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    the history of pergolas

    The History of Pergolas

    Discover the rich history and cultural significance of pergolas - from ancient civilizations to modern outdoor elegance!

    In This Article:
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      The Origins of Pergolas

      Scholars identified what’s believed to be the earliest surviving detailed garden plan (from about 1400 BCE) of a garden with a doorway aligned on a pergola, heavy with vines, leading to the dwelling’s entrance. The home belonged to an Egyptian high court official at Thebes, according to Encyclopedia Britannica contributor Gloria Lotha. And so, pergolas began.

      Pergolas Through the Ages

      Ancient pergolas were considered architectural marvels and displayed the cultural aspirations of the earliest pergola aficionados: Egyptians and Romans.

      In his book devoted to Roman gardens, British researcher and writer Anthony Beesom writes that pergolas became integral to how Romans cultivated their space.

      “The Romans loved gardens,” Beesom writes. “It was the peristyle gardens at the heart of the household and the social importance of owning a garden that spurred their development.”

      (In ancient Greek and Roman architecture, a peristyle is a continuous porch formed by a row of columns surrounding the perimeter of a building or a courtyard, of which a pergola structure was a natural addition.) Agricultural at their core, Romans invested in a diverse and innovative garden tradition—both domestic and public that allowed for plants to grow and thrive in urban spaces. Aristocratic flower and foliage-filled gardens “encircled and dissected” Rome.

      Beesom writes that the Romans “took delight in the juxtaposition of art and nature” and “imposed decorative restraints on nature,” with hardscapes, including pergolas. Throughout Italy, Tunisia and Portugal, gardens were trellised with elaborate latticework to allow vines to encircle posts to create a canopy for shade and a display of flowers.

      “Practical fencing and pergolas joined the purely decorative in gardens bringing functionality,” Beesom writes. “Garden triclinia (Roman dining rooms) and fishponds were shaded by pergolas and vines.”

      In the Middle Ages pergolas and other structures were covered by various plants (usually roses) and used to provide shade in the summer. They were mainly used in what were called “pleasure gardens.”

      Egyptians and Romans embraced pergolas, integrating them into their gardens as architectural marvels and cultural symbols.

      During the Renaissance, according to research by vertical greenery systems scholar Marc Ottelé, vertical structures appeared mainly in the gardens of the aristocracy, designed to connect house and garden. Historical examples of designs, such as Villa Quaracchi with a garden divided by a pergola, abound. The cultivation of fruit trees and the use of exotic plants along the facades or walls of sunny sides further developed then.

      “In the garden art of France in the 17th and 18th centuries the architectural approach of creating espaliers and palisade trees and parterres with large green pergolas to provide shade while strolling through the extensive gardens became widespread. In several cases, the technically sophisticated cast-iron structures were also unadorned, reflecting the admiration for construction techniques and materials at the time,” according to Ottelé’s research. “In this period the same climbing plants from America were already used, which are still broadly used today.”

      With the resurgence of Neoclassical architecture, pergolas in the 18th Century reflected Neoclassical architecture, characterized by grand scale, simple geometric forms, and dramatic columns. French Pergolas diverged in style and size, some with roughly designed trellises, others with elaborate lattices.

      “The new taste for antique simplicity represented a general reaction to the excesses of the Rococo (baroque) style. Neoclassicism thrived in the United States and Europe, with examples occurring in almost every major city,” according to historians.

      In the Arts & Crafts architecture, pergolas have always had a special history—and continue to enrich gardens. Their resurgence during the Arts and Crafts movement, in the second half of the 19th Century, was mostly so British and American homeowners could grow wisteria in more-temperate climates.

      But scholars identify the golden age of the British pergola as the Edwardian era in which wealthy industrialists and landed aristocrats funded creations that resonated with a ‘heady social mix of leisure, sensuality and affluence’. Epitomizing these Edwardian structures was the Hampstead Pergola in London, which was financed in 1904 by William Lever, head of the Lever Brothers soap company, after he bought a large Edwardian mansion on Hampstead Heath, London.

      Lever was an MP in the British parliament and Lever’s home served as his base for political activities. According to scholars, it also “offered opportunities to satisfy another of [Lever’s] passions, garden design,” Lever hired a well-known designer, Thomas Mawson, to create a 245-metre-long (804-foot) pergola.

      Described by Katherine Swift, a rare book librarian at Oxford and garden enthusiast, as “a remarkable structure with its contradictory signals of exclusivity and openness… its extraordinary scale and its brilliant extempore handling of space, zig zags around what appears to be a precipice on the edge of West Heath like some great Indian fort, a shimmer of white stone columns above massive red brick arches and retaining walls.”

      So, pergolas have history.

      Architectural Features of Pergolas

      A pergola is a permanent structure known as a hardscape. They can be freestanding as they extend from a building or home, or they can connect two buildings, such as a garage. Pergolas have an open crossbeam roof, which is supported by columns or pillars. Both the columns and roof are most-often used as a framework for climbing vines or flowering plants. For details on the parts of a pergola, consider the following, or talk with a professional, such as ArborsDirect. For a quick overview, the following are the structural parts of a pergola:

      On a pergola attached to a house, the ledger or ledger board refers to the lumber piece anchored to the wall framing.  The ledger should be as long as the pergola and the same height as the pergola’s rafters.

      Rafters are the horizontal pieces that form the main part of the pergola’s top, or roof, and the ends of the rafters are attached to the ledger board at one end and sit on top of the beam at the other. Freestanding pergolas have rafters that sit on top of the beams on both sides.

      Posts are the vertical support pieces that run from the base (or footing) to the beam. Attached pergolas have two posts, one at each end of the beam. Freestanding pergolas have at least four posts.

      Beams are the pieces that run parallel to the ledger board. Many homeowners like to show off some flare by having the beams in a shape other than a flat square. Freestanding pergolas feature two beams running parallel to each other.

      Fiberglass beams can also span longer distances than wood or vinyl. The high strength-to-weight ratio of fiberglass keeps longer beams from sagging under their own weight. Unlike vinyl, they are unaffected by variations in temperature and don’t sag in high temperatures. It doesn’t expand with temperature changes.

      Purlins are add-ons that can be placed on top of the rafters to create more shade. They run perpendicular to the rafters.

      A note on footings: Footings or piers for pergolas are created by pouring concrete into a hole or form in the ground. Footings support the posts. (Municipal building codes specify how deep the footings must be, which is typically below the frost line. Check with local codes for specifics.) A pergola doesn’t need footings or concrete to support itself, but its posts will need to be buried into the ground or anchored with heavy-duty concrete anchor bolts to prevent them from toppling over in high winds.

      Whether or not concrete footings are used is a function of the underlying soil, groundwater, and frost depth conditions, according to Fine Home Building. When in doubt, have it assessed by a professional.

      Cultural Significance of Pergolas

      Pergolas through history have been a place for social gatherings at homes, in gardens and in public parks. In modern landscape design, pergolas on display show they are perfect for classical gardens and homes, as well as current styles. Depending on the style, pergolas offer a glimpse into different cultural traditions by what’s displayed on, in and around the hardscape.

      Various cultures have embraced pergolas, incorporating them into religious and ceremonial spaces. Writers and artists have been inspired by the romantic allure of pergolas, immortalizing them in their works. Even today, scholars continue to analyze pergolas and write about them in descriptive verse.

      outdoor couches under a pergola
      Pergolas historically hosted social gatherings, and their designs reflect cultural traditions and artistic inspiration.

      “Landscape, cavity, courtyard, skin, pergola are some of the elements of the Mediterranean abacus that architecture tries to transfigure into a single substance but also as a derivation of a great mother, the Mediterranean Sea,” writes Italian scholar Concetta Tavoletta, in her 2021 paper on architecture and urban spaces.

      “We can suppose that all these elements come from an idea that acts as a trait d’union, an intuition that made the domestic space of the Mare Nostrum the place of the myth of living: the innovative idea of horizon summarized as the ability of the gaze to observe outward—where the horizon is not only found in the relationship with the landscape but is present within the domestic space.”

      Preservation and Restoration of Pergolas

      The importance of preserving pergolas should be clear through any discussion of their history. Those pergolas already attached to historic home or structures, have to be preserved following governmental policies.

      birds eye view of a homes backyard with a pergola and outdoor fire place and chairs

      Bringing historical pergolas back to life is no small project, but it can be done. The best way to preserve a pergola is to care for it well from the beginning. For fiberglass pergolas, follow these guidelines. For other materials, consult the manufacturer or follow general guidelines such as these.

      Summary

      In the world of architectural wonders, pergolas stand out as enchanting outdoor structures that have captivated people across different civilizations and eras. These elegantly designed, open-air structures have not only served functional purposes, but also held cultural significance in various societies. Thank you for reading this journey through time to explore the origins, cultural importance, architectural features and preservation of pergolas.


      FAQs

      What is the definition of a pergola?

      A pergola is an outdoor structure consisting of columns or posts that support an open roof of beams and crossbeams, often covered with climbing plants.

      How are pergolas different from other outdoor structures?

      Unlike solid-roofed structures like gazebos, pergolas have an open-roof design with an interlaced framework, allowing for partial shade and the opportunity to grow vines or plants.

      What are some famous examples of pergolas worldwide?

      Notable examples of pergolas include the iconic Pergola of Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy, and the enchanting Pergola at the Boston Public Garden in the United States.

      Can I build a pergola in my own backyard?

      Yes, you can build a pergola in your backyard, as long as you comply with local building codes and regulations, and obtain any necessary permits.

      How do pergolas enhance outdoor living spaces?

      Pergolas enhance outdoor living spaces by providing a visually appealing focal point, offering shade and shelter, creating a defined space for relaxation or entertaining, and allowing for the integration of natural elements like plants and flowers.

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