Question: Explain with examples the ways in which the Renaissance spirit of a rediscovery of the classics and the new Humanist ways of thinking were expressed in the design and content of the Italian Renaissance garden.
In order to answer this question completely it is important to understand each component of the questions, i.e. what were Renaissance ideas and humanist ways of thinking?
The Renaissance, which formally began in Italy sometime during the early 1300s (Scholars still debate the actual starting date), was a refocus on classical Greek and Roman ideas. It was an age of discovery, invention and art. However, the new renaissance ideology was practiced by a very select segment of the population. Those who had enough money, time and cultural awareness had access to Renaissance ideas, but the vast majority of the population was not generally effected.
Humanism was a specific Renaissance idea that focused the attention of study on human importance in relation to God and nature, as opposed to the previous focus on divine and eternal matters. The study of man (broadly construed to mean humans) was a way to get closer to God. Since God had created everything in his image, studying humans and nature acted as a way to understand God.
These ideas translated into new garden designs and ornamentation. One way to see the influence of the Renaissance and Humanism is to examine the evolution of the quadripartite design. In medieval and monastic gardens, the beds were simply arranged with a few plants, a small water feature and a tree or two and each item in the garden had its own significance (tree - tree of life, water feature - rivers that flowed out of eden, etc.). However, when this is compared to a Renaissance equivalent, the designs of the interior sections of the bed become much more complex and ornamental. While each section of the quadripartite design did not have the same significance of the monastic garden, the overall theme was humanist. Nature was seen as an ordered creation of God, thus, man could organize and improve nature’s raw materials, and by doing so come to know God. The focus is on the human ability to organize and subject nature to man. Another example of this idea can be seen through the incredible water features that play a central role in many Renaissance gardens. For example, the Villa d’Este featured several water features that control and demonstrate the power of human innovation.
Overall, Renaissance gardens transformed in size and complexity. The focus on man’s abilities and values helped fuel this transition and renaissance innovations in science, art and technology made it possible for gardens like the Villa d’este and Villa Medici come to fruition.
For more information on Renaissance gardens and their humanist influences check out some of these websites: