Your Ultimate Guide to Italian Gardens
Let the regal, manicured gardens of Italy inspire your own backyard space.
Landscaping your backyard is a big, fun undertaking. But just like starting on a home renovation, you need to gather inspiration before you do anything else. To do so, we encourage you to think outside the local garden box. We love looking to the polished and symmetrical gardens of France, the lush, overflowing flower beds synonymous with the English countryside, and, of course, the regal and manicured gardens of Italy for ideas. If you're thinking about setting up your own Italian-inspired garden at home, here are some of the key design takeaways to remember, plus a quick history lesson.
Know the History
Art and design exploded during the Italian Renaissance, giving the world the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa, and this garden aesthetic. Aristocrats in the 15th and 16th centuries displayed their wealth and power with majestic villas connected to symmetrical garden "rooms" that were divided by ivy-covered stone walls, sculpted boxwood hedges, and cypress trees that stretched skyward like arrows. Within each space were hallmarks like romantic pergolas, ornate fountains, mosaics, grottoes, and tranquil reflective pools. Flowers like canna, nasturtium, and sweet-smelling jasmine, which thrive in the hot, dry Mediterranean climate (and do well year-round in southern zones, and in the summer months in the rest of the U.S.), supplied color.
By the 1700s, when tourists from other countries started visiting, these fluttery blossoms had faded away, leaving stately green spaces that continue to captivate. As Edith Wharton wrote in her design treatise Italian Villas and Their Gardens, travelers would return home with "eyes and imagination full of the ineffable Italian garden magic."
Learn the Lingo
There are two terms to know when it comes to Italian gardens: Pergola and Bosco. Pergolas, which date back to ancient Roman times, are tunnel-like structures often covered with vining plants, like climbing roses or honeysuckle. They were meant to guide visitors and provide shade and coolness. The name Bosco comes from the Italian word for wood, and describes a grouping of trees, often framing decorative structures and statues. The Sacro Bosco, in Bomarzo, Italy, is a classic example.
Bring It Home
For a touch of Tuscany in your own yard, create small defined spaces (your "rooms") using manicured shrubs like boxwood, or plant a terra-cotta pot or two with a lemon tree. We like Meyer-lemon trees from Four Winds Growers. The intoxicating scent of the flowers and bright fruit will delight through the warmer months. Just plant them in one of the gorgeous, classic rolled-rim terra-cotta pots from Seibert & Rice for a simple yet statement-making look. If you live in an area that freezes, be sure to move them into a sunny room for the winter.
Italian Gardens to Visit
If you're really feeling inspired, plan a trip to one of the many stateside Italian-inspired gardens for even more ideas. You don't have to go far thanks to the Biltmore House & Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina. This Vanderbilt estate, tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, has an Italianate room with three striking pools. Another local option is the Mount, Edith Wharton's home garden in Lenox, Massachusetts. The novelist, who believed landscapes should be as architectural as houses, drew heavily from her time in Italy. You can also get a little sun while taking in culture at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami. They're world-famous for their glamorous pools, stone terraces, and grottoes.
Should a trip to Italy be in your future (lucky you!), don't miss the stunning walk of a hundred fountains at Villa d'Este in Tivoli. And whatever you do, don't even try leaving without a visit to the epic Villa Lante in Bagnaia, which has remained virtually the same since the 1600s.