Saturday, 13 December 2014

The writer's garden: John Ruskin at Brantwood

Gardens and literature are deeply linked. As literature inspired many revolutions in garden design, in the same way gardens have always been an inspiration for writers and poets.
The relationship between these two arts is a very interesting subject, and that's why I decided to write a few posts on this topic.
This is the first post, and it is about one of the most influent people on the subject of Picturesque: John Ruskin.
Ruskin spent the last 28 years of his life in Brantwood, in the Lake District.  This place represented for him both a shelter during his period of illness, an inspiration for his writings, and a place for recreating atmospheres he had seen and studied from paintings and during his long travels around Europe.

Ruskin Brantwood watercolor
John Ruskin, Brantwood from the edge of Coniston Water. 1871.

He also wanted to use this space to experiment with his new social theories.
What he creates around his house is similar to an alpine garden but you can't really find a resemblance with the kind of gardens that were fashionable at that time, nor with any garden scheme of the past.
During his travels Ruskin rarely stopped to visit parks and gardens, he preferred wild nature by far. Even though we know that he visited Chatsworth and Blenheim with his parents, what moved him most in these palaces were the paintings by Claude and the Carracci.
When he came to Italy one of the most fascinating places he described in his letters were the Alps, with all their majesty, and this is the main feature of his garden in Brantwood.

We know many things about this garden and Ruskin's improvements thanks to W. G. Collingwood, artist and biographer of Ruskin, who spent much time with him in Brantwood.
One of the most interesting ideas we can explore reading Collingwood's essay is about Japan and offers a very original interpretation of Ruskin's gardening:
Ruskin had little to say in praise of Japanese art as he knew it, because they could not draw pretty figures, and he had no admiration for dwarfs or monsters; but one cannot help thinking that if he had seen Japan, and if it is all that travellers tell us, he might have written some enthusiastic passages on a people who love stones for their own sake and tub themselves daily.
Ruskin Brantwood zig zag
Ruskin's sketches for a zig-zag path in a letter
to John Severn (march 1873)

In the upper part of the garden Ruskin left the trees grow tall as to recreate a scene from Botticelli's
But one of the clearest characteristics of Brantwood is that every part of the garden had to be useful. So we can see a cottage garden with fruit trees, a fishpond for studying fish, and many water reserves.
Above all, he wants to leave nature as untouched as possible.  Ruskin deplored the manipulation of nature and the use of glass houses, very popular in those years (he often criticizes the Crystal Palace, built in 1851 for the Great Exhibition of London because it represented the subjugation of the society to commerce and industry).
Transforming his estate as little as possible was Ruskin's way to put in practice his theories on returning to simple beauty and nature.

Bennett, Jackie. The writer's garden. How gardens inspired our best-loved authors. London, 2014.

Collingwood, William Gershom. Ruskin relics. London, 1903.

Hunt, John Dixon. Ut pictura poesis, the picturesque, and John Ruskin, in: MLN, Vol. 93, No. 5, Comparative Literature (Dec., 1978), pp. 794-818. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hunt, John Dixon. The Wider Sea. A life of John Ruskin. London, 1982.

Ingram, David. The Gardens at Brantwood. Evolution of John Ruskin's Lakeland Paradise. London, 2014.

Tyas Cook, Edward and Alexandrea Wedderburn. The Library Edition of the works of John Ruskin. London, 1903-12.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Ninfa: a landscape garden out of time

Just outside the Italian town of Sermoneta there is a romantic garden called Ninfa, known in every part of the world.
ninfa gardenNinfa was the name of an ancient town owned by the Caetani family, and this is its first peculiarity. It was not simply a private estate, it was a town, with its own houses, churches, its shops and even a castle.
Its second distinctive trait regards the subject of ruins.
In landscape gardens, false ruins are often used as focal points. Ninfa's ruins are real. What we see today was once a real town, destroyed during a war in 1380 in which two branches of the Caetani family were involved.
The first garden in Ninfa was created in the Sixteenth Century by Cardinal Nicolò Caetani. It was a walled garden organized by two orthogonal axes with an octagonal basin at their intersection. Far from what it would later become, the first garden of ninfa was a kind of hortus conclusus. We can see clear traces of it today, and the octagonal basin is still there.
Ninfa remained abandoned for centuries, but it began to receive increasing interest by travelers during the Nineteenth Century. What they saw was, entirely accidentally, surprisingly similar to a landscape garden, because Nature had taken over the buildings. Ninfa had become, unconsciously, a landscape garden. 
ninfa garden bridge giardinoOnly at the beginning of the Twentieth Century did Gelasio Caetani decide to transform his hometown into a real garden, and his heirs continued to improve it throughout the duration of the whole century. He restored part of the ruins and added only one new building, a small cabin similar to the ones stonecutters and charcoal-burners used to live in. This is the only intentional fabrique in Ninfa.
Over the last 100 years women of the Caetani family took care of the garden, planting roses and trees and giving it its final shape. No expert gardeners ever worked on it. 
Marguerite Caetani’s interests were not limited to gardening. She brought to Ninfa art and culture. She was indeed a journalist and an art collector and she founded the literary magazines Commerce (in France) and Botteghe Oscure. The director of the last magazine was Giorgio Bassani, who spent much of his time in Ninfa where he wrote his most famous novel, Il giardino dei Finzi Contini, during one of his stays.
balthus lelia caetani
Balthus, portrait of Lelia Caetani.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Marguerite's daughter, Lelia, continued her mother's improvements to the garden and left us paintings of Ninfa. She was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, she visited English gardens quite often and married an English man, Hubert Howard, who founded Italia Nostra, an association for the defense of the historical, cultural and environmental heritage of Italy. 
Today the garden of Ninfa is open to the public and preserved by a foundation. 

Caracciolo, Marella e Pietromarchi, Giuppi. Il giardino di Ninfa. Torino: Allemandi, 1995.

Conforti Calcagni, Annamaria. Una grande casa, cui sia di tetto il cielo. Il giardino nell'Italia del Novecento. Milano: Il Saggiatore, 2011.

Fiorani, Luigi. Ninfa. Una città, un giardino. Roma: L'erma, 1990.

Quest-Riston, Charles. Ninfa. The most romantic garden in the world. London, 2009.

Randall, Frederika. Day Trip; a secret garden. In: The New York Times, June 16 2002. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Chinese influences and a European cameo

Chambers pagoda KewLandscape gardens were also known, especially in France, as Anglo-Chinese Gardens.
Probably the first one to use this description was Georges-Louis Le Rouge, an architect and cartographer who published, in 1775, a  collection of plans and drawings titled Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode.
What was the link between Landscape gardens and Chinese gardens? There are many analogies regarding the composition of space and the way to look at nature.
Both styles of gardens were irregular, they seemed to most revere natural landscape, they used water not through fountains but through small rivers and lakes, masking as much as possible their artificiality.
Artificial mountains give the place a natural look and brought people closer to the sky so that the garden was conceived as a series of consecutive views.
In Europe, landscape gardens soon begun to use the Chinese-style buildings. The first one was probably built in Stowe in 1738, but one of the most famous is found in the Kew Gardens, and was designed by one of the most important architects and essay writers of the new garden, William Chambers.
In his book A dissertation on Oriental  Gardening (1772) Chambers states clearly that even if Western architecture is far superior to that of Chinese architecture, their gardens are certainly worthy of imitation.
How did people know about the look of Chinese gardens in that period, since long distance travel was so rare?
One of the first and most important accounts of a Chinese garden came from a  French Jesuit, Jean Denis Attiret, who stayed in Beijing as a missioner but also working as a painter for the Qianlong Emperor and in 1752 wrote a letter (that was then published in Europe) describing the most stunning garden of China: Yuanmingyuan, or Garden of Perfect Brightness.
Attiret himself, together with an Italian artist named Giuseppe Castiglione, and Michel Benoit (both Jesuits like Attiret), worked to design and build the garden. 
The curious thing, and the reason why I decided to write something about it, is that Yuanmingyuan unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. It was destroyed in 1860, and remains the only Oriental garden containing a small European-style garden.

yuangminyuan maze

It might seem like a vicious circle: who is copying who? and why?
The truth is that in many ways oriental gardens influenced european ones, while the opposite never happened.
Western buildings in Yuanmingyuan can be considered just as fancy as the Emperor, but never influenced Chinese architecture.
European garden in Yuanmingyuan is a kind of a rococò garden, coming from Castiglione’s studies on Italian villas. Buildings are symmetrical, formal, massive, and so is the composition of the garden, far removed from what was happening in those years in Europe. 
The focal point is a big maze and several fountains are positioned in key points on orthogonal axes. 
Emperor Qianlong was a collector of European art, and for this reason he often asked for the cooperation of Jesuit missioners, especially Castiglione, who soon became a well-known artist in China, being able to combine traditional Chinese art with modern european techniques. 
In Italy he had studied also as a stage designer and in China he wrote the first essay on perspective in 1729.

yuangminyuan western building

We know something about this place thanks to forty copper plates that are now in Paris, that show different views of Yuanmingyuan. A few of them were published by Le Rouge in the books mentioned above. 
The European buildings are shown in a suite of twenty engravings commissioned by Qianlong in 1784.
On the following links you can see recent extraordinary studies that reconstruct Western Buildings of Yuanmingyuan in 3D, plans, elevations and even videos. A wonderful way to learn more about the past using the newest innovations. 

Thomas, Greg M. Yuanming Yuan/Versailles: Intercultural interactions between Chinese and European Palace Cultures. In: Art History vol 32. Oxford, 2009.

Wong, tsu-Young. A Paradise Lost: The Imperial Garden Yuanming Yuan. University of Hawai'i Press, 2001.

Zoratto, Bruno. Giuseppe Castiglione. Pittore italiano alla corte imperiale cinese. Brindisi: Schena editore, 1994.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Another theory about the birth of Landscape Garden. Ippolito Pindemonte

Ippolito Pindemonte giardini
There are many theories about the birth of landscape garden, and today I will take a deeper look at the one proposed by Ippolito Pinedmonte, an Italian poet born in Verona in 1753, that originated from a meeting of the Science Academy in Padova in 1792.
In the first part of his dissertation, the poet offers a description of what can be considered a landscape garden. He lists every element we would find in these kinds of places, such as hills, lakes, trees, of course, and ruins etc.
The second part of the text is dedicated to his personal theory about the origin of this kind of style. Looking at the past, the author doesn't seem to see any evidence of irregular gardens in the antique examples, so he begins to search for a description of irregular gardens in literature.
Often, he says, we think that the fist description of this kind of garden is the one Milton constructs in his Paradise Lost. Pindemonte doesn't agree on its origin. He says that we can find something very similar to a landscape garden in the work of an Italian poet, Torquato Tasso. A century before Milton's poem, the Garden of Armida is described in the Gerusalemme Liberata as a place in which hills, lakes, wild trees and flowers, live together with caves and valleys. This is, for Pindemonte, the exact definition of a landscape garden:

Poi che lasciàr gli aviluppati calli,
in lieto aspetto il bel giardin s’aperse:
acque stagnanti, mobili cristalli,
fior vari e varie piante, erbe diverse,
apriche collinette, ombrose valli,
selve e spelonche in una vista offerse;
e quel che ’l bello e ’l caro accresce a l’opre,
l’arte, che tutto fa, nulla si scopre. 
Stimi (sí misto il culto è co ’l negletto)
sol naturali e gli ornamenti e i siti.
Di natura arte par, che per diletto
l’imitatrice sua scherzando imiti.

When they had passed all those troubled ways,
The garden sweet spread forth her green to show,
The moving crystal from the fountains plays,
Fair trees, high plants, strange herbs and flowerets new,
Sunshiny hills, dales hid from Phoebus' rays,
Groves, arbors, mossy caves, at once they view,
And that which beauty moat, most wonder brought,
Nowhere appeared the art which all this wrought.
So with the rude the polished mingled was
That natural seemed all and every part,
Nature would craft in counterfeiting pass,
And imitate her imitator art.

To strengthen his theory the author says that Milton himself surely knew well Tasso's poem, and took from it his idea of an irregular garden.

Pindemonte, Ippolito. Dissertazione sui giardini inglesi e sul merito di ciò dell'Italia. Padova, 1792.
Tasso, Torquato. La Gerusalemme Liberata. Venezia, 1580.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

A garden as it might have been: Villa Albergati

villa albergati
villa albergati villa albergati
Villa Albergati is a huge house close to Bologna built in 1659 by architects Bonifacio Socchi and Gian Giacomo Monti. There was a plan for its transformation as an imperial residence for Napoleone Bonaparte, dated back to 1805.
In particular he wanted to plan a new park, full of small buildings in the style of landscape gardens.
We are lucky enough to be able to see today all the drawings made in preparation for this transformation that, unfortunately, never took place.
The project was commissioned by the painter Antonio Basoli and the architect Ercole Gasparini. There are some drawings that show, similar to what would be found in a catalogue, the list of fabriques that had to be scattered across the park.
These drawings are now preserved in the Centro Studi Ville Bolognesi in the city of Zola Predosa, while the plans of the whole garden are exhibited inside the Villa which is now used as a conference center and restaurant.
A few words about the authors, because it will help us to understand why they designed the garden the way they did. Antonio Basoli was a painter and a stage designer. His major works are: Raccolta di Prospettive Serie, Rustiche, e di Paesaggio (1810) and Vedute pittoresche della città di Bologna (1839). His favorite subject was Roman architecture, and it is what his project for the fabriques would eventually look like.
Ercole Gasparini was a famous architect and a teacher at The Academy. Greek and Roman art served as his models evidenced by the huge collection of 277 drawings preserved in the Gabinetto di Disegni e Stampe dell'Archiginnasio in Bologna.
He designs five funeral monuments in Bologna's Certosa.
Returning to the main argument of this post, let's have a look at the big plan of the park, in the first picture. We can easily recognize the key elements of the project: the house is exactly in the middle of the drawing. The garden is divided into two main parts. In front of the house (in the lower part of the drawing) we see the formal garden. The idea of this survives today as you can see in the last picture. Behind the house (in the upper part of the drawing) there is the landscape garden, with all its typical elements: rivers, lakes, hills, and small buildings all around. To be more precise, I have to notice that the closest part to the house, even in the "landscape" side, is designed as a formal garden. This follows the style of William Kent who established that the open area around the house must continue the geometry of the interior.
I didn't find bibliographical resources yet, but here is a list of websites you can look at to read something else about this exquisite place.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A different point of view on Roman gardens

Pierre Grimal
Grimal, Pierre. L'art des jardins. 
Paris: P.U.F., 1954.
Talking about the landscape garden, we often stumble upon the debate concerning its cultural origins. Was it in England, in the far East or in Italy? Was it born in the 18th Century, the 16th Century, or even earlier?
According to Pierre Grimal, who wrote two crucial essays on garden history, the first examples of what we used to call landscape garden come from the Roman era.
In particular from the transposition of Greek landscape paintings into open areas: "This art of landscape garden", he says, "was born thanks to Greek painting, that imposed its aesthetics and even the details of its themes [...] The invention of Roman gardeners was simply to detach the painted landscape and to move it in the open area on the edge of porticos".
We could say that the tradition of planting new gardens while studying a particular kind of painting happened in the Roman era just as it occurred in Eighteenth Century England through the study of landscape paintings.
And, if you think about it, it's not so hard to understand. Wasn't the Roman landscape itself what Lorrain or Pussin were sketching then? It all makes sense, it seems to be a continuous cycle.
And this is just one, for me the most brilliant, of the new perspectives this book offers to those who want to look at garden history objectively.
Another key point of the text is found in the quotation that follows: "Landscape is loved, or considered worthy of the artist's interpretation, only as it proves human presence".
In 1777 René-Louis de Girardin, in his De la Composition des Paysages, writing about the new way of planting and designing a garden, 
says that the endeavor ought to be an initiation of sorts that provides a journey for the people who take its path. And it is in this way that he planned his own park in Ermenonville. Man is a complementary facet of the garden. The same idea is true also for the oriental garden, but this is a point we will analyze in subsequent posts.

Grimal, Pierre. Les Jardins romains. Paris: Fayard, 1944.
Grimal, Pierre. L'art des jardins. Paris: P.U.F., 1954.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Alistair Rowan, Garden Buildings

alistair rowan garden buildings
Rowan,Alistair. Garden buildings.
Watford: Country Life Books, 1968.
This small book came with the magazine Country Life and contains many drawings that originate from the precious collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects, today mostly digitalized on the website
Being inspired by this extraordinary collection, the author sketches a particular history of the taste in gardening following the architectural elements inlaid in the landscape.
Throughout history people have enriched gardens with the inclusion of small or big buildings, but this custom became even more popular as the gardens themselves grew in size. The author says, and there's no reason to deny it, that garden architecture gave designers the chance to experiment with innovative new styles, so they became innovative, often serving as the first examples of architectural revolutions that would soon take place.
The reason could simply be that those buildings were mostly inexpensive and therefore easily amenable and malleable, but also easily removed.
Landscape gardens, like the paintings from which they draw their inspiration,
are constellated from small buildings. These structures were always different from one another and rarely served a functional purpose. 
Pavilions, ruins, and temples are often used to create a journey (both physical and spiritual) for the visitor: they create viewpoints, offer shelter or meditation places, and bring to mind exotic places sometimes related to the owner's life.
As history evolved, so did architectural tastes. People shifted their perspective on the purpose of buildings and decided that they too should serve a purpose beyond that of being aesthetically pleasing, claiming further that usefulness was a requirement for beauty.   

Many of these fabriques were destroyed, and the only remaining elements that were ushered into the nineteenth century were: bridges, small cottages for gardeners, and, naturally, conservatories. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Let Nature Never Be Forgot

To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the column, or the arch to bend,
To swell the terrace, or to sink the grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.
But treat the goddess like a modest fair,
Nor overdress, nor leave her wholly bare;
Let not each beauty ev'rywhere be spied,
Where half the skill is decently to hide.
He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds,
Surprises, varies, and conceals the bounds.

Alexander Pope, Epistle IV  To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, 1731.

Here above there is one of the most important statements about landscape gardens. In few words Pope describes how a modern (for his times) garden should be designed, with great respect for nature and proportionality using man made elements. 
Both the poet and the Earl of Burlington were two of the leading actors in garden design in the 18th Century, the former with his writings and his small and meaningful garden in Twickenham, the latter, friend and mentor of William Kent, with his contributions in the propagation of Italian landscape as a model for the English garden. 

With these words I wish to begin my small contribution to the study of landscape garden.

There will be plenty of chances to write something more about Alexander Pope and Richard Boyle in the next posts.