The gardens stretch over an area of 40 hectares around the Villa Reale. Behind the Serrone (Orangery), which delimits geometrical area now dedicated to the rose garden, visitors enter an area set out in the “English” style. This is characterized by an appearance of apparent spontaneity, but one which in reality reflects a precise overall project conceived by the architect Giuseppe Piermarini. The footpaths proceed among a rich array of trees and shrubs to reach the lake, at the end of which is a classical temple. From the banks, visitors can admire the leafy branches of the trees reflected in the water, with the grotto and the statue of Neptune. Alternatively, they can cross the so-called “rock garden” and descend towards the great central lawn, admiring the waterfall and the small stream that twists among the vegetation, which now begins to thin out. Proceeding to the left, along the prospect in front of the Villa, visitors can admire Polyphemus’ Cave, already to be seen in the celebrated illustrations to the early 19th century treatise by Ercole Silva, the neo-Gothic walls and the tower. All these are basic elements of the culture underlying the new landscape style.
The gardens of the Archduke’s (later Royal) Palace of Monza were created by the architect Giuseppe Piermarini between 1778 and 1783. At first the layout was formal, inspired by the French fashion. The geometrical, regular design was later extended to convey a sense of unity with the surrounding landscape. Piermarini’s role as precursor in the creation of gardens in the style imported from England, apparently natural but in reality the fruit of a precise design, is testified by Ercole Silva in his treatise Dell’arte dei giardini (1801, 1813). Silva described Piermarini as “the first […] to give a taste of the English gardens”, though he chose to make a compromise with formal garden layout. The geometrical parterre was certainly the best way of extolling the power and magnificence of the Prince, while the novelty of the new style bore witness to the designer’s and the client’s (Ferdinand of Hapsburg) awareness of new international stylistic and cultural trends. These could be seen in the well-endowed library of the Minister Firmian, which contained several texts on gardening. In addition, a manuscript by Ercole Silva records his impressions of a tour undertaken between 1783 and 1786 through France, Switzerland, Holland, England and Germany.
The splendour of the gardens and their immense cultural value, arising from the work of an exceptional professional figure assisted by gardeners sent from Vienna at the wish of Maria Theresa of Austria, is witnessed by a long line of fine illustrations. Painters and engravers recorded details and overall views of the gardens from the time of their creation. The impulse to do this came from their awareness that the gardens were an important testimony to Italian mastery of the new style, backed by the cultural policies promoted by the Hapsburgs and by the commission from Eugène de Beauharnais. The numerous engravings, paintings and photographs showing the various ornamental elements and, above all, the romantic lake with the temple created by Piermarini, evoke the beauty of a place where time appears to stand still.
The present botanical variety, including many fine exemplars, is the result of the exhaustive work by judicious gardeners who introduced more than 15,000 different species from the early 19th century onwards. Care of the gardens was initially entrusted to Luigi Villoresi, compiler of the first “catalogue” of plants and among the founders of the local school for gardeners. Villoresi was succeeded by Giovanbattista Rossi and then by Giuseppe Manetti, a skilled gardener and an internationally celebrated botanist who played a fundamental role in the introduction of exotic and rare plants.