While garden design has always been influenced by local climate, flora, culture, and tastes, each style of formal garden also traces its roots to a particular time and place and tells us something about a country’s history. Gardens have long played a role in relaxation and contemplation. From the green oases and reflecting pools of the Islamic world and medieval monasteries to the spare beauty of Japanese rock gardens, these carefully planned and cultivated patches of green are like miniature worlds apart. Across the world, the styles of formal gardens vary, and particular choices such as the tight control of plants versus deliberately cultivated wildness or the use of statues and water features characterize major regional differences in their design.
Formal gardens in Europe emerged in the villas of late 16th-century Rome and Florence in concert with the Renaissance emphasis on symmetry and order. Classical ideals of beauty and harmony were put on grand display at estates like Villa di Castello in Tuscany, built in 1538, and Villa d’Este in the town of Tivoli northeast of Rome, built in 1572. While medieval gardens tended to be walled and devoted primarily to growing vegetables and medicinal plants and herbs, Renaissance gardens demolished the border between the garden and the house, bringing the design and complexity of a lavish interior out into the sunlight. Renaissance designers were inspired by the newly rediscovered writings of Ovid, Pliny the Elder, and Pliny the Younger, who declared that the purpose of a garden was to get away from the bustle and din of the city in order to take time for contemplation and relaxation. As a result, the Renaissance garden was a complex landscape dotted with wonders designed to inspire and delight such as classical statues, water organs and fountains, grottoes, hedges, and topiaries.
In the 17th century, the jaw-dropping grandeur of the jardin à la française took Europe by storm. The grandest of them all, constructed by King Louis XIV, were the spectacular gardens at the Palace of Versailles, where the sheer scale, luxury, and complexity of the physical grounds combined to create a clear symbol of the Sun King’s power. Later in the 18th century, however, French gardens took an English turn toward Romanticism and the cult of nature as designers were inspired by the paintings of Nicolas Poussin and Hubert Robert and the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Marie Antoinette had a miniature working farm added to the otherwise formal grounds of Versailles in her retreat known as the Hameau de la Reine (“the Queen’s hamlet”), which allowed her to escape the formalities of the palace to enjoy her version of “the simple life.” Eventually, the French landscape garden gradually eclipsed the precision and symmetry of the jardin à la française.
Initially inspired by the formal gardens of Renaissance Italy and the jardin à la française of 17th-century France, gardeners in England developed their own style of landscape garden in the 18th century. Often set on rolling hills, great English estates of this period had grounds designed to mimic the wildness and flora of the outside world rather than impose a strict symmetry on plantings as found on more formal Italian and French properties. This approach treated the garden as a microcosm of nature itself. English gardens often included lakes, gravel paths, recreations of Gothic ruins or Classical temples known as “follies,” and foot bridges. Nearby forests provided backdrops that added to the sense that a visitor was exploring an idealized, pastoral landscape.
Gardeners in the U.S. colonies and Canada drew inspiration from the gardens of England and France, adapting their designs to a new climate and the cultivation of new species. At his 5,000-acre Monticello plantation in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson grew a fruit orchard, flower gardens, and vegetable gardens. Fascinated by botany and garden design, Jefferson collected exotic seeds during his extensive travels abroad. While most North American gardens have never featured exotic cultivars, they have always varied widely depending on region and climate.
Compared to the gardens of Europe and North America, the gardens of South America tend to be tropical and wild, generally eschewing symmetry and perfection in favor of color and a bit of tamed disorder. This is partly due to the kinds of plants that thrive in the climate, which range from palms to orchids rather than boxwoods. Taking a cue from their jungle environments, South American gardens are often wild retreats where nature is king.