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Topiary Gardens in Italy

We know that the Ancient Romans had topiary from the written works of Pliny the Elder at the time of the Emperor Augustus although it may well have preceded that. By the end of the First Century AD it was popular in the gardens of the wealthy and if you go to Pompeii, near Naples then you will see that the garden of the House of the Vettii has been restored with clipped box planted in the same spots as where roots where found of the originals after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It spread throughout the Empire as Roman colonists took with them the tools and skills of their trade partly to make the new lands feel like home but partly to announce that civilisation had arrived.


Like most fashions topiary ebbed and flowed but it was during the Renaissance with a rebirth of all things ancient that it became to dominate Italian gardening and establish a style in the minds of gardeners ever since known as, not surprisingly, the Italian Style. This style became the template for many other gardens in Europe and later beyond for several centuries. Clipped herbs and shrubs were used to make geometric patterns and there was much use of statement planting in pots. Mazes also became popular originally thought to be based on a religious Christian zeal but in most cases as places of fun, challenge or sexual assignation. Water was also popular in combination.

By the time of the Baroque in the Seventeenth Century Italian gardens had grown even more elaborate with mythical grottoes and fantastical water features which required hydrological engineering as well as horticultural skill. Box began to be used again as there was a generally held opinion in Europe before that time that it had an unpleasant smell.



This translates as beautiful island and although the Italians are prone to hyperbole this description is almost an understatement. Whether you look at it from the shoreline of Lake Maggiore at Stresa (in the north of the country)  or actually on the island itself you won’t be disappointed. It forms one  of the Borromean Islands named after the Borromeo family of bankers and Carlo the Third paid for the palace and gardens to be designed by an architect from Milan in 1632.

See my photographs of the gardens here. Isola Bella


Cardinal Ippolito il D’Este so wanted to become Pope that he would stop at nothing to influence the families who could elect him to that post. He would impress and entertain them at his palace and spectacular gardens, complete with water fountains in Tivoli in the hills about 20 miles outside Rome. The work was begun in 1560 after many false starts and required the acquisition of large amounts of land and the demolition of several buildings. The frequent scene of lavish parties, guests would have to ascend the hill from the lower garden entrance and ascend though a sequence of more elaborate gardens as they went until finally reaching the palace at the top, suitably humbled. Today tourists enter at the top and see some of the palace before they go into the gardens but they are non the less spectacular for all that. Sadly the Cardinal never did become Pope though.

See my photographs of the gardens here. Villa d’Este


You probably won’t need to go anywhere else to find a more perfect example of an Italian Garden. Not the biggest in the country but certainly not the smallest either. It has the parterres and cypress trees you would expect and has a viewing platform at the top. It’s a healthy walk across the river from the famous amphitheatre in the centre of town but it is well worth it as the view from the river bridge as you approach it is spectacular. The entrance to the garden itself is unprepossessing but inside it all takes your breath away. The renaissance gardens were first planted in 1580 and are seen by many to be one of the finest examples of an Italian garden in the country.

See my photographs of the gardens here. Giardino Giusti


Just a few miles away from Rome, located in the small town of Vignanello, Viterbo you will find Castello Ruspoli. The garden, considered one of the most important in Italy, was created in 1611.

For more information visit their website at


Rome is known as the the Eternal City and was started by the, err, Romans. So of course you will find lots of antiquity but also a great deal surrounding the Renaissance and the gardens influenced by that style.

For my photographs see: Rome

Giardino Giusti
Giardino Giusti, Verona

All photographs copyright Anthony Blagg

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