Opulence and Art: The Italian Historic Gardens

“Fragments of Paradise” is the exhibition, which runs until October 16, and is dedicated to the Italian tradition of gardens, which, with one hundred and fifty works, covers the vast Italian natural heritage carved by architects, botanists and gardeners from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century XIX. It is displayed in the magnificent Royal Palace of Caserta and its gardens, one of the last examples of a princely villa born to rival Versailles. It was born as the seat of power of the House of Bourbon in Naples, designed by Luigi Vanvitelli and his son Carlos in 1752. The exhibition is an opportunity to learn about the cultural and naturalistic impact that the villa and its gardens had on Italy.

Fragments of Paradise, the exhibition curated by Tiziana Maffei, Alberta Campitelli and Alessandro Cremona, recreates the playful and light world of Italian gardens that deeply influenced the arts and customs in which artists of all disciplines participate. In the 17th century, florimania and botanical science embellished the gardens: wild flowers were replaced by ornamental plants. The custom of decorating houses with flowers and plants is born, and delicacies such as tapestries and tableware inspired by the gardens are created. But above all, landscape painting and still life arose.

Gardens made sumptuous open-air banquets fashionable, inspiring an entire body of literature that defined the etiquette, recipes, decorations, and dishes designed to wow guests. Scalco alla modern (1692) by Antonio Latini is the pinnacle of this genre. Then the custom of drinking cold wine and using ice was born. Hiellers were large semi-underground architectural structures with a circular plan where ice was stored during the winter.

Throne room in the Royal Palace of Caserta. Photo The weekly trip

The exhibition highlights the importance of water in the reproduction of the villas, which were built near rivers, lakes or aqueducts to irrigate them and to organize the spectacular water games of the fountains. In the eighteenth century, English gardens replaced the rational geometry of Italian or French gardens and a freer contact with nature was established.

The Medici Villas

Loved by the aristocracy in ancient Rome, the villa as a home of rest and status reappeared in Tuscany. Since the beginning of the 14th century, wealthy people had a house in the village; but it was classical studies in the Renaissance that led to its formal and conceptual recovery. Leon Battista Alberti’s great treatise, De re aedificatoria (1452), included the first typological parameters of the villa, resulting from a direct study of ancient Roman monuments and texts. Alberti also had the merit of juxtaposing the prestige of country villas with that of city palaces, unknown in the Middle Ages.

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Like other noble Florentine families, Cosimo Stari, the Medici patriarch, asked his architect Michelozzo in the mid-15th century to convert the family’s medieval fortresses into villas: Trebio, Caffaggiolo and Careggi. After the need for defense decreased, the former fortresses were opened to nature, ennobled with gardens and other accessories.

Medici loved villas. Located on the outskirts of the city and on its land in northern Tuscany, they numbered seventeen at the beginning of the 17th century, as evidenced by the peculiar temple lunettes of each villa with its gardens showing their original appearance. Currently, the villas are cultural heritage declared by UNESCO.

The first to apply Alberti’s prescriptions was the Medici villa in Fiesole (1455–1457), also built by Michelozzo. Next came the Villa Poggio a Caiano in Prato, commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent to his favorite architect Giuliano da Sangallo in 1485. This became the prototype of the Renaissance villa in Italy and Europe. The villa balances the architecture with the landscape and achieves a harmonious combination between the classical tradition and the local rural architecture.

Hunting and cohabitation were their main function. The Medici and their court moved from one villa to another throughout the year, looking for the one that provided the best climate and an abundance of animals. The engravings of the Medici villas made over time were crucial in fueling the myth that the Tuscan countryside still enjoys today.

the roman villas

Rome was famous for the magnificence of its villas; numerous foreign artists have immortalized them for centuries, creating an idyllic image. Perched high on the hills in a panoramic position, they are built on terraces bordered by gardens, forests, archaeological ruins and magnificent art collections.

After a rather lukewarm start with the birth of the first villas in Rome, its popularity established itself in the mid-16th century. The first major example is the Villa del Belvedere in the Vatican (1481–1492); it is still a medieval building where Donato Bramante would later create the fabulous Belvedere courtyard with gardens and the most exquisite antique statues. However, it was again a Medici villa designed by Raffaello in 1517, known as Villa Madama and located on the slopes of Monte Mario in Rome, with which the love of villas in the city would be discovered. It was followed by spectacular villas, equally characterized by their opulence and panoramic position, the villas: Borghese, Pamphili-Doria, Corsini, to the famous Villa Albani, built in 1750 and with which this great tradition ends, to name but a few .

The villas in Veneto

In the Veneto region of northwestern Italy, the villas were an absolute success. The Istituto Regionale delle Ville Venete lists 3,400 historic villas (including the Friuli region) built between the 16th and 19th centuries. This phenomenon arises from the beginning of the fifteenth century and is related to the colonization of the terrafarm, which completely transformed the landscape, turned into productive land. Venetian villas and their gardens were not only places of entertainment and hunting, but also authentic agricultural and livestock enterprises, which provided additional support to the Venetian patriciate, in the face of the weakening of trade with the East, after the arrival of Columbus via the Americas.

Andrea Palladio (1508–80) was the great architect who created buildings known for their classical elegance and connection to their surroundings. Of the group of buildings currently attributed to him (twenty-six palazzos in the city of Vicenza and twenty-one rural villas in the Veneto, UNESCO heritage), “La Rotonda” stands out. Palladio influenced not only later Venetian architecture, but also European architecture, from Inigo Jones (1576-1652) in England and especially during Neoclassicism in the world.

In the 18th century, new smaller villas were built on the banks of the Brenta, but distinguished by luxury and glamour, born without a utilitarian function, as before, but as a real haven for leisure. The villas overlook the Brenta Canal, which connects Padua with Venice.

The playwright Carlo Goldoni, who visited them frequently, painted in at least six of his works written between 1739 and 1761 (Il prodigo, I malcontenti, La villeggiatura and Trilogia della villeggiatura) a scathingly critical portrait of the declining Venetian patricians, who he painted as frivolous and loose. Here they spent the summer, arriving in a carriage or burchio, the typical large Venetian boat with a flat bottom to move even with a little water. The season, which opened on June 13, the day of San Antonio, the patron saint of Padua, was interrupted in August and ended in November. During those months, wealthy Venetians lived in celebration and were able to squander entire personal assets to flaunt their power.

The seventeenth century is considered the “golden age” of Venetian fresco painting because of the custom of decorating with frescoes. Giambattista Tiepolo alone decorated ten villas, of which the Villa Valmarana in Vicenza stands out, a masterpiece painted with his son Giandomenico in 1757. The fame of these villas reached England.

Influence of gardens in painting

The precedent for Renaissance gardens is the hortus conclusus, a symbolic term referring to the intimacy of the most secret thoughts, which conveys the idea of ​​that small space bounded by high walls located in monasteries. The difference is that it was not an ornamental garden, but an orchard for growing medicinal plants, with no aesthetic purpose. The first representations showing them came from works associated with the International Gothic; miniatures illustrating incunabula with biblical or chivalric themes. One of the most famous, made around 1410-1420, is of the so-called Master of Paradise in Frankfurt, which details flowers, fruit and a wide variety of birds, representing Mary in a kind of earthly paradise with her court of vassals .

Venetian art began to grasp this huge cultural change, influenced by bucolic literature – Arcadia (1504), by Jacopo Sannazzaro and Gli Assolani (1505), by Pietro Bembo, which praised nature and love, influencing creativity of Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and Titian.

Certain biblical or literary themes were strictly defined in the gardens; some masterpieces are indicated such as Noli me tangere (1511-1514), by Titian, Susanna and the Elders (1555), by Tintoretto, Rinaldo and Armida, by Anton van Dyck (1629), inspired by Jerusalem Liberated (1575), by Torquato Tasso . This taste was enriched in the mature Renaissance and Baroque with themes that were usually sensual or romantic, increasingly lavish, such as the mythological ones by Paolo Veronese, also set in the gardens.

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