There are at least thirty botanical gardens in Italy and every one
of them is exquisite. Italy was a historical first in respect to botanical
gardens. The Vatican garden in Rome was founded during
the 13th century and the Salerno garden
in the 14th century. Neither exists today, but many
other botanical gardens can be found scattered across the country.
Above Azalea at the Vatican Garden
Originally, the function of botanical gardens was to display plants
for medical use. Examples are the University botanical
gardens in Florence, Padua and Pisa, which were created in the 16th
century. Most of Italy’s botanical gardens are much younger, being created
in the 18th and 19th centuries.
If you visit several Italian gardens, you will soon realize that
their pre-Renaissance features are still alive today. In most, there
is a distinct geometric pattern. The basic garden is designed in squares,
and then separated by pebble-covered paths. Hospitality plays an important
role. In spring, visitors are welcomed with vin santo (sweet wine,)
pecorino cheese, fava beans and a tour of the garden.
The rolling hills and lush valleys surrounding the gardens give visitors
the opportunity to view the gardens from a hillside perch. Vine-covered
pergolas offer a shady place to enjoy the company of friends over a
Find a second story balcony from which to view a maze, where at one
time monks ambled among a tangle of trimmed boxwood. This part of the
garden is a place to enjoy a few minutes of solitude to meditate
Church garden in Italy
Many classic Italian gardens include an herb garden,
once called a “garden of simples.” Here you will find herbs growing
that have healing properties, including summer savory, garlic, tansy
and borage. These herbs are used in hundreds of Italian recipes every
day and are thought to promote health and a sense of well-being.
Seldom will you see annual bedding plants in Italian gardens. The
focus tends to be on Mediterranean plants, which can be mounded to reduce
the need for water. The color of the leaves of these plants range from
green-gray to silver, which lessens the need for chlorophyll. Mediterranean
plants are dormant in summer when water is scarce, which allows them
to fit perfectly into the gardens.
Italian gardens are planted for food and fragrance. A stroll along
the winding pebbled paths is an incredible experience. The buzz of bees,
the trickle of water, the fragrance of the blossoms and the bright splashes
of color is a feast for the senses. Seek out a resting place under the
grape-covered arbors to enjoy the view of olive trees and vineyards.
Water is considered precious and it plays and important
role in the design of Italian gardens. It is almost always a focal point
in the form of reflecting pools and fountains. Water is nature’s music
and brings motion and birds to the garden.
Statues have a prominent place even in the most
formal gardens. Not all are sculpted of rock. Cypress, laurel, boxwood
and myrtle are sculpted into the forms of animals and are placed strategically
as borders or along paths.
Orchards are an integral part of Italian gardens.
Apricots, almonds, figs, olive and other fruit bearing trees are often
enclosed within ancient, crumbling walls. The soil on Italy’s rocky
slopes has good drainage and is a perfect place for olive trees to thrive,
as they have for centuries.
In Sorrento, the air is alive with the fragrance
of citrus. Lemon trees grow everywhere and are eaten
by the locals, skin and all. Lemons are used in sachets, liqueur, and
perfumes and to flavor food. Kitchenware is adorned with the bright
yellow fruit and it is often the subject of still-life paintings.
The gardens of Italy are enchanting, beautiful and exquisite forms
of art. They are pools of tranquility where you can sneak away for a
moment of solitude – balm for the soul.
by Mary M. Alward