The Italian Renaissance saw a dramatic development in the whole concept of gardens. In the early fifteenth century, as trade started to flourish again, merchants in the hot city of Florence began to build villas or farms on the surrounding vineyard hills where it was cooler. The earliest Renaissance gardens were at first in the formal, enclosed tradition but gradually a view was allowed into the garden through a hole in the wall. As a natural view became more important the enclosures were swept away and the hill side gardens were allowed to stride down their sites through olive groves and vineyards.
During the sixteenth century the initiative passed to Rome, where the architect Bramante designed a papal garden within the Vatican. This was forerunner of the High Renaissance style, with a magnificent arrangement of steps and terraces, which became a prototype for everything which became followed. From then on gardens became even more ostentatious in design, with terraces at different levels retained by walls and interconnected by grand staircases. Water again became a major feature, as it was in Islamic gardens. It was pressurized and used spectacularly, progressing down an incline or displayed in an elaborate fountain. While these Renaissance gardens were still places for cool retreat, with shade and water of great importance, they were also showplaces where the site and its vegetation were deliberately manipulated. The Italians were really the first to make decorative use of plants, with hedges, for example, used to link the house and garden structurally.
The Renaissance movement originating in Italy spread northwards, together with increased knowledge about plants and their cultivation. In France the small formal gardens within the walls of moated chateaux moved outside, becoming much grander in scale and scope. Unlike the Italian hill side gardens, the French ones were flat and straight, most of them situated in the flat marshy areas to the south and west of Paris. The style was still very geometric, as the original pattern of formal beds within a grid system of paths was simply repeated in order to enlarge the garden.
In the seventeenth century Andre le Notre changed French garden planning significantly. With the opening of the chateau garden at Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1661 he established a style which was to influence the whole of Europe for a century. His gardens were still basically formal and geometric in character but they became much more elaborate and interesting with long magnificent vistas, pools or rectangular canals and grand parterres. Parterres were both larger in scale and more intricate in detail than earlier knot gardens. Another distinctive characteristic was the hedge lined avenues which fanned out through the surrounding forest known as pattes d’oie (goose feet). Le Notre was appointed royal gardener to Louis XIV and the garden at Versailles is probably his best known creation. In concept it was a vast outdoor drawing room, intended for the entertainment of a court of thousands.
Though most of Le Notre’s gardens were unashamedly for show they were still not places for colour or floral display; canalized and playing water, clipped and trained vegetation, statuary and elaborate parterres provided the visual interest, along with people walking about in them. This stylized layout, originally designed for large chateaux, was adapted to quite manor house. Like the grand Italian gardens, as they became out of scale with the use of the individual, a smaller secret garden had to be created within them for family use.
At this stage garden design was fairly international in character and more or less uniform throughout Europe. The Germans imitated the Italian Renaissance style but readily switched to the grand geometric French style when it became dominant. The main historical contribution of Germany has been a numerical one – in the sixteenth century there were more gardens in Germany than any other country in Europe – and a certain exaggeration of the elements in any style they adopted. The French formal style of gardening also flourished in the sandy soil of Holland, on a smaller and less sophisticated scale but with more emphasis on hedges, fantastic topiary and decorative planting. Their box-edged formal beds were filled with tulips in the spring, brought back from the Middle East. The Dutch were responsible, through their trading and through their rise as a colonial power, for the introduction of much imported plant material – from China, America, South Africa and many other countries. They introduced the lilac, the pelargonium and the chrysanthemum into Europe and popularized tulips and many other bulbs.
In the same way that English medieval gardens remained pale counterparts of the elegant and colourful enclosures found in Europe, the gardens of English royalty and aristocracy developed on the lines of Italian and French Renaissance layouts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were, however, less rigorously formal, since the English climate is more conductive to mixed plating. There was also a developing interest in horticulture and a new emphasis on flowers grown for their appearance rather than for culinary and medicinal use.
One of the first gardens in the grand formal style was Hampton Court Palace, later emulated by all Tudor nobility. The flower beds were laid out in a knot garden pattern and other characteristics included mazes, labyrinths, gazebos or pavilions, topiary, sundials, trellis and arbours. Vegetable gardens were usually walled and separate from the main garden. After 1660 the influence of Le Notre made itself felt briefly: grand parterres replaced simple knots and vast lakes and canals replaced gentle fountain, while broad beech-lined avenues stretched out to the horizon. Though the English could not match the Italians or French designers, not the Dutch as growers, the closely-cut lawn was one feature of English gardens which attracted international admiration.
The seventeenth century was a time for pioneers on the English gardening scene. The first gardening text books appeared, the interest in horticulture increased and a great search for new plants began. The earliest botanic gardens were opened and there was an increasing use of orangeries and conservatoires to protect tender plants. Men like London and Wise set up the first commercial nurseries and began selling plants throughout the land.