2013 SAH Annual Conference, Buffalo
IAS-Sponsored Session

Perception and Experience in the Italian Garden, 1500-1750

Thursday, April 11, 2013, 9:00-11:30 am

Organizers and Chairs: Tracy Ehrlich, Cooper Hewitt Museum, and Katherine Bentz, Saint Anselm College

Early modern visitors delighted in the gardens and villa estates built throughout the Italian peninsula. Foreigners and local viewers alike  took in the antique statuary displays, contemporary sculpture and fountains, architecture, verdant plantings, flowers and exotic naturalia, and sweeping vistas afforded by these sites. Many described their garden experiences in written or visual form, precious documentation of gardens and landscapes later destroyed or dramatically altered by time. Historians have traditionally employed primary sources to reconstruct the layout of villa and garden spaces, but these sources may also reveal the physical, emotional and social experiences visitors underwent as they moved through gardens and parks. Visual images, poetic verses, travelogues, legal documents, and personal anecdotes tell us something about how gardens appeared; they also form a picture of how visitors used and understood such spaces and how they perceived the garden owner, fellow visitors, or the nearly invisible laborers who maintained gardens. Though several exemplary studies have engaged contemporary theory to interpret the social significance of particular sites, and a few recent essays address the issue of viewer perception in gardens, there remains no comprehensive study of the social history of early modern Italian gardens.


Luke Morgan, Monash University
"On Monsters and Marvels: Hybridity and the Early Modern Garden"

This paper proposes that early modern medical, teratological and legal texts provide an important though overlooked source for the reconstruction of contemporary attitudes toward the representation of hybridity in garden design.

Hybrid and composite figures appear in most major Italian gardens of the Renaissance. In the past they have been interpreted as expressions of artistic license (fantasia), the inventiveness and variety of nature, and as allusions to Classical sources such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Yet hybrids feature in other early modern discourses besides those of art, literature and mythology. In his Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573), for example, the French physician Ambroise Paré observed that: ‘Many animal forms are likewise created in women’s wombs…such as frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, and harpies.’ For Paré the harpy was a real phenomenon, not an exclusively mythical figure.

This paper suggests that the ‘period eye’ of the early modern garden visitor would have been informed and influenced by ideas of this kind. If, as Michael Baxandall argued several decades ago, our understanding of Renaissance painting necessitates the reconstruction of the conditions of spectatorship, which were formed by a host of extraneous activities, practices and experiences-from barrel gauging to dancing-then a reception history of the Renaissance garden should similarly attempt to incorporate the potential interpretative equipment and experience of the historical beholder. The imaginative world of Ovid and others was self-evidently evoked in early modern garden design and experience, but so too, arguably, was the ‘juridico-biological domain’, as Michel Foucault called it, of the lawyers and the physicians.

Natsumi Nona, The University of Texas at Austin
"Green Architecture at the Villa Giulia: the pergola as leitmotiv"

Bartolomeo Ammanati’s letter to Marco Mantova Benavides (May 2, 1555) is a valuable verbal description of the Villa Giulia (1550-1555) by an architect and sculptor, active in Rome at the time, addressed to a jurist and artistic patron in Padua. Alongside the travel diary (1574-1578) of Nicolas Audebert, which describes a visit to the Villa d’Este at Tivoli (1550-1572), and the travel account (1578) of Fabio Arditio, which likewise relates a tour of the Villa Farnese at Caprarola (1557-1581), Ammanati’s letter is noteworthy for its mention of the pergola, a central design feature that played an important role in the experience of cinquecento villa gardens. Documented in the papal accounts and recorded in contemporary maps, the pergola at the Villa Giulia was a monumental structure 178 meters long, made of carpentry and covered with vegetation, connecting the Tiber landing point to the Fontana pubblica. Not only a covered walkway constructed of light, diaphanous, and translucent materials offering an agreeable shade, it also served as a ceremonial approach and a prelude to the villa experience. It provided a powerful vista towards the villa building anticipating the painted pergola in the semicircular portico. The trellis roof of the loggia on the east side of the sunken nymphaeum, recorded in a print by Hieronymus Cock, resonated with the two pergolas encountered earlier. Maximizing the sensation of nature, the pergola as a leitmotiv played a key role in enhancing a sensuous villa experience, creating a series of semi-interior spaces with a variety of visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile stimuli. The reinterpretation of this form and concept of antique origin in cinquecento villa gardens reveals an interest in a coordinated perception of nature. The combination of real and fictive pergolas with similar intended effects is also observed at the Villa d’Este and the Villa Farnese.

Denis Ribouillault, University of Montréal
"The draftsman in the gardens of Rome : the intimate view"

The figure of the draftsman sitting quietly in a corner of a drawing or a print will doubtless be familiar to students of early modern gardens. The presence of the artist sketching is a reminder that gardens were a privileged site for artists wishing to study antique statuary, magnificent trees or beautiful vistas. Yet it also functioned, as in any topographical view, as a rhetorical device attesting both to the ‘truthfulness’ of the garden’s image and to the importance of the creative process of disegno. However, study drawings and sketches made by artists on site are seldom used by historians of gardens. Their impressionistic quality and the fact that they rarely give precise topographical information might account for this lack of interest.

What can garden historians learn from studying drawings and sketches of gardens? By looking simultaneously at the figure of the draftsman and at the corpus of surviving drawings made in Roman gardens during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this paper examines some of the ways in which artists were behaving, looking and moving in the gardens of early modern Rome. Casual views, close details, and loose sketches show that artists were not primarily interested in a general view of the garden, as immortalized in the prints by Dupérac or Falda, but rather in its more intimate details. These details shaped their vision of the landscape and history of Rome, and played a major role in their later works of art.

Anatole Tchikine, Trinity College Dublin
"From a Fountaineer's Perspective: G. A. Nigrone on Gardens and Fountains"

Sixteenth-century gardens and their various features were generally aimed at a set response, but their experience by their owners and visitors clearly differed from that of architects, gardeners, engineers, and workmen. What happened, however, when a technician – specifically, a fountaineer – was invited to a private garden to offer his professional services? Would he see this site strictly in terms of his immediate tasks or also pay attention to its design and decoration? What would he be likely to notice and what would he ignore? How would he then try to articulate and apply this new experience, thereby translating it into an artistic process?

The mental outlook of sixteenth-century Italian fountaineers is very poorly documented. An important exception in this respect is a two-volume manuscript by the Neapolitan Giovanni Antonio Nigrone (active 1585-1609) in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples. It includes, apart from detailed theoretical discussions, over 400 colored and annotated drawings that represent various fountains and hydraulic machinery. As a fountaineer, Nigrone enjoyed privileged access to many Neapolitan gardens. Importantly, he recorded some of their contents in his own projects, using his manuscript as a pattern-book of fountain forms, subjects, and decorative motifs. For this reason, Nigrone’s drawings, while offering a unique insight into the work methods and practice of sixteenth-century fountaineers, also reveal the nature of their garden experience.

The purpose of this paper is to reconstruct Nigrone’s response to the gardens he visited by comparing their descriptions to the evidence of his drawings. Which features of their design did he specifically look out for and what impact did this knowledge have on his work? What aspects of this experience did he share with other viewers and what was peculiar to him? What do his drawings tell us about the design, decoration, and meaning of sixteenth-century fountains?

Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto, University of Pennsylvania
"Between Nature and Artifice: Experience in Early Modern Italian Gardens"

Italian gardens and parks have always been a source of pride for their owners, but the way in which this pride was shared with both local and foreign visitors changed during the long span of the early modern period. The documented wide range of garden experiences reflects the cultural preferences of the visitors and the changing role of the aristocracy within the social fabric of Italy.

Sixteenth-century French accounts demonstrate a significant attention toward gardens stocked with live animals, such as the barchi of the Visconti at Pavia, Caterina Cornaro at Asolo, and the hunting park of the Palazzo del Te in Mantua. Visiting these gardens was often an occasion to participate in or witness hunting expeditions. Because venery required both ownership of land and the possession of legal privileges, the sites on which it occurred were a source of pride, for they symbolized wealth and social status.

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, European scientific developments produced a change in the interests and occupations of aristocratic gardenists, reflected in the choice of sites of many Englishman embarking on the grand tour. In his travel diary Edmund Warcupp described the variety of experiences that could satisfy the many Englishmen visiting the “pontifical Vineyards” in the 1650s. The estates of the clergy in the surroundings of Rome were among the most sought after by foreigners on the grand tour. One reason for their appeal was the presence of ingenious mechanical artifices that surprised and delighted the viewer with their sudden appearance. The experiences enjoyed in these gardens were carefully staged and constructed to stimulate reactions markedly different from a century earlier. These changes were a consequence of the loss of interest toward such landscape types as the barchi visited previously that were now either forgotten or adapted to new uses.

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