In the Italian style

Italian influences can be recreated in gardens of any scale, writes Cholmondeley Castle Head Gardener, Barry Grain

The Italian Garden, Godinton Garden, KentThe Italian Garden, Compton Acres, DorsetTopiary, Isola Bella, Italy

Italian style is all around us

When we think of Italian gardens we usually think of grand Renaissance gardens such as Villa d’Este and Villa Lante. Indeed the movement which started in Italy in the 16th century spread through the rest of Europe and changed the way we view gardens forever.

Renaissance gardeners were inspired by the Roman gardens of antiquity, which were themselves inspired by the Greeks. Even gardens and landscapes we think of as typically British have been influenced by classical times: think of the use of follies, temples and specimen planting as focal points within 'Capability’ Brown's landscapes.

Within these Italian Renaissance gardens, the use of water, statuary, symmetry, topiary, formal hedging, and focal points are all key. The principles behind these elements are at work in garden design the world over, even in a very informal garden such as Cholmondeley Castle. 

The good news is, Italian influences can easily be recreated at home to fit any scale. It may seem daunting, but with some understanding and endeavour, superb garden spaces can be created even with modest budgets.

Balance and symmetry

Villa Lante. Image: Sabatino Urzo

Balance and symmetry in design and planting were key to creating the feeling of ‘manmade order’. A garden's boundaries would first be determined, with the great trick being to ‘borrow’ the surrounding landscape for maximum visual impact, and yet have the garden completely separate from it.

The main axes were used not only to divide the garden but also to encourage the visitor to a particular vista. Evergreen structure is always useful in any garden as it holds the framework of the garden together during winter, and throughout Italy pines, cypresses and holm oaks (Quercus ilex) are used extensively to screen, give height, create depth and add vertical layers.

The Trentham Estate, Stoke-on-TrentWe all think of clean geometric lines as a feature of Italian gardens and rightly so, where every inch of space was subject to manmade order. The parterres at Villa Lante (pictured above) are a classic example, with beautifully precise lines and shapes.

While most of us don't have the luxury of gardening on a grand scale, it isn't difficult to re-create the 'essence' of this effect.

You can use a range of plants for this type of low hedging. Buxus sempervirens (box) is commonly used in the UK, but you could also try:

  • Ilex crenata (box-leaved holly)
  • Ligustrum delavayanum (a small-leaved Chinese privet)
  • Myrtus communis (common myrtle; only suitable for the mildest parts of the UK) 

The design of a parterre is very individual - be creative and play with a range of shapes and heights, filling your design with bedding plants or seasonal bulbs as you prefer.     

Water: poetry and drama

Villa d'Este

Water was hugely important in garden design during the Renaissance because of its natural ability to create mood and drama. The artists and enlightened thinkers of the day were inspired by the poetic qualities of water (and also, to a degree, shade), as both were naturally in short supply during the hot summers.

Still ponds, often containing fish, were used to give a relaxed air, while fountains depicting classical scenes and figures were added to give theatre and sound where a more dramatic scene was desired.

The Italian Garden, Compton Acres, DorsetOne garden where the varied use of water is best displayed is at Villa d’Este in Tivoli (above). Seen as one of the finest examples (if not the finest) of a Renaissance garden, it has tranquil fish ponds at the lower levels and water 'stairs' leading the visitor up the hillside to incredible fountains and cascades where the real theatre is created.  

At Cholmondeley, too, water is intrinsic to the character of the garden, and one of the most relaxing spaces is the lily pond terrace. Just below the castle, this has simple planting with colour at various times of the year but none so bold as to change the calm mood. Climbing roses on the castle walls offer a nice backdrop while two specimen Lavandula x intermedia ‘Old English’ add character at the head of the rill.

Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, Penstemon ‘Hidcote Pink’, and autumn flowering Nerine bowdenii complete the planting. The focus is on the ornamental pond, its many coloured waterlilies and fish. At the head of the rill is a lion's head fountain which adds to the classical feel. To create this kind of feel a delicate touch and simplicity are key.

Statuary and ornament

Isola Bella, Italy

Statuary is strongly associated with Italian gardens. Statues have long been used throughout Italy to evoke and embody classical Rome and its gods. The emperor Hadrian started this on a huge scale with his villa at Tivoli, inspiring almost every Italian garden since.

Statuary can be a great asset in the garden. It can The Italian Garden, Hever Castle, Kentgive visual impact, either subtle or bold. It can also act as a focal point, leading the eye through a garden (sometimes working with other garden structures such as topiary, or as part of a series of sculptures).

Placement is crucial for maximum effect. Statuary is often at its boldest when sited with formal hedging and topiary. If you want a more subtle effect, you can use more relaxed planting to soften the visual impact. When placing any statue, consider what aspect will show it to its best advantage: morning or evening sun, or perhaps even shade?  

Other types of ornaments are just as important and can be used in the same way as statuary. Decorative urns, obelisks and ornamental containers planted with high impact plants such as Agapanthus, Nerium (oleander), Laurus nobilis (bay laurel) and Buxus topiary, or citrus and olive can all be used to elegant or dramatic effect.

Planted containers are particularly effective for lining a walkway to lead the wanderer, or to mark an entrance.   

Topiary: living statuary

Iford Manor, the Peto Garden

Topiary essentially became a living form of statuary and was another element of the manmade order within the garden.

Pots of topiary at Isola Bella, ItalyWe often think of topiary as elaborate shapes like peacocks and spirals, but the more common form in Italian gardens would be trained Buxus, Myrtus, Laurus or Taxus, tightly clipped into simple, bold shapes.

Orbs, columns, cones and domes are often seen and can be used in a variety of effective ways: 

  • as focal points to lead the eye around the garden
  • to provide balance (for example, matching pairs)
  • either side of a walkway, to give a sense of drama while leading on to a key garden feature.

Gardens to explore, here and abroad

Statuary at Renishaw Hall, DerbyshireThere are plenty of gardens you can visit to gain inspiration on the Italian style - in Italy of course, but also around the UK. 

The following RHS Partner Gardens are an excellent starting point. All offer free entry to RHS members throughout the open period or at selected times.  

Arley Arboretum and Gardens, Worcestershire

Compton Acres, Dorset

Drummond Gardens

Dyffryn Gardens and Arboretum, Vale of Glamorgan
(Pompeian Garden)

Godinton House & Gardens, Kent

Hever Castle & Gardens, Kent

Iford Manor, The Peto Garden, Bradford-on-Avon

Isola Bella and Isola Madre, Lake Maggiore, Italy 

Mapperton Gardens, Dorset

Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire (pictured, above right)

The Trentham Estate, Stoke-on-Trent  

Looking for more design ideas? 

You can find more design ideas and inspiration on our dedicated Garden Design pages


Meet the author

Barry Grain is Head Gardener at Cholmondeley Castle, an RHS Partner Garden in Cheshire. He has a lifelong passion for plants and gardens, particularly Italian gardens - their themes, style, history, and their influence on gardens around the world.

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