Charleston’s connection to Italian Renaissance gardens

by PJ GARTIN / photography by HOLGER OBENAUS

MY CURIOSITY ABOUT ITALIAN RENAISSANCE GARDENS began with the pandemic and a slew of Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). After the quarantine profoundly reduced tourist activity on Charleston’s narrow sidewalks, I took advantage of this unpleasant situation and frequentlyventured out (masked, of course) to enjoy long, uninterrupted strolls around the peninsula.

That’s when I began to earnestly pay attention to Italian cypress—those tall evergreen columns that have a habit of popping up on the horizon when least expected. I found myself admiring how these “towers” (up to 50 feet) often lend interesting visual effects to city streetscapes, especially when they soar above 19th-century houses. Also, when a few of them are planted along a property line, they offer privacy or block unwanted views.

But why had I suddenly developed an intense admiration for this low-maintenance conifer? It finally hit me: Italia. Rooftop views of cypress in Rome. Formal 16th-century Florentine gardens. Bella!

My wanderings around the Holy City got me wondering if Charleston’s garden history has any connection to Italian Renaissance horticulture. It turns out that the answer is both yes and no. First, it’s important to remember that we didn’t begin tilling soil here until 1670. That’s about a century after the powerful Renaissance banker and Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de’ Medici, built an elaborate and still extant formal garden at Castello.

It’s also impossible to connect our fair city to Italian plant explorers because there were none. Although Italy’s Renaissance kingdoms, republics and duchies had vast trade connections with parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa, discovering new botanicals was incidental instead of deliberate. Even after Italians began planting Dutch tulips in their gardens, it was still too early for anyone at either end to imagine a significant business opportunity.

So, even if our gardens have no direct lineage to Italian influences—as opposed to our profound connection to 18th-century botanist and plant explorer Andre Michaux (1746–1802)—many of the plants that fill modern Charleston landscapes are the same as those cultivated during the Renaissance. This is welcome news for current gardeners who insist on historical accuracy in their landscapes. They should feel comfortable imitating the style of an Italian Renaissance garden because we indeed have botanical provenance to 14th- through 16th-century Italian ones.

Those Italian cypress we keep purchasing are truly Mediterranean natives, and they are the exact species that appear in 16th-century Italian art. There are other well-known Charleston favorites that were grown in Renaissance gardens. For example, while Michelangelo was mixing pigments for frescos at the Vatican or looking for slabs of marble in the Tuscan hills, his contemporaries were planting what we now consider a Southern garden staple—oleander (Nerium oleander). It too is native to the Mediterranean, as is our over-used (but reliable) bush privet (Ligustrum vulgare). Italian Renaissance gardeners also filled their landscapes with chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) and the now under-planted and often ignored shrub laurustinus (Viburnum tinus).

Once Spanish explorers began introducing plants from the Americas to Europeans, Italian Renaissance gardeners latched on to perennials such as marvel of Peru, or what we call four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa). Canna lily (C. indica), which is a New World native but is also indigenous to India, was also used.

Planting in geometrically precise circles and squares is one of the hallmarks of Italian Renaissance landscapes. This formal style began in Italy during the 1500s and gradually spread throughout Europe and eventually into America. Charleston gardeners have long depended on common boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) to delineate symmetrical spaces. Never mind that this species drives us nuts because of its propensity to “melt out” in hot and humid weather.

Although common boxwood turns out to be indigenous to several Mediterranean countries, Renaissance gardeners preferred another native, Myrtus communis, instead of Buxus. I find it fascinating that the richly informative and entertaining book The Italian Renaissance Garden
(1990) does not include boxwood in its appendix, “Common Trees and Plants in Italian Renaissance Gardens.” The author, Claudia Lazzaro, a professor of art history at Cornell, makes no mention of any shrub in the boxwood genus. Because symbolism and allegory were integral to Renaissance garden design, my best guess is that Myrtus communis was preferred because of its association with romance. This plant, which is sometimes called myrtle, can be easily clipped and shaped. Modern gardeners might find it a reasonable replacement for tired or fading boxwood. *

PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.

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