Palmieri Studio

Garden design in Italy

Genius loci

The main aspect that must be taken into account when designing a garden is the context in which it is inserted.

The design of gardens is far from being a discipline free from the context of place and time in which it is expressed. While in the case of architecture tout court you can give life to a project completely detached from its context in stylistic and formal terms, in the case of garden design it is much more difficult to disregard the particular conformation of the territory in which you are operating and the climatic aspects that characterize it.

In addition to the substantial conditioning by the location of the garden, by its climate and microclimate, we must add the ‘genius loci’, in other words the spirit of the place that was so important in the Greek and Roman gardens and that will permeate every green space that is harmoniously inserted in its context.

Unless you conceive the garden as an environment completely closed in on itself, the idea which leads the construction of most western gardens and which is inherent in the etymology of the term ‘garden’, it is impossible not to take into account the conditioning of the environment on the style of the garden.

To better understand how the territory has always influenced the creation of green spaces, it is useful to make some reference to the history of the garden.

In the footsteps of the Roman garden, the Italian garden can be seen as the direct heir: it was born at the beginning of the Renaissance period as a hill garden, differentiating itself from the genres that will appear in the following centuries and impose themselves in Europe.

The style of the classic French and the English garden reflects the predominant conformation of the territory in these countries.

The large French garden of the seventeenth century extend over huge areas, in flat spaces obtained from endless wooded territory. The peculiar elements of the French style are the superhuman dimensions, the possibility to see at a glance the entire garden that is lost to the horizon, the contrast between the ordered formal spaces and the surrounding forests that constitute the visible limit of human intervention on ungoverned nature.

The eighteenth-century English landscape garden is built in gently undulating territories, occupied by large grassy areas intended for grazing.

The naturalness of the English style is obtained with the presence of groups of trees placed between verdant lawns, with the lack of any evident formal setting and with the absence of a clear separation between garden and countryside, obtained for example through the absence of fences and visible boundaries that are replaced by ‘ha-ha’ walls, the invisible moat that prevents flocks from devastating the garden.

Obviously, the aforementioned garden models are also the expression of a philosophical vision of the world and an idea of art that the garden had to express.

In the case of the French garden it is the idea of the dominion obtained by human intelligence over chaotic nature, a reflection of the absolute power of the Sun King. The garden then becomes a theater, a place for the exibition of power in which the selected souls from the highest aristocracy perform as actors engaged in representing the rituals of court life.

When it comes to the naturalist garden, it is a matter of embodying the idea inspired by the model of the Chinese garden and the atmospheres evoked by the typical landscape painting of the seventeenth century, that is, a more unconstrained and autonomous nature, mirror of a society less restricted in rigid class relations as was the English one at the time.

So, we can say that the theoretical elements underlying the various styles of garden have been substantially expressed in a specific way as a function of the shape of the places and of the climate in which they have found realization.

The same ideas, transposed into a different context, would inevitably have originated different gardens.

The garden in the hills

Coming to Italy, during the insecure centuries of the Middle Age gardens consisted of productive spaces or places of delight included within castles and fortified palaces. Before them, during the era of the barbarian invasions, the garden had survived in the nucleus of the cloister of the Benedictine monasteries and in the simple form of bothanical garden and orchard, elements always present in the religious complexes such as abbeys, convents and monasteries.

During the 15th century, the rediscovery of the classic models and the greater social security led to the return of country villas inspired by the remains of the ancients, and going to reiterate the theories expressed by Vitruvius and other classical authors.

The garden regains a close relationship with architecture as it had already happened in ancient Rome, subject of a design work similar to what is done for the villa where it has to be put in service.

Renaissance villas are built near the city, on the hills that offer healthy air and better climatic and hygienic conditions. The creation of gardens in hilly areas decisively influences the style and construction characteristics.

These type of garden will frequently include terraces and forecourts necessary to make usable a steep area, retaining walls enriched by niches in which to house ancient statues and by caves and nymphaea, panoramic sights and staircases that connect the various levels of the garden.

It is also necessary to have water both for the villa and its occupants, and for the life of the garden.

In a terraced garden the presence of water cannot be static.

The difference in altitude between the various parts of the garden will ensure that the water is always in motion, flowing from the top to the lower parts of the garden and giving life to water stairs, waterfalls and fountains with spectacular jets. It must be taken into account that until the 16th century there were no pumps that could effectively convey water into the garden. All the water games and irrigation systems were made using gravity, thanks to a very wise use of hydraulics and an efficient use of water, exploited throughout its path from the top to the bottom of the garden.

Large expanses of quiet water which act as huge mirrors reflecting the sky and the light, are so typical of the French garden but not so for the Italian one.

So the creation of gardens cannot be separated from the context in which it takes place: for this reason the analysis of the place is the first essential phase of garden design.

The climatic conditions and the type of building materials available in the area affect the architecture of buildings. But as long as it meets specific functional and housing needs, a building can be constructed in an extremely loose way and free from the context in which it is placed.

The creation of gardens takes place by operating directly on the ground and consists in giving a new look to the existing landscape.

It is impossible, both for technical and economic reasons, to twist the conformation of the surrounding environment, which will inevitably define the character and structure of the garden that we are going to design.

For this reason, the architectural variety that we can notice in our cities does not have an equivalent approach during the creation of gardens.

The gardens in the Marche region

The Marche, as well as much of the peninsula and in particular central Italy, are mainly characterized by a hilly landscape with an evident agricultural trend. Leaving aside the creation of gardens on the coast, which presents specific problems, in the province of Ascoli Piceno, Fermo, Macerata and Ancona the gardens are mostly made in hilly areas.

The province of Pesaro and Urbino, more similar to the Umbria region, represents an exception, being harsher in its orography, more rich of woods and less characterized by the typical geometric shape of the agricultural landscape so common on the rest of the region. Therefore the garden designer in the Marche region will not be able to escape the comparison with the typical problems of the Italian garden.

Designing a garden in the twenty-first century obviously presents different challenges than in the past: new answers must be given to similar problems.

The contemporary garden must reflect the values of modernity, first of all respect for the environment and sustainability in the use of natural resources.

As in the past, it is still necessary to shape the land to define the areas of the garden and to allow its livability in all its parts. In creating terraces and paths, however, we will try to avoid the use of materials with excessive environmental impact.

The creation of terraces, balustrades and stone staircases will be replaced by the use of lighter and less expensive materials, which limit the waterproofing of surfaces and give a contemporary look to the garden.

Among other things we must not forget the major constraints existing today in building artifacts in the garden, whereby whatever solution in the past delegated to stone can now be resolved with different methodologies, such as armed lands or other naturalistic engineering solutions.

The design of modern gardens

The modern garden must express the taste and the personality of those who live there, and therefore it cannot uncritically imitate the classic style, which reflected the aesthetic sense and the needs of the clients of the past.

The decorative elements typical of past eras, such as statues, friezes and vases, should be used sparingly and declined in modern forms.

Any type of embellishment should be introduced only if it is functional to create the atmosphere we are looking for, avoiding any form of ostentation that can lead to a poor taste.

The decoration for its own sake makes the garden go out of fashion within a few years, with the result that it will no longer be able to excite and communicate with those who live it.

A separate role is played by the presence of art in the garden. Here it is not a question of decoration, but trying to establish a union and a significant relationship between the work of art and the garden that houses it, in a relationship from which both come out valued and transfigured.

The garden is radically transformed by the presence of works of art inside it, which decisively change its value and meanings.

In the same way the emotional impact given by a work of art ‘en plein air’ is very different, and sometimes enormously increased, compared to the fruition of the work in the more aseptic context of a museum.

But this has nothing to do with the introduction into the garden of classical statues or other elements that mimic formal stereoypes now definitively faded away.

The garden must mediate between the eternal element of nature and the ever-changing human culture, the latter in continuous evolution even when dealing with traditional legacies.

For example, the garden of a farmhouse must harmonize with the agricultural environment, from which also the farmhouse draws inspiration.

However, just as the house must respond to the needs of modern living, reinterpreting the tradition in an innovative way, so the garden must be placed in its own context without repeating models of the past.

The landscape architect must be able to make a modern use of natural elements such as plants, and a natural use of materials that are also innovative in the built parts.

Above all, the designer of the greenery will have to be able to give life to a space that is inhabited by those who live there, as it was in the past. A space that interprets current life style and is not lost in the stereotyped imitation of past examples.

The garden must bring people back into contact with nature and in tune with its slow and deep rhythms. This is possible only if his project is functional and responsive to the needs of today’s life.

In conceiving and creating modern gardens, we must therefore look at past history to draw inspiration from them, but the same problems faced in the past, must be resolved by the garden creator with innovative and contemporary responses.

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