Italian Garden Style

During the Renaissance, the renewed interest in art, literature, business, and philosophy spread to the outdoors. Looking to the past, the Italians were influenced by the Greeks and Romans. The design principles they uncovered in their study of the ancients led directly to the Italian landscape style: the use of classic forms, columns, symmetry, and sculpture.

The classic Italian garden utilizes a single or double axis to divide the entire site. An axis can be thought of as a dividing line creating equal parts on both sides of the garden space. Symmetry and balance are paramount in the Italian style. Plantings, walkways, and other elements are balanced on either side. If six trees are planted on the right side, six are planted on the left. The formality of this type of garden makes it easy to lay out.

Hills and mountainous terrain surround the major centers of culture and commerce in Italy, and it was in these hilly environs that the Italian style developed. Slopes and cascading water play a major part in the style. Since wood was a rare resource in Italy, most constructed garden elements were made of local rock. Although marble and travertine may not be readily available in the United States, concrete and native stone are easily substituted.

A landscape in the true Italian style fits wonderfully into a sloped or hilly yard unless the yard is very irregular and can’t easily be made symmetrical. Multilevel terraces joined by steps are typical of the Italian villa and garden. Some of the early Italian gardens used ramps instead of stairs to connect one level to another. This made for easy strolling throughout the garden. A masonry or stucco house topped with a clay-tiled roof is compatible with this type of garden.

A wide variety of plant materials suits an Italian-style garden. Typical trees include Italian cypress ( Cupressus sempervirens), olive (Olea europaea), and citrus. Shrubs include boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), privet (Ligustrum japonicum), holly (Ilex species), and yew (Taxus baccata). Common vines are creeping fig (Ficus pumila) and ivy (Hedera species). Lantana (Lantana montevidensis) and dwarf rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus’) are common ground covers.

Simple parterres — the formal geometric plantings laid out with clipped boxwood hedges and often containing brightly colored flowers within their borders — are a feature of the classical Italian garden.