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Major gardens are not simply about nature and its pleasures. Like many works of art and architecture, large gardens are mirrors of their times. They reflect the evolution of ideas, power structures, and culture.

No garden from Antiquity or the Middle Ages has survived in its original form in Europe, but gardens from the Italian Renaissance can still be visited today. They continue to reveal the Renaissance love of Ancient Greece and Rome in their architecture and sculptures, as well as the rise of the rational mind, looking for order through geometry:

Villa Lante Gardens (late 16th century), Viterbo – Photo by Roberto Ferrari

Many Renaissance gardens have one hedge maze or more, and not just for the sake of geometry or entertainment purposes. Take a look at the four mazes at the bottom of this map of the Villa d’Este and its garden:

Etienne Dupérac,The Garden and the Palace near Tivoli(c.1570)

Such mazes usually represent the Renaissance search for truth. More specifically, the struggle to find one’s way out of a maze is seen as a symbol of the difficulty for the human mind to find its way out of the world of illusions and into the world of truth.

These gardens, however, were private, and only for the elite. They were not simply designed to show taste and values, but also to project wealth and power. The Boboli Garden in Florence, built for the Medici family, is a great example of this.

The Pitti Palace and Boboli Garden (late 16th century – 17th century)

The Boboli Garden, with itsancient obelisk

The style of these Italian gardens spread to France in the 16th century, which later gave rise to the ultimate power-gardens in France: Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles.

The Vaux-le-Vicomte gardens (1661):

And the Versailles gardens (1630s – 1780s):

French gardens such as Versailles do not only represent the power of man over nature. They represent the power of authority, in this case that of kings, a power so absolute that nature itself bends to its will.

By the 1730s and 40s, however, tastes were changing and a new garden style was born in Britain — the landscape garden — which the rest of Europe soon called the English garden.

Smaller, irregular, more natural, this new style comes from the more poetic view of nature spreading through Europe in the 18th century and from the descriptions and drawings of Chinese gardens brought back by travelers. Here are two typical examples:

Wilton House Garden (1730s), Photo by Jan van der Crabben

Stourhead Gardens (1740s-80) , Photos by Hans Bernhard and Neil Kennedy

This new style quickly spread to the European continent and replaced the Italian and French styles for new gardens everywhere.

The best proof of its success is that between 1775 and 1780 an English garden was created for Marie-Antoinette at the Petit Trianon in Versailles:

Unfortunately for Marie-Antoinette, the English garden had come to symbolize a freer way of thinking in France, and a departure from the tyranny of absolute monarchy so clearly displayed in the French Garden. The French Revolution broke out only nine years after the completion of the English garden at the Petit Trianon.

From the strict geometry and symmetry of the Italian and French gardens to the freer and more natural English landscapes, major gardens tell the story of changing ideas, tastes, and power structures, the story of a cultural evolution that is still being written in cities everywhere.