Prague’s Vrtba Garden
With only one vowel, it can prove hard to pronounce, but beautiful Vrtba Garden easily speaks to all languages. The little architectural gem, reached through a discreet gate in Karmelitská Street, is one of the most important Baroque gardens in Prague. In addition to its exuberant design, the terraced garden has a viewing platform that provides an exceptional vista on the city. And as I discovered recently, it’s a great place to pick up some tips on how to style a small garden.
What is old is new again
You don’t have to travel far to see the influence of Baroque style in today’s gardens. Tightly-clipped hedging, symmetrical design, ponds, waterfalls and sculptures are all common features. The roots of these ideas, however, can be traced all the way back to Britain in the early 1600s. This is when gardens became big, bold and flashy with over-the-top sculptures, eye-popping parterres and extravagant water features designed to shock and awe.
Late-Baroque gold figures of the Chinese House at Sanssouci Garden
Of course, the goal of these early masterpieces was to showcase the owner’s power and importance. The most famous Baroque garden was Versailles. As the style took hold across Europe, owners added their own regional touches, often borrowing from English, Italian and French designs. Today, this makes for a fascinating journey into the psyche of each proprietor and what he or she deemed important based on events going on at the time.
As our guide explained,
“In Baroque times, you were either ecstatic or repenting for your sins. There was no middle ground.”
How to fit a big ego into a small space
So what did you do if your space was small and you still wanted to impress your guests? Pack as many plant materials, water features and ornamentation into your garden as possible. This is what in the early 18th century, Jan Joseph, Count of Vrtba (1669-1737) and the most powerful man in the Kingdom of Bohemia decided to do.
Built in 1715-1720, Vrtba Garden is a superior example of ingenious use of space. Wedged between former palaces and an aviary, the formal clipped garden is laid out in parterres on three steep terraced levels. It’s a small garden with a big personality, and one that epitomizes what careful attention to detail, exemplary space planning and above all terracing can do to change your perspective.
The link between home and garden
One of the key aspects of Baroque style was unity of design between the residence and the garden. By repeating key elements of architecture and ornamentation, each space appeared to flow seamlessly into the other. In Vrtba Garden, this began with the Sala terrana.
Vrtba’s Sala terrena
Sala terrena, meaning ground floor hall, is a hall located on the ground floor that connects the garden with the residence. In the 18th century palace, it was often decorated with frescoes and fountains and designed as a grotto. Vrtba’s Sala terrana is a small space by most palace standards. Yet what it lacks in square footage it more than makes up for in splendor. Original 17th century frescoes and statues of Bacchus and Ceres still decorate the curved interior walls. In modern times, this would have been known as the party room.
Directly facing the Sala terrana is the first level of the garden.
Ground level of Vrtba Garden with Sala terrena to the right
In large Baroque gardens, the grand avenue, or main axis, functioned as the main entry into the garden and was usually centered on a water feature such as a fountain. Typically flanked by parterres enclosing flowers, the avenue was accented by topiary pruned into formal shapes. A cross axis led to other parts of the garden.
In Vrtba’s case, however, the small space made the creation of a grand avenue impossible. So the garden’s axes were reversed. Instead, the main avenue was laid out perpendicular to the Sala terrena and centered on the steep slope to the left. And the shorter axis connected the Sala terrana (A) to the aviary (B). (Count Vrtba built the aviary to add authentic ‘natural’ sounds to his garden.) This clever design trick helped shift the focus of the garden toward the largest part of the property.
Lay out of Vrtba Garden
In the center of this garden is a pool featuring a sculpture of a boy wrestling a dragon. Serving as the focal point, the playful theme of this piece sets the overall tone for the garden.
Our guide explained that the garden was created during a relatively peaceful period in Bohemia. “The Earl isn’t known for much more than this garden,” he said. Marking a departure from most Baroque gardens in Prague that feature religious and often violent themes, the sculptures and paintings of Vrtba instead celebrate the pleasures of life. They most likely reflect the Count’s state of mind at the time as well as his relationship to history.
Takeaway: Make sure your sculptures reflect what you want your garden to say about you.
A cornucopia in a side garden at Vrtba
As befits the Baroque-style garden, Vrtba’s parterres tend toward the symmetrical, but the space isn’t big enough to carry the symmetry throughout the garden. Instead, the designer introduced curves and other elements to fill the tight space. The gardens appear orderly, but are more Italian than French. These important elements help play with perspective and enlarge the space.
One of the ‘symmetrical’ parterres of the ground level
Takeway: Curves and subtle changes in dimensions are a great way to play with perspective and visually enlarge a space.
Terracing is good for perspective
From the ground level parterre, the eye looks left and is instantly drawn up the slope where at the very top can be glimpsed a viewing platform. This key architectural feature indicates the farthest reaches of the garden. At the time, this area would have been reserved for the ‘gloriette’, which was typically a building erected at the highest point of the garden.
A curve of the viewing platfrom can be glimpsed at the top of the photo
Accessed by a pair of stairs, the first terrace features a pair of parterres accented with clipped box cones. The low box hedges (estimated at over 12,000 individual plants) enclose curved beds of bright red begonias. The fringes of the terrace are bordered on the right by clipped shrubs and benches set against a retaining wall. On the left, the illusion of a matching wall is created by clipped hedges, beyond which another small garden can be glimpsed, creating a borrowed view.
Takeway: You can create symmetry in small gardens by repeating shapes.
Borrowed view into another garden helps enlarge the space
A pair of grand staircases lead up to the second terrace. The stairways provide the perfect platforms for stone statues dedicated to gods and goddesses from Greek mythology.
And many decorative vases.
Stone staircase looking down on middle terrace
A view from the top
Toward the upper reaches of the slope, the garden narrows as it approaches the final terrace and viewing platform. Another set of stairs culminate at the final arch featuring three allegorical scenes. The middle arch is framed by embossed mussels and highlighted by an arched gable with water gods. The side panels feature mermaids.
Finally, the viewing platform provides a bird’s eye view of the rooftops of Prague while a glance down the slope reveals the full scope of the garden. It was a boiling summer day, so we stayed up top enjoying the panoramic view of the city while a breeze played gently around us.
A view from the top of Vrtba Garden
Our guide captured the sensation perfectly, reminding us that in the 18th century,
‘The idea of watching the landscape was an activity all in itself.”
The gardens of Vrtba were rebuilt between 1990 and 1998. The designs were deriven from written sources. The flowers and shrubbery are typical of what were planted in the 18th century. For more information on the garden, its location and how to visit, go to www.vrtbovska.cz.