Villa Lante



By Caroline Connor

During the late Renaissance as the arts and architecture moved towards the Mannerist style, there was an emphasis placed on decoration used within design. One strategy used to add further decoration to the environment of an estate was building gardens. Villa Lante is one of the most impressive late Renaissance gardens. It is located in Bagnaia, Italy and close to Viterbo, Italy located in the central, western part of the country. Including a view overlooking the city of Rome, it was constructed between 1568 and 1610. The garden is attributed to Vignola who designed it for Gianfrancesco Gambara. Built on a hunting preserve, it is located behind a large hunting lodge as an extension of the living space.1 Villa Lante, thought to be one of the most contemplative gardens in existence, is representative of some of the most important aspects of Renaissance gardens that were drawn from significant societal ideals of the time.2 This includes religion, knowledge of classical sources, and appreciation for the arts. My study will analyze the notion of the “Renaissance man” and determine how this idea inspired elements of Renaissance gardens. I will then examine the way in which the different cultural aspects of the time influenced the design choices implemented throughout Villa Lante.

Renaissance Society

With the onset of the Renaissance, came great societal change. Social hierarchies as well as priorities all over Europe began to shift, specifically in Italy. The Black Plague began in the 14th century and disseminated throughout Europe at a fast rate. With no antibiotics to counter the disease, there were millions of deaths which brought major social change to Europe. Because of the need for specialization in many areas of work, wages rose which greatly stimulated the economy. This also gave rise to the middle class. With more freedom to move around socially, people began to pursue what interested them, giving way to humanism. There was a resurgence of learning as well as revolutions based on intellectual, social, and political disturbance. Classical sources from the Greeks and Romans popularized and had a major impact on the life of people during the Renaissance both in terms of art and politically.3

Humanists focused heavily on the strength of their inner self. This meant gaining as much knowledge as possible about as many things as possible. A strong belief during that time was “that God made man neither celestial nor terrestrial in order to enable him to become the maker and molder of himself into whatever shape he preferred.”4 In many aspects, classics were studied in the pursuit of building moral character. They also brought new vision to society during the Renaissance. Not only did this have a major impact on architecture during this period, but also in studies of history, rhetoric, and morality. Vitruvius’s text on architecture was created based on classical studies. One of the most impactful parts of his text was the idea of The Vitruvius Man. This drawing, as shown in Figure 1, depicts a man inscribed in a square and circle to describe the perfect proportions of the ideal human body, but also represent that man was considered to be the center of the universe.5

Figure 1. Renaissance Man

The Renaissance Garden

Gardens are an art form that can be described as pure abstraction. They are meant to create a feeling or experience rather than depict something realistic as some art does. Similar to built architecture, gardens give visitors the opportunity to enter and become part of a different environment for an amount of time. Gardens during the Renaissance were designed with specific motives in mind. They were built to attract viewers and then maintain their attention. They were also meant to be an extension of the house as a way to play with the senses. They did this through shadows, patterning, use of distant views, and the sound and feel of water. Many gardens during the time featured common elements including groves, terraces, hedges, and parterres.6 There was a strong notion that beauty came out of the logical, scientific, ordered mind of the man searching for objective through nature. They were meant to communicate the three main ideals for man during the Renaissance, faith, reason, and intelligence.7 Overall, Renaissance gardens were designed to embody an idea. However it was represented, in many cases, the expression of the idea was more relevant than the actual product of the garden. The ideas within gardens were based on four elements: geometry, human figure, movement, and environment.8

All gardens were designed utilizing basic geometry. As man was considered to be the center of the universe, man and the universe were the primary concerns in the designs of gardens. Gardens reflected man’s relationship with the earth and universe. This was represented through the shapes used in gardens. Celestial elements are signified through circles and terrestrial elements are denoted through squares.9 The sequence of shapes is also an important factor in the layout of spaces within gardens. During the Renaissance the appreciation for the human nude came second only to geometry. The human figure was a widely respected part of design during this period. Not only was it studied in its proportions and in relation to geometry, but it is also shown in gardens through sculpture that echoes human proportions. As the universe is constantly in motion, movement was an important element in the design of gardens. The circulation and flow through the garden were directed through composition and details within the garden. This often had a great impact on the way visitors felt in certain spaces. Another element having to do with the way people felt in different areas was the environment itself. It is a wonder that in Renaissance gardens through all the geometry, it appears to be the essence of the site no matter the preexisting terrain.

Formal Analysis of Villa Lante

Villa Lante is one Renaissance garden that clearly utilizes the main elements characteristic to garden designs of the period. Unlike many other gardens that are designed without the preexisting land in mind, Villa Lante makes use of the established terrain to create ideas within the garden. The entire space is a mix between a formal garden and a bosco, or planted woods, as it was built during a time when most gardens were shifting from boscos to parks. Villa Lante is an allegory of basic concepts, formal parts, and natural parts. The natural elements represent that which is untouched by civilization and already established within the environment, while the formal parts represent the civilization of mankind. The top of the garden is the bosco which is made up of unaltered terrain. There are non-axial paths, fountains, fruit trees, and bushes as well as other garden elements scattered throughout that are unrelated to each other as shown in the Figure 2 plan of the garden. With mostly square and rectangular elements in this portion of the garden, the features point to the earth. This was also considered to be the public entrance to the garden, whereas the bottom entrance was private. As the garden progresses down it becomes more organized. This is depicted in Figure 3 as the grid of the garden becomes tighter and more structured going from the top to the bottom. The entire lower half of the garden is designed around a vertical symmetry that runs through the center as shown in Figure 4. This directs the entire plan of the garden, specifically different parterre, hedge, and fountain arrangements as well as the placement of built architecture. Figure 5 shows the symmetrically of the designed natural elements in both the formal and informal spaces in the garden. It also represents the parts that geometry plays in the make-up of Villa Lante. Every organized element either lies on the line of symmetry or has a pair reflected on the other half.10 The entire bottom portion of the garden is made up of square outlined parterres of the same size, some placed separately along the edges and others with their edges connected to create a larger square. The variation in designs of the parterres are symmetrically aligned along the vertical axis as well. Most all of the organized spaces in the garden play with squares and rectangles to create different areas. However, the lower half of the garden brings in more circular elements pointing to the tranquility of the heavens. In Figure 4, some of the proportional rectangles are outlined. The two casinos located in the middle of the garden on either side are also squares, and though they have different interior plans, look identical from the exterior as shown in Figure 7. They are placed symmetrically on either side of the garden so they do not take away from the views at the end of the garden.

Figure 2.
Figure 3.
Figure 4.
Figure 5.
Figure 6

The human figure is largely represented in the garden through sculpture. In the middle of the central fountains at the bottom half of the garden there are sculpted male statues that disperse water to parts of the fountain as shown in Figure 8. These figures are reminiscent of the Vitruvian Man as they represent the perfect proportions of a man. Additionally, the men are posing in order to show off their exquisite, muscular bodies. Also seen in this image is the decoration used throughout the garden including balstrudes, volutes, columns, vases, and finials. The sculptures in the garden also represent the area they are placed in, whether it is natural or organized. The sculpted male statues lie in the bottom organized half of the garden while the upper part contains natural, more whimsical statues, some even alluding to Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. An example of one of the more imaginative statues is shown in Figure 9.

Figure 7. Aerial View Photograph by Web Gallery of Art.
Figure 8.
Figure 9.

Another element that sets Villa Lante apart from other gardens is its use of terracing. Though this was a common feature in Renaissance gardens, the terracing at Villa Lante is uniquely designed into a series of platforms with alternating slopes. Not only does the terracing direct visitors to the bottom portion of the garden, but the architect made use of water as another element to express the direction of movement. Vignola designed the water to gush from the upper cliff in the garden, fall into an abreuvoir, arise again in fountains, then fall downwards in rivulets and cascades until it reaches its final resting point in a small lake below the fountain on the lowest level of the garden.11 Figure 6 shows a diagram of this movement of water through the garden that works to direct the circulation of visitors.


Villa Lante is an example of a late Renaissance garden that became the vision of societal ideals of the time. The Renaissance man was an important idea between the 14th and 17th century. It represented a person who was knowledgeable about many aspects of life and culture. This knowledge, primarily of religion, classical sources, and the arts, is utilized in the design and creation of Renaissance gardens, specifically Villa Lante. Religious elements are alluded to both in geometry and order of gardens. Classical knowledge is seen through the implementation of ornament and organization of spaces. Knowledge of the arts is seen through sculpture and décor throughout the garden. The organization of spaces throughout Villa Lante make use of common garden features of the time such as terracing and parterres. However, these components are used in unique ways along with organizing elements to create individualized experiences that set Villa Lante apart from other gardens of the time. With inspiration of the human figure, statues are used to represent the ideal man during the Renaissance. To further direct circulation through the terraces of the garden, Villa Lante makes use of flowing water. Overall, Villa Lante is a distinctive, abstract expression of societal ideals of the Renaissance which makes it the ideal garden of the Renaissance.


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