In the early modern world, gardens were spaces of retreat and relaxation, but also of contemplation and learning. In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, it is to Lombardy – the ‘pleasant garden of great Italy’ – that the hero Lucentio goes to pursue ‘learning and ingenious studies’ (1.1.4; 9). Aristocratic gardens throughout Europe were highly formal, stylised, and laden with symbolic meaning, with features such as mazes, emblematic topiary, and sculptures incorporating allegorical and heraldic motifs. The garden was also a space for botanical and scientific discovery: in cultivating the natural world, humankind might also come to understand its workings and properties.

The garden had a darker side, too. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden when they tasted the fruit of knowledge, and the lush fertility of the natural world seemed suspicious to those who associated it with sensual excess and the secret assignations of illicit lovers.