Paco de Sao Cipriano

Paco de Sao Cipriano

The latest meeting of the Norfolk Gardens Trust focused on historic Portuguese Gardens. Postponed from earlier in the year due to bad weather, the talk – which took place at Norwich’s John Innes Centre – was again delayed, this time due to travel problems!

I can say that it was well worth the wait. In a lively talk, gardening writer Helena Attlee explored a ‘cocktail’ of influences that have formed the typical historic portuguese garden. A fusion of historical, cultural and climatic factors has come together over the centuries, with the latest fashions and ideas in garden design being reinterpreted in the unique setting that is Portugal.

The country straddles the atlantic coast of Iberia and so its climate ranges from the warm and moist in the north to the near Mediterranean in the south, with the rocky outcrop of Sintra (just north of Lisbon) providing a microclimate that is particularly prone to damp air deposited from atlantic fronts. These climatic variations have clearly influenced the design and planting of gardens in the country, but arguably of greater impact has been the country’s historical development.

The Romans invaded in around 200 B.C. and stayed for around 500 years. Not surprisingly the gardens from this time show the features you’d expect of a roman garden – enclosed by a colonnade with a central water pool as the focus and with grand mosaics. Though even here, it seems that particularly Portuguese touches are evident – for example the curved niches and planting islands found in the pool of a reconstructed example of a roman garden at The House of Water Jets, in Conimbra.

Quinta da Bacalhoa - the Water tank

Quinta da Bacalhoa – the Water tank

Possibly the greatest influence on garden design came from the invasions of arabs and other peoples from north africa – the so-called ‘Moors’. Arriving in the 8th century and remaining for about 400 years they brought with them the traditions of brimming water tanks, high walls to enclose the garden and capture the exotic scents of citrus fruit as well as decorated ceramic tiles – otherwise known as ‘azulejos’ in Portuguese. These citrus trees – bitter oranges and lemons – were introduced from the Himalayas, and it was some centuries later that sweet oranges were introduced into Europe – possibly by the italians (from india), or possibly by the Portuguese (from China).  Interestingly, up until the 20th century sweet oranges were known across europe as ‘Portugals’.

Azulejos at Quinta dos Azulejos!

Azulejos at  Quinta dos Azulejos!

Azulejos began as geometric or botanical designs and used a technique which trapped the coloured glazes in ridged areas on the surface of the tiles – the so-called ‘aresta‘ technique. They were used extensively to cover walls of gardens and buildings. The moorish aesthetic is also evident in the later patterning of box parterres which are more complex than the patterns seen in the grand gardens of France, Italy or Holland.

Even though moorish rule of Portugal ended in the 12th century, many of the skilled craftsmen stayed on and continued to influence garden and house design in the following centuries. However it was not until the growth of Portuguese economic power in the 16th century (based on its exploration and discovery of new lands and leading to the founding of the valuable spice trade) that grand Portuguese gardens started to flourish. Design ideas also travelled from the far east and were absorbed into the Portuguese style of the time – this was when complex parterres, citrus groves and water tanks came into their own, alongside further developments in azulejos. Initially imported from southern Spain by King Manuel I,  the tiles now moved away from repeat patterns of geometrical or botanical themes to assemblies of individual tiles into grand tableaux of  mythical and amusing scenes. The arrival of a new technique – Maiolica’– meant that glazes, and so pictures, could be painted directly onto the tile surface.

Complex parterres at Quinta da Bacalhoa, a superb example of an early renaissance Poprtuguese garden

Complex parterres at Quinta da Bacalhoa, a superb example of an early renaissance Poprtuguese garden. The area beyond was originally an orange grove

Following a period of rule from Spain, Portugal again found its independence in the early 17th century and this heralded a new period of rich garden making, with Delft blue tiles becoming fashionable (the Delft factory had a production line just for Portugal) and the creation of cartoon-like scenes (known as singerie) featuring monkeys and cats mimicking humans in scenes such as going to the barbers and taking piano lessons!

During the 18th century new colonial ventures in Brazil resulted in discoveries of gold and diamonds which fuelled another period of wealth, which once more found expression in the country’s gardens and houses. This second ‘golden age’ put Portugal at the forefront of europe’s economic powers, such that King Juan V was the richest monarch in the continent and could afford to order a solid gold bath for his mistress (who happened to be a nun)!

The dramatic well stairway at the Quinta da Regaleira, typical of the design work of Mannini

The dramatic well stairway at the Quinta da Regaleira, typical of the design work of Manini

This period saw influences from the Italian baroque make their mark in Portuguese gardens. Architects and designers such as Nasoni and Manini added a new flamboyance to the gardens of the wealthy and the latter in particular brought an opera set designer’s skills to create magical spaces where the rich could entertain. Further developments in azulejos also occurred during this period, with new, brighter colours and styles arriving influenced by the French Rococo. Some of these were to provide amusing Trompe d’oeil (visual tricks). The tiled canal at the palace of Queluz is perhaps the zenith of the azulejo. Here, candlelit tableaux lined the walls of the waterway, along which royalty and aristocrats glided by in their gondolas on warm summer evenings.

Azulejos lining the canal at Palacio de Queluz

Azulejos lining the canal at Palacio de Queluz

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (and ensuing fires and tsunami) wrecked huge areas of the city and its surroundings and so few great houses and gardens of the time inn tht area remained intact. A period of austerity followed during which the country’s Prime Minister, the Marquess of Pombal, removed many of the privileges of the rich aristocracy. Many of the gardens that remained fell into disrepair and few new ones of any note were created.

'Camellia Architecture' at Casa do Campo

‘Camellia Architecture’ at Casa do Campo

During the 19th century a new fashion for Camellia growing was born, centred on Porto and the north of the country where the moist warm climate favoured them. There is much evidence of the splendour of these gardens still in existence today, the Camellia bushes being trained into architectural shapes and even into ‘outside rooms’ which remained in flower between November and March when little else in the garden was of interest. During this time the discovery of new plants in far away places had its impact in Portugal as elsewhere and exotic specimens from Brazil and other countries were imported to some important gardens, including by British emigres involved in the Port trade. Further romantic – style houses and gardens were created, such as Montserrate and the National Palace of Pena at Sintra.

Parque de Serralves

Parque de Serralves

Perhaps not surprisingly, the talk concluded with a single example of a 20th century grand garden (Parque de Serralves), a rather ‘minimalist’ affair  featuring simple clipped box topiary and no other colours but that of the pinkish terracotta of walls and paths and the sky blue tiles lining rills and pools. Another garden (Casa da Pergola in Cascais, near Lisbon), originally created in the 19th century with a house that was renovated in the 1920’s gives a rather more modest ‘cottage style’ example of some of Portugal’s more modern gardens.

Casa da Pergola, Cascais

Casa da Pergola, Cascais

From my own knowledge, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen investment in public gardens and parks, which in their own ways are as important as the grand palace gardens of the earlier periods. I’ll be posting some information on some of my favourites over the coming weeks.

So, how to sum up Portuguese heritage gardens?

Well, as you can see they have absorbed and interpreted fashions, styles and ideas from other cultures and with the particular climatic, social and cultural conditions in the country have made them something uniquely Portuguese. Apart from ‘oranges and azulejos’ the other characteristic features seem to be:

  • Terraces

  • Trough or cavity walls filled with plants

  • Water tanks

  • Topiary, especially complex parterres

As far as planting is concerned, this tends to follow the local climatic conditions so features roses, succulents, palms and colourful annuals , especially in the hotter centre/south, whereas ferns, exotics and of course Camellias are common in the warm, moist north and around Sintra.

A public garden in Braga, northern Portugal.

The Garden of Santa Barbara, a public garden in Braga, northern Portugal

Sources and other information:

‘The Gardens of Portugal’ by Helena Attlee (published by Francis Lincoln, 2008)

Gardenvisit- Portuguese gardens

Article by Helena Attlee

Sheila Sim photography gallery of Portuguese gardens

Old School Gardener

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