On Baroque Gardens

I picked up Tim Richardson’s The Arcadian Friends. Inventing the English Landscape Garden at the local remainder bookshop. Although the subject is the landscape garden it has an unusually sensitive account of the Baroque garden: ‘there is a tendency today to view this kind of seventeenth-century ‘formality’—what a strange term for it!—as sterile and lifeless.’ [I have had this point of view expressed with some force by a publisher of gardening books who ought to have known better.]  … But the one thing that has become clear from experiencing recently restored baroque gardens on the ground is how intimate and engaging they can be. … Far from being sterile, ‘unnatural’ experiments in geometry, as their unadorned remains have so often suggested to us and as they can appear in contemporary topographical bird’s-eye views, in their day these gardens surrounded visitors with fragrant flowers. Looking at a contemporary engravings by Johannes Kip it is all to easy to be overwhelmed by the linearity and to forget that these gardens had an intimate aspect; you need to imagine that you have been beamed down into the place and can walk amid the trees, fruit and flowers.’ [p. 18]

More than that is the fact that a design that is conceived in plan, and then ‘extruded’ in relief by plantings, when seen from ground level becomes infinitely complex. You perceive that there is an underlying order, but what you see is a visual field of great complexity. In a genuinely natural or random planting you see only a disorderly visual field, without the underling order that your perception seeks to comprehend.  Hence although parterres can often be seen to advantage from a high viewpoint, this is not always necessary. Head height is often as high as you need to go, and if you go too high the parterre becomes too obvious. To illustrate these points, the first three images shows a platte-bande at Fontainebleau, to show how the experience up close is intensely involved with plants. The repetition of the planting and colours makes you much more aware of the flowers than if they were planted more randomly. The fourth image shows a parterre that I have always felt does not quite work: at the Palazzo Ruspoli at Vignanello. The high view from the palazzo is almost too high, while the close view lacks an engagement with plants: there is only box. This green and flowerless garden is essentially an early twentieth-century Italian construct, the result of an attempt to define nationalistically the ‘Italian’ garden style as opposed to the French and English styles. Before this it would have been planted with flowers within the box, and before that… what? It is claimed to be a surviving Renaissance garden, a box parterre like those seen in the Dupérac engraving of the Villa d’Este, but one wonders whether it was not rather a low parterre de broderie with coloured gravel. The Villa Lante and Villa Doria-Pamphilj parterres were once of this form, as old photos clearly show, but have grown up to become dense green high box parterres like those at Vignanello.

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