Italy is where so many of our garden-making traditions begin. For any garden lover, it's impossible to go to Italy without making time to visit at least one great garden - from Renaissance gems like the villa gardens of Tuscany to the dreamy romanticism of Ninfa and the wild and crazy modernist Tarots Garden.
Italy as a centre for garden design spread throughout Europe, particularly the use of water in giant cascades and innumerable fountains. When contrasted with strict, formal layouts and elegant topiary, Italian gardens are deeply satisfying gardens, with an understated elegance and restfulness that you have to experience to fully appreciate.
Gardens to see and visit in Italy include large baroque villa gardens around the Italian lakes and Rome, formal historic Renaissance gardens, topiary gardens, extraordinary water gardens, and 20th century subtropical gardens in southern Italy and Sicily.
"Italy has fabulous gardens from grand palaces to private villas, in settings from idyllic countryside to the coast and cliffs of the blue Mediterranean. Everywhere you walk through history, art, architecture and culture that will fill many more days than you have. Food and wine? Oh yes. But, ultimately, my heart is with Italy, because Italians are fun. Light-hearted, lots of laughter, ready to charm, they will make you believe Italy is the most wonderful country in the world."
Garden Travel Guide to Italy
Getting there and getting around
Italy has many international airports – Rome, Naples, Pescaria, Perugia, Florence and Pisa in the central zone; Rimini, Forli, Bologna, Parma, Verona, Venice, Trieste, Treviso in the north-east; Brescia, Bergamo, Milan, Turin, Cuneo and Genova in the north-west; Bari, Brindisi and Lamezia Terme in the south; Palermo and Catania on Sicily and Alghero, Olbia and Cagliari on Sardinia.
Apart from other major European cities, some of the larger airports like Rome have direct flights from Middle Eastern airline hubs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha (Qatar), as well as direct flights from eastern cities in North America and Asian hubs like Singapore, Shanghai and Tokyo.
There are good high-speed rail connections between Italy’s northern cities, and there are 3 main north-south lines. However visiting gardens is not easy by public transport as many of the most famous gardens surround country villas, and driving or being part of a bus tour will be the only feasible way to see them.
Italy’s climate is hot and sunny compared to most of Europe but northern areas and elevated towns near the central Apennine mountain spine can have surprisingly severe winters that are even colder than parts of Scandinavia, including heavy snowfalls. The north also has warm to hot and surprisingly humid summers, with Florence no stranger to day temperatures over 40°C (104°F).
The rest of Italy’s climate is generally Mediterranean, with cool to mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers with most cities regularly having temperatures above 30°C (86ºF).
Italy garden history and style
Italy would have had many gardens during the Roman period and there are detailed records of gardens to be seen in paintings and frescoes, and to be read in the works of Cato, Juvenal, Horace, Tacitus and, most famously, Cicero who wrote:
“Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil”
(‘If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need’)
In Pompeii you can see reconstructions of Roman gardens, although there are no original gardens existing today. However there is a wealth of gardens from the Renaissance period many of which, like the villa Borghese in Rome, were both inspired by and built over the site of an original Roman garden.
The wealthy villa owners on the prosperous and comparatively peaceful 15th and 16th centuries developed estate gardens, at first just walled enclosures but later grand, formal gardens with strongly symmetrical layouts, intersecting axes, clipped and trained plants and many classical statues. In hilly country such as the Tuscan countryside these were often on several, terraced levels connected by wide, ornate steps and ramps. During the 16th century there were also new medicinal and botanic ‘physic’ teaching gardens, with the 1545 Orto Botanico di Padova (botanic garden in Padua) the world’s oldest botanical garden in its original location.
The structure and formal beauty of the Italian Renaissance garden was soon the aspirational garden for Europe’s wealthy nobles and merchants and the style spread rapidly throughout western Europe. Famous Italian designers such as Bramante, Tribolo, Buontalenti and Peruzzi made gardens for famous families, like the Sforza, Visconti, Montefeltro and Medici.
During the late 1500s, ornate waterworks made possible by impressive hydraulic engineering became a common part of Italian baroque gardens, making excellent use of steep hillside locations for huge cascades and soaring fountains combined with classical marble statuary. Gardens developed grand vistas that linked the garden into the surrounding countryside and were planted with dependable and obligingly clippable evergreens like cypress, box and evergreen oak. Fine examples of these massive water gardens can be seen at Villa d’Este and the Reggia di Caserta.
Like England and France, the landscape park fashion of the 1800s saw the destruction of many baroque gardens in favour of naturalistic gardens with ornamental lakes, copses of trees and follies. Fortunately an early 20th century resurgence of interest in these historic gardens saw many preserved, although many parks in modern Italy’s cities and towns are in this lower-maintenance English rather than tradition Italian style.
Although plant collecting did not inspire as many ‘plantsman’ gardens in Italy as in England, several expat settlers did build gardens in areas with easier growing conditions, such as the northern lakes and along the Mediterranean coast.
Apart from Italy’s historical garden gems, there are also 20th and 21st century gardens to enjoy, from the exquisitely romantic informality of the Giardini di Ninfa to the ornate garden at La Foce, designed by Englishman Cecil Pinsent. In Tuscany, the Tarots Art Park of Niki de Saint Phalle will astonish you with its extraordinary and colourful mosaics.
In the past decade, more Italian designers are including flowering perennials in their gardens, often mixed with more formal topiary. For fans of greenwalls, Rozzano near Milan, has one of the world’s biggest greenwalls as well as an amazing tree clad tower building, the ‘Vertical Forest’ in the Porta Nuova area by architect Stefano Boeri, and there are also a large greenwall in Florence.
Best gardens to visit in Italy
With thousands of gardens to visit throughout Italy, it’s impossible to list them all! As most gardeners visiting Italy will have only a few weeks to see so many wonderful sights, Garden Travel Hub has asked some of the experienced tour hosts who frequently visit Italy to list their favourite Italian gardens.
My favourite Italian gardens
Helen Young (garden columnist for The Weekend Australian and garden tour host):
Ninfa (Giardino e Rovine di Ninfa), Lazio
Villa Cimbrone, Ravello (Amalfi coast) for its location and wisteria pergola)
La Mortella, Ischia
Villa Chigi Cetinale, near Siena
Villa Gamberaia, Settignano, Florence
Villa Carlotta, Lake Como
Villa Balbienello, Lake Como
Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore
Villa D’Este, Tivoli
Villa Lante, Viterbo
Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo (Villa Orsini), Bomarzo – for something completely different
Villa Massei, near Lucca (privately owned)
Best times to visit Italian gardens
Spring and autumn/fall are peak times for garden visiting, especially around the Italian lakes although, if you can take the heat, Italian gardens in summer will also have their charms.
Do not assume that any large regularly open garden in Italy will be open the day you want to visit! Many are closed on one or two weekdays, others can surprise you with intermittent closings for special private events and some, like Ninfa are only open for guided tours with limited availability, especially if you want a tour in your language.
Always check the garden’s website but also email or phone to make extra sure if you’re travelling a long distance to get there. Many of the large gardens, especially in the cooler northern climates around the Italian lakes will be closed for winter between late October and late March.
Italy garden shows and festivals
• Festival dei Giardini at Ortogiardino, Pordenone Fiere (one hour north-east of Venice) – designer display gardens, plants, garden products, vertical gardens – early March
• Festival del Verde e del Paesaggio, Rome – display gardens, plants, garden products, outdoor furniture – mid May
• Cortili e giardini aperti (Open Gardens and Courtyards), towns and cities throughout Tuscany – late May
• Il Festival dei Narcisi (Daffodil Festival), Vliia La Pescigola in Tuscany – March
While holidaying in Florence I visited the famous and historic Villa Gamberaia. Yes there are great views and engaging statuary but also non-working fountains, dead hedges and poor maintenance.
It was at a meeting of heritage rose lovers that I first heard about Ninfa, a romantic, rambling, Italian garden built in the ruins of a medieval town. I put it on my garden ‘bucket list’ and in May, on a journey from Rome to Sorrento, I got the opportunity to see if the anticipation lived up to the experience.
Welcome to the Masone Labyrinth (Labirinto della Masone) of Franco Maria Ricci in Fontanellato, near Parma, Italy. Covering 7 hectares (17 acres), it is the largest labyrinth in the world. Will you ever get out?
Sometimes I just need to take a quick look at a garden to understand the personality of its owner. I don’t think it’s because I am particularly intuitive; it’s more that for some gardens the aim of the design is so clear and easy to interpret.