Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.
By LIZ HAGER
Edward Manet, Music in the Tuileries Garden, 1862
Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 118.1 cm
(Courtesy of National Gallery, London)
In the history of painting all too often the garden has been relegated to backdrop status, playing the role of “exterior décor” in support of the central character—a portrait or depiction of human activity. Unlike its uncultivated cousin the landscape, the garden never caught on as noble subject matter, though Monet’s paintings of Giverny are a notable exception.
(Fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun)
Thebes, Egypt; Late 18th Dynasty, around 1350 BC
(Courtesy of The Britsh Museum)
Still, this doesn’t mean that gardens are meaningless. As Lucia Impelluso’s Gardens in Art so well demonstrates, gardens are awash in symbols. Wild nature may have no pre-ordained plan, but gardens necessarily do. With the human psyche as creator of the garden, meaning was accorded beyond the sum of its botanical parts. Thus, the motifs and allegories found in the garden offer a tantalizing reflection of human culture and psychology.
Andrea Mantegna, Madonna of Victory, 1496
(Courtesy of Louvre, Paris)
Gardens in Art is 370-plus pages of pure visual delight. While covering a lot of bases, the book educates without resorting to copious amounts of pretentious text. As with the others in the “Guide to Imagery” series, this volume too is filled a diverse selection of illustrations, ranging from ancient frescoes to contemporary sculpture. The text on each topic is contained within one page and each image is accompanied by three or four carefully chosen points that elaborate on the topic at hand.
The first part of the book concerns itself with the history of the garden—the concept of sacred and profane gardens in ancient civilizations; the elaborate gardens of Renaissance popes and princes; the regal gardens of the Baroque; the Enlightenment ideals, which liberated the garden from rigid constructs; and the manifestations of the public garden.
It’s no surprise that Baroque gardens were a natural extension of the pomp and circumstance of the aristocracy of the time. But the section on Monastic gardens truly enlightens on the symbolism of the Medieval quadrant-design and the connection of various plants to the Virgin Mary.
Thomas Rowlandson, The Temple of the British Worthies, late 18th century
Pen and watercolor on board, 10 7/8 x 17 inches
(Courtesy Huntington Library)
The second, and longer, section of Gardens in Art guides the reader through chapters on the various elements of the garden—plants and pruning methods, water, statuary, architectural structures. While the elements themselves have have remained remarkably constant through the ages, their expression has changed, depending on the aesthetic requirements of the day.
The book concludes with three chapters on “Life in the Garden,” “Symbolic Gardens” and “Literary Gardens.”
Within the serious discussion regarding the meaning of gardens lie fascinating cultural tidbits, such as,
The circular garden was created in the Medieval era as a reflection of the universe.
“Gardens of the dead” arose after an 18th-century ban on cemeteries. The concept of the secret garden originated in the Renaissance derived from the Medieval courtly love tradition.
The Versailles garden became a nonpareil “outdoor stage” for theatrical productions, its ever-changing “sets” suggesting infinite dreams and illusions.
The number of exotic plan species in 19th-century England increased considerably after the invention of the Wardian case, a kind of portable greenhouse that made the long sea voyage transport possible.
In the 18th century, it was permissible for high society to strut and “pose” in public gardens.
Edward John Poynter, In a Garden, 1891
Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 inches
(Courtesy of Delaware Art Museum)
The book offered me many more reasons for remaining in love with Gainsborough’s portraiture, the Van Gogh irises, Titan, Lucas Cranach, Manet, Arnold Böcklin, William Blake. . . And it introduced me to the work of artists Hans Bol, Sir Edward John Poynter, Hubert Robert (a painter as well as a garden designer), Filarete. All delicious in their own way!
My only disappointment with the book is almost its near exclusive focus on Western art. One would have thought there was more to say about Asian garden symbolism than what’s contained in the chapter on “Gardens of Meditation.”
Still, it’s a small price to pay for what is on balance is a thoroughly engaging education. I doubt I shall enter another garden without the contents of this book on my mind.
Next on my reading list: Nature and Its Symbols