The term grotto is derived from the Old Italian grotta, which is itself from the Late Latin crypta for “vault” or “cavern.” Crypta in turn has its origins in the Greek krypte, meaning “hidden place” (“Grotto”). The Greeks believed that the world was created by a union of the god of the sky and the goddess of the earth. Caves, they felt, were the locations where mankind could get the closest to the feminine and the earth goddess, and many shrines were erected in such places.
There is something inherently womb-like about places deep in the earth. Eventually, people constructed their own man-made “caves,” added shrines, and (in many cases) placed them within a garden, sometimes as an accent and sometimes as the focal point. The garden grotto was formed out of this specific type of grotto. The greenery of the garden symbolizes life, and a fountain full of life-giving water often also plays a part structurally and thematically. Many Classical rites revolve around the grotto; and many ancient philosophers, including Pythagoras, sought enlightenment within one. The tradition was passed on from Greeks to Romans to Renaissance Europeans, where the tradition often (but not always) took on a Christian slant. Both the Classical types, and their more Christian counterparts, eventually found their way to America. Some garden grottos still maintain the meaning of the originals. While in some, the meaning has given way; and the grottos are little more than whimsical garden decorations (“Garden Fountain Grotto”; McIntosh 11-12).
Almost a decade ago, I visited “The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes” across the street from Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida. In spite (or maybe because of) the fact it felt a little too isolated, it really projects a feeling of peace. When I was there, it was easy to imagine that I was in some earlier time—certainly not the 21st century.
“Garden Fountain Grotto.” Gardenvisit.com: The Garden and Landscape Guide.
McIntosh, Christopher. Gardens of the Gods: Myth, Magic and Meaning in Horticulture.
London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.