History of Gardens

Garden designs have developed over centuries to reflect people's beliefs, social structure and needs, and in response to plants and climate.

Human life is impossible without plant life, thus nature is the lifeblood of civilization, and gardens form an essential part of every creation myth. Understanding Nature's rythms, taming it or living in balance with it, selecting useful and beautiful plants and keeping out predators and weeds - this is what defines people and cultures, the creation of a garden. Forms may vary, from the Greeks' sacred groves to the Roman 'hortus', but over centuries gardens have developed alongside humans as enclosed areas of cultivation, close to the house, at one remove from agricultural land and woodland. The layout, the plants used, the features of garden, all hold something symbolical or sacred, which is celebrated in all religions.

garden of eden

Gothic image of the garden of Eden, with four rivers running through it

 In the Bible, the reference point of the three main religions of the Mediterranean basin, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the garden of Eden appears as the first point of contact between God and humans, and the features of this garden form the basis for all gardens designed since. 

Garden history is a fascinating field, which traces the development of gardens over time, and how they reflect the people who created them, drawing from history of art, religion, agriculture - and pretty much touching upon any aspect of human knowledge. It's not a dusty academic subject, not to me, because in every garden or plant use of today you still see echoes of this past history. Even where a civilization has vanished, its legacy can be seen in the gardens it engendered. Roman gardens form the basis for Medieval and Renaissance gardens, even if the many gods that were venerated in them were replaced by monotheistic religions - shrines to the Virgin Mary may well be taking the place of earlier shirnes to Hera, house goddess, or other household deities.

alhambra garden

Enclosure, water, and geometric lines are the hallmark of the Hispano-arab gardens of the Alhambra

 The layout of Islamic gardens to this day traces the same paths laid out in Egyptian and Roman gardens. Even garden gnomes, multicoloured icons of kitch, are the descendants of the Cupids and fauns which enlivened ancient gardens.

Religion and society don't make a garden as much as they are made by it. Our relationship with nature has always been determined by a simple fact: it's stronger than us. We strive to find a place in it, to understand it, to tame it, but there is no way we control it. Water flows down, trees grow up, seasons change - we can't change that, we can only learn how to live in harmony with it, to make it work in our designs.

secret garden villa borgese

Baroque extravanza in the secret gardens of Villa Borghese, Rome

 Gardens are also a place to display wealth, and patronage has always been essential to promote garden making. Any great garden testifies the wealth of its sponsors, such as the Medici family, great patrons of art in Tuscany since the Renaissance, and the ingenuity of of its makers - designers, gardeners, engineers, water experts. As travel, trade and colonization brought new plants to Europe, gardens were enrichened, as long as the climate - or technological advancements such as greenhouses - allowed foreign plants to acclimatize and prosper in different parts of the globe. 

So many aspects feed into the history of design, which to this day is affected by the same cultural factors of faith, wealth and technology, but can never be divorced by the most basic elements of climate, plant biology, soil and water. That's why field trips are an important part of my teaching, as gardens have to be experienced on site, and any knowledge of history has to be integrated by the capacity to observe and learn from the local environment.

 I have taught garden history in colleges since 2001, first in Oxford, then in Florence, where I've been teaching the Summer Semester for NYU at Villa La Pietra since 2005. I have gradually specialized in the history of Italian garden from Roman times onwards, but, as a practicing garden designer, always enjoy the opportunity to reach from history to the present day, and finding ancient references in contemporary design.

Copyright © 2022 Anna Piussi. All Rights Reserved. Text and images belong to Anna Piussi unless otherwise stated.