My Thoughts – Art VERSUS Nature or Art AND Nature

I read with interest the review of William Robinson’s book by Helen and felt I wanted to add my own thoughts.

A couple of comments before I begin:

1.      A garden, a book, a painting must be considered in relation to its time.  Certainly Robinson’s revolt against the “formal” planting style of his time led him to promote a more natural style; but in reality if we looked in detail at his designs now we would probably think them VERY FORMAL indeed.

2.      I teach the history of Italian Renaissance Gardens so my views are informed by this period when ART and NATURE were the very watch words of every garden.

A garden is never natural.  The hand of man (or more likely woman) is what defines a garden from a natural environment.  However beautiful Nature is (and don’t misunderstand me I often find nature sublime) that beauty rarely lasts for more than a short period.  The poppies that delight us for a month or so disappear leaving what? Here in Italy usually the end of the poppies is the end of greenness – the time when everything is parched; in other places they may just be replaced by grass.  The wild bulbs seen in Turkey only cover the hillsides for a short time – there is no succession planting.

So a garden is a controlled space however much we are aiming at mimicking nature – nature is not what we truly want.  Yes, yes, place plants together that have similar needs, they will certainly look better together than putting something that requires damp shade next to something that needs full drained soil and sun.

Ask Beth Chatto if her garden is Natural; I think she would say that it is a controlled space as much as the formal gardens of the past.

The current trend for ‘Meadow’ or ‘Prairie’ planting is also not natural as anyone who has tried to establish one will tell you.  They are not easy to maintain. I remember talking to the Head Gardener at Hatfield House who said that the Meadow, there, needed more maintenance and more time than any other part of that wonderful garden.

For a landscape designer of the Renaissance the Balance between Art and Nature was crucial.  A villa needed to be constructed in a Natural (untamed) place so that the architect could demonstrate by his design the natural laws that were present in nature.  Man’s control over nature in a garden showed that he was civilised, that he had moved on from the Medieval view.  Unfortunately when we visit a Renaissance Garden now, what we see is what remains – architecture, formal planting of hedges of Box (actually box was dismissed as a nasty smelling shrub in the early Renaissance and hedges were often of scented herbs like Salvia, Hyssop or Rosemary)  Box was added later because it lived longer and was easier to maintain.  The hedges were cut so that they cast shadows like stone (Nature as Art)  but the beds would have been filled with all the new exotic plants that were being discovered.  From letters and descriptions we know that for the patron of the garden it was just as important, as it is for us, to have a flower blooming every day of the year.  We know too that the sound of birds and the inclusion of delicious fruits was also important for them; the Romans encouraged birds into their gardens too by placing fountains that doubled as bird baths – just look at the frescos at Pompeii or Livia’s Villa (now in a museum in Rome).

I heard a wonderful definition of a garden at a conference and for me it is true.  “A garden is an outside space designed for the enjoyment of its owner and his guests”; and no, it doesn’t have to contain plants but for most peoples enjoyment there will be plants, water, perfume, sound and maybe something to engage the intellect as well.

Here are some images of the wonderful gardens that I visit with my students:

Fountain of the River Gods, Villa Lante, Bagnaia, Viterbo

One of the Sphinx that welcome us to the Sacred Wood at Bomarzo, Viterbo

The sphinx at the beginning of the garden (Sacred Wood) at Bomarzo poses a question about Art and Nature:
You who enter here put your mind to it part by part
And tell me then if so many wonders
Were made as trickery or as art.

– We must use our intellect to decipher the meanings of this garden.