent, inspiring the romantic, refined French gardens and, in complete contrast, the wild English gardens.
The first Italian geometric garden is traditionally attributed to the genius of Niccolò Tribolo, who worked in Florence on the gardens of the villa di Castello, of the villa Corsini and then on the Boboli Gardens, providing a model which was then developed scenically in the seventeenth and XVIII.
But travel from Ischia to Padova, and you’ll find plenty more examples.
Here are just a few of the best public gardens in Italy.
The Orto Botanico di Padova, Veneto
Europe’s oldest public park, the Orto Botanico di Padova dates back to 1545, when it was founded by Venetian nobleman Nicolò Tron. In addition to its impressive collection of plants and trees, it boasts sculptures from artists like Michelangelo, Donatello and Titian among its manicured lawns, representing the perfect union of nature and art. Today, the garden’s layout reflects its original purpose as a place for students at Padua University to study medicine, anatomy and botany, and makes for an unmissable sight if you happen to visit the city.
Barberini Garden, Castel Gandolfo, Lazio
The former pope’s summer palace, Castel Gandolfo opened its gardens to the public only in 2014, and we’re so glad it did. Located on the south-west shore of Lake Albano and built over the ruins of an ancient Roman villa, Albanum Domitiani, they feature statues, fountains and an orangery, as well as a perfectly pruned Italian parterre and a model farm that grows produce for the pope’s table. Best of it all, they can even be admired on a rainy day, thanks to a Roman cryptoporticus, or covered passageway.
Villa Reale di Marlia, Lucca, Tuscany
The Royal Garden of Marlia, whose first owner was Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Princess Elisa Baciocchi, flaunts a luxurious 17th century green lawn, the teatro di verzura, which rolls from the Renaissance villa down to a picturesque lake. There are sculptures, trees, shrubs, camellias and boxwood hedge walks, as well as a colourful Spanish garden where a network of irrigation channels feeds a series of stunning fountains.
Giardini La Mortella, Ischia, Campania
Located on our beloved Ischia, home to Mezzatorre Hotel & Thermal Spa, Giardini La Mortella is a botanical garden that offers visitors a chance to explore the natural beauty of the island’s flora and fauna.
They were conceived by Susana Walton, wife of the English composer William, with the intention of creating an environment that would inspire her husband, who loved Ischia so much. The garden hosts more than 3000 species of exotic plants and brims with ponds, streams and waterways dotted with papyrus and tropical nymphs; as well as sections that recreate Japanese and Thai gardens. A large open-air amphitheatre that today hosts symphony concerts completes the idyllic paradise – and makes for one of the most romantic music venues we can think of.