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The Pergola

Detail of a Pergola

Detail of a Pergola from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499 ©

Pergolas were popular in the garden from Roman times onwards. In the description of the garden at his villa in Tuscany, Pliny the Younger mentions a ‘curved dining-seat of white marble, shaded by a vine trained over four slender pillars of Carystian marble’. Medieval gardeners made shady vine or ivy covered arbours over pathways or seating areas using wooden laths of willow or hazel. During the fifteenth and sixteenth century, tunnel arbours became longer and more prominent features of the garden, and became architecturally more sophisticated. Four early representations of tunnel arbours appear in the woodcut illustrations of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) which can be seen in this gallery. They show the elegant, new classical form given to the structure. The refinement of what had once been a purely functional garden feature meant that where the pergola appeared in late fifteenth and sixteenth-century art it often suggested the idealised garden.

Detail of man in front of a turf bench

Detail from Ruralia Commoda, c.1490-95 ©

Turf benches were a common feature in the medieval garden. They were first recorded by Albertus Magnus, Count of Bollstädt in his Treatise De Vegetabilis et Plantis of c.1260 when he refers to a ‘higher bench of turf flowering and lovely’. These benches were constructed with horizontal timber planking or with bricks, filled with earth and topped with turf planted with flowers such as daisies, speedwell or violets, or with sweet-smelling low-growing herbs such as chamomile. The construction of a turf bench is illustrated in Ruralia Commoda (c.1490 – 5) which can be seen in this gallery.