Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 14, 2002
Mirka Benes and Dianne Harris, eds. Villas and Gardens in Early Modern Italy and France Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 448 pp.; 167 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (0521782252)

Following a symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, in 1995 that honored Elisabeth Blair MacDougall, director of landscape studies from 1972 to 1988, Mirka Benes and Dianne Harris commissioned an anthology of articles that present diverse methodological approaches to the history of the villa and the garden in France and Italy from ca. 1550 to 1800. Each of the eleven articles in Villas and Gardens in Early Modern Italy and France offers a stimulating analysis of specific sites, and the editors provide provocative introductions to important issues in the field. Benes clearly states in her introductory essay, “Italian and French Gardens: A Century of Historical Study (1900–2000),” that the editors selected authors who represent an Anglo American approach to garden history rather than a comparative study of international authors. Consequently, Benes’s overview of the field privileges a group of art historians who belong to generations of scholars working primarily in American universities from the 1950s until the 1990s. This perspective is necessarily limiting, as Benes acknowledges, yet her elaborately footnoted essay provides an insightful survey of the historiography of the field. Although Benes carefully reconstructs the academic circles that have contributed to the development of garden history for both countries, she minimizes the significant role played by John Dixon Hunt as editor of Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes (formerly Journal of Garden History), which, for more than twenty years, has consistently published articles by international scholars on wide-ranging topics in landscape studies.

In her introductory essay “Landscape in Contexte,” Harris addresses the methodological problem of “contextualization and its inherent academic partner interdisciplinarity.” Harris forthrightly establishes that for garden historians, “Our primary context then is space—physical and cultural…the notion that physical frameworks and spatial characteristics are a social product, combined with the belief that produced space can be decoded or read, is commonplace—it forms the foundation of our work” (17). By emphasizing space as a social product, Harris definitively ruptures the long-held telelogical vision of garden history as a series of successive styles. Harris’s thoughtful evaluation of the range of methods and sources used by garden historians provides a valuable overview that clearly situates garden history at the center rather than at the margins of art-historical discourses.

Both editors argue that the “early modern aristocratic garden was a particular kind of spatial container for court society and its functions in the lives of European monarchies and principalities” (3), which is in fact the underlying theme for the eleven articles of the anthology. In her essay “Italy is a Garden: The Idea of Italy and the Italian Garden Tradition,” Claudia Lazzaro questions the legitimacy of a homogenic Italian garden, since Italy did not exist as a nation until 1870. She perspicaciously suggests that the ideal of the Italian garden played a significant role in the formation of Italian national identity from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Lazzaro’s article is both a study in receptivity and a cautionary tale that defies future garden historians to designate “an Italian garden” as a stylistic category. Suzanne Butters’s essay is a fascinating study of how commandeered peasant workers were symbolically represented at the Prince Francesco de Medici (1541–87) park at Pratolino. In a careful reading of archival sources, Butters presents a radical reevaluation of an aspect of garden history that is usually suppressed—the workers who were employed to make the gardens places of leisure—and thus reveals that the garden program had a number of diverse meanings for its contemporaries. Her iconographic analysis of alchemical imagery in conjunction with her sociological interpretation of the laborers offers a new dimension not only to our interpretation of Pratolino, but also to the practice of accepting garden programs as uniquely dedicated to aesthetic concerns. Benes’s “Pastoralisms in the Roman Baroque Villa and in Claude Lorrain: Myths and Realities of the Roman Campagna” examines and redefines the pastoralist-agarian landscape of the Campagna, the territory around Rome, in the first half of the seventeenth century. Benes contends that the patronage of both villa gardens and landscape paintings were not isolated events but interrelated reflections of dramatic changes in the status of the landowning nobility. Concentrating on what she designates as “villa estates,” she asserts that the exploitation of land for pasture as opposed to cultivation, physically close to Rome, distinguishes the baroque villa from its Renaissance predecessors. Similarly, Tracey Ehrlich discusses the agro-productive landscape at the Villa Mondragone near Frascati. Ehrlich focuses on the “constructed landscape” the rural countryside outside the terrace walls, arguing that the view from the villa was meant to display the Borghese family’s investments as well as the prestige associated with viewing the pastoral landscapes of antiquity. The agro-productive themes of Ehrlichs and Benes’s essays form a counterpoint to Elisabeth MacDougall’s study of the Venaria Reale, which was constructed near Turin in the late 1650s. Extensive archival evidence exists for the villa and gardens, and MacDougall’s article reflects a more traditional methodology in which garden design is considered in relation to architecture, urbanism, and theater. Harris’s analysis of Marc’Antonio dal Re’s Ville di delize demonstrates how the Milanese printmaker promoted an image of villa culture and self-display for Milanese patrons in eighteenth-century Lombardy. Although topographic prints have often been considered as primary sources for reconstructing lost garden structures and programs, Harris’s careful “multi-source approach” reveals how prints can also function as a fabrication of both patrons and viewers’ desires.

The second part of the volume, dedicated to the French court, opens with Sheila ffolliott’s reading of the Renaissance garden as a space gendered feminine. Following a detailed iconographic analysis, ffolliott suggests that Catherine de Medici exploited the image of the garden as an allegory of female rule without challenging her position as Queen Regent. It would have been helpful if ffolliott applied her sagacious interpretations to extant Renaissance garden sites. Elizabeth Hyde’s groundbreaking work on the the role of flowers in French society also assumes a feminist perspective. Hyde questions the disjunction between the growing and selling of flowers—gendered as female—and the fact that flower collectors were primarily male members of the upper aristocracy and royal family. Hyde interprets Louis XIV’s flower collecting at the Trianon as an usurpation of the feminine to allowing the king’s power to encompass all the forces of nature. Chandra Mukerji, building on her earlier pioneering sociological analysis of French seventeenth-century gardens, examines the parterre de broderie as a means of “dressing the land…which was a form of political ‘address’ that claimed France to be a natural as well as cultural unit” (249). She distinguishes the embroidered parterre from the tradition of knots and further suggests that the parterres were directly related to French manufacturing interests, primarily the production of textiles and the fashion industry. Mukerji effectively empowers the parterre so that the links between garden and commodity design become part of Louis XIV’s plan to submit Europe to his control. Hillary Ballon revisits perhaps the best known story in French garden history, the fall of Nicolas Fouquet from power after his fête at Vaux-le Vicomte in August 1661. Ballon argues that Fouquet’s patronage was not exceptional, but needs to be placed in the tradition of château building in the Ile de France at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In a subtle reading of Lenotre’s plan, Ballon suggests, however, that the extraordinary aesthetic quality of Vaux le Vicomte is a result of the synergy between architect and landscape architect working together to exploit the specifics of the site in order to fulfill their patron’s ambitions. David Hays’s survey of the Parc Monceau is perhaps the weakest article of the anthology. He surveys and “reconstructs” the garden following contemporary sources and then attempts to rehabilitate Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle as a prominent garden theorist. This reading of Monceau neglects to address the conditions of princely patronage in the dissemination of the jardin-anglais-chinois.

The editors have succeeded in presenting a wide range of methodologies. Each article engages specific theoretical issues and suggests how various discourses, including gender studies, material culture, and sociology, can be integrated within garden history. Although the editors hope that that contrast between Italy and France will stimulate reflections on the interrelationships among court societies, the two sections remain rather autonomous. Nonetheless, the volume succeeds in a far more important task: by bringing the history and historigraphy of gardens to the mainstream of art-historical studies.

Susan Taylor-Leduc
independent scholar

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