Schloss Trautmannsdorf Meditations I: the Problematic of Gardens for Lovers

The garden at Schloss Trautmannsdorf is a kind of Eden Project, a new garden created from 1995 and opened in 2001 (Fig. 1). The castle, which has had a sorry history, contains the provincial tourism museum, or Touriseum, which is part of the visit. The whole is owned by the semi-autonomous provincial administration of South Tyrol/Alto Adige. This region of Italy is predominantly German-speaking and until the end of WW1 was a part of Austria. It has an active secessionist movement and recently the new right-wing Austrian government said that it would offer Austrian citizenship to German speakers of the province.

As a tourism venture the garden at Schloss Trautsmandorff is clearly a great success, and even on a Tuesday in June it had a capacity problem. After a long grind to get clear of the city on the number 4 bus from the station, the whole busload debouched at the garden. The ticket queue was very slow so I bailed out to the toilets expecting it to clear. But when I emerged the queue was four times as long. I asserted my right to my original position in the queue and eventually got my ticket. Only two of four ticket booths were in operation. Nor were there any free tables at the restaurant for lunch. Presumably it is worse on summer weekends. Almost all visitors were German speaking, and probably German. I heard British English once or twice, but Italian hardly ever. This was, apparently, partly because the school holidays in Germany and Austria had already begun, but not yet in Italy.

The garden climbs up the side of the mountains with the alps on the Austrian border forming impressive ramparts on the far side of the valley (Fig. 2). There are various areas themed by plant geography, but not very rigorously. A complicated and messy framework half way up the hill proved to be a succulents garden; the framework would be used to cover it in winter (Fig. 3). There is a great deal of bedding out (Fig. 3a). The trope of Australian primitivism is insisted upon with a Wollemi pine in a steel cage (also covered in winter), accompanied by a Tyrannosaurus (Fig. 4).

Here I will focus here on the architectural elements, which on the whole did not please me. Features like a descending cascade are brutally functional (Fig. 5), and there is rather too much stainless steel for me. Equally brutal was a pavilion beside the lake which in a Chinese garden would be much more interesting (Fig. 6). There were a number of what can be describes as fabriques, designed by artists. Adjacent labels outline the artists’ intentions, but the artists are never named. I suspect that these kind of garden features are already period pieces, and that the moment when artists discovered gardens, exemplified by the Chaumont garden festival, has already passed. What strikes me about such works is that there is usually a disconnect between an often conceptually ponderous conception and its realisation.

A kind of bus shelter beside the main lake is supposed to give you the impression of looking up from the bottom of the lake to see the hulls of boats above, or else leaves (Fig. 7–8). But because the undersides are flat and the tops rounded it looks instead like upside-down boats. I read it as being a take on something Pacific islanders might have done, creating a shelter out of upturned boats. Try as I might I could not get myself to read them as boats on the surface of water above me. The roof looked like copper from a distance, but close up may have been treated steel of some kind. It consisted on bands of this metal folded and overlapped, with a channel drip moulding underneath (Fig. 9). It has a surface something like a bread roll. The underside was narrow tongue and groove boards.

Another fabrique looked like a beehive (Fig. 10). There was another beehive shaped building clad with shingles that contained an actual beehive, which could be pulled apart to show the hive (Fig. 11). This worked well enough, in part because it had a clear function and was not ‘Art’. The fabrique in question was supposed to be ‘copper coloured’, but in fact seemed to be of flat annuluses of mild steel stacked one above the other to form a dome that you could enter (Fig. 12). You could descend a few circular steps in the middle, but why would you (Fig. 13)? There were little coloured rectangles of coloured plastic hanging from the steel rings (Fig. 14). The concept—which I only mastered from studying the label—was ‘a massive pile of leaves’. ‘The copper-coloured plates lie on top of one another like shingles, letting diffused sunlight pass through.’ The coloured plastic pendants generate autumnal colours. It was called Pavilion: Plants in Fall.

Further up, marking the oak woodlands, was a structure like a square arch made of reo with steel shelves on which were stacked oak logs, like a wood stack (Fig. 15). Underneath was a stone bench (Fig. 16). The bench here made all the difference: it declared that it was a covered resting place (as always, with a great view). Because the structure had a function, the concetto had a purpose. Because Pavilion: Plants in Fall had no function, it demanded that you stare at it saying ‘this is Art; how do I react to it’. The log feature is read first as a sheltered seat, followed by an assessment of whether the concetto it embodies (which refers to the oak woods in which it is situated) works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter: it is still a seat. That said, it was a very uncomfortable seat, and no-one sat on it, unlike the stainless steel park benches that were scattered around other parts of the garden.

More promising seemed to be the Garden for Lovers. This was at the highest point, and was conceived as a theme park feature. The first thing you see is a pointed arch clad in roses (Fig. 17), and beyond an avenue done similarly (Fig. 18), with star jasmine everywhere, for its scent (Fig. 18a). So far so good. It immediately made me ask myself whether pointed/gothic arches were somehow romantic. Why not? There was a label referring to it being a ‘protected area of peace and quiet, a retreat into silence’, but it was in fact a busy nodal point. Was this compatible with it being a space for lovers? Across the path ran steel bands with ‘I love you’ cut into them in several languages, starting with German under the entrance arch (Fig. 19). I was immediately struck by the heavy-handedness of this. Then you see a blindfolded pubescent girl in bronze holding a flower, which I took to have something to do with innocence and/or the senses (Fig. 20).

Next are bronze figures half hidden by jasmine in a little stream running over black stones. These represent, again, barely pubescent teenagers. One is a boy upside down (Fig. 21), and there are a girl and a boy with their feet in the stream, all half buried in jasmine (not blackberries, fortunately) (Fig. 22). This was all a bit strange, if not kinky. Is love to be exemplified by the half developed sexuality of adolescents? Is this mean to be innocent love? Does it represent groping behind the shelter shed idealised as frolicking among the jasmine? Is this a Bill Hensonesque fantasy? Only on the return along a higher path did I realise that wrapped around the pole on which the upside down boy was swinging was a snake (Fig. 23). Worse. Are the poisonous Christian attitudes embodied in the Adam and Eve myth are what love is all about? Is pubescent sexual love what caused us to be expelled us from the Garden of Eden? None of this is very encouraging in a Garden for Lovers.

The Adam and Eve theme coyly returns at a another feature nearby. A naked bronze man and woman, mature this time, are separated by a waterfall in a kind of grotto, where they are almost completely hidden by vine leaves (Fig. 24). You either had to duck under the vines to see them properly, or go all the way under and come up in their space (Fig. 25). These could, I suppose, be read as pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve (Fig. 26), had we not learned from the previous group that the serpent comes at adolescence. This group at least provided a certain frisson, but it could also be read as a neo-Victorian coyness, the vines being like the draperies that clothed the immodest legs of Victorian dining tables. The ancient world’s confident nakedness is nowhere to be found here.

The trouble with these statues, as with most statues, is that they are implicitly sexual, but because sexuality in a public place causes discomfort, they have been desexualised and covered with jasmine or vine fig-leafs. One cannot but think it might gave been better to go the whole hog with something truly Romantic, such as a Paolo and Francesca theme (think Ingres (Fig. 27), or Hayez’s The Kiss (Fig. 28)) or Tristan and Isolde (like the wonderful frescoes at Schloss Runkelstein at Bolzano (Fig. 29)). But no contemporary artist could bring themselves to do this, and this awkward non-sexuality is the result.

At the far end were other inscriptions about love in various languages, with coloured plastic discs (Fig. 30). There were also several seats for two facing the view with high steel hoods framed by jasmine, though these were hardly private or romantic (Fig. 31).

The main feature of this ‘garden’ is a large pool with three islands reached by stepping stones through shallow water. Each is ‘planted’ with large metal trees, the foliage of consists of large yellow, red and orange plastic discs. This use of coloured plastic was popular in the nineties (think Martha Schwartz). It was an awful idea then and remains so. The Geelong Botanical Gardens is introduced with large metal trees, but thankfully no plastic. But it is a botanical garden: why do we need fictive trees? To be sure, they appear at Versailles and the Villa d’Este, but there the point is more subtly made.

The first island, which has a tree with yellow plastic leaves referring to sunflowers (Fig. 32), has a marble fountain with bronze leaves inscribed with words like ‘infidelity’ and ‘jealousy’ (Figs 33, 34). This ‘helps garden visitors clear away negative emotions and compulsions’. The second, which has red plastic leaves alluding to tulips, features a large piece of white marble, part of which has been shaped into polished biomorphic forms and part roughly textured (Fig. 35). It is like a cross between Rodin’s marble Kiss and a diseased phallus fused with mutant breasts. Physical associations like these are inevitable; the intended one is to a heart, evidently a diseased one. The description only refers to a ‘power stone made from Laas marble and the heart as a symbol of love: together they seal the promise of love or a personal promise’. Again there is a disconnect between the physical object—which is highly tactile, and most people touched it (Fig. 36)—and the new age programme. It never ceases to amaze me how new-age people swallow this kind of thing, but I still find it hard to believe that any visitor would have thought of the idea of ‘promise’ or ‘promises’. The stone promised an off-key tactile eroticism, and for this reason most people seemed to avoid touching the smooth parts. Again, the creators have been too coy to encourage couples to touch an object, however abstract in form, as a shared erotic experience. It is bowdlerised as being about ‘promises’.

The third island (white flowers, ‘emblematic of the dahlia’) (Fig. 37) had sheets of ‘South Tyrolean apple paper’ (apple orchards are everywhere here) on which one writes wishes that ‘lend immortality to the love promises previously made. Those who leave them here are simultaneously invited to return’. But why does returning matter except to the garden as a business? Later on there is a kind of Tibetan prayer wheel in bronze where somehow these letters reappear, which wasn’t intelligible. Writing a secret wish and putting it in a metal box (the wishing well trope) seemed to work as an activity though: I saw several couples doing it, and sometime it prompted a kiss (always from the woman).

As you can gather, I did not find this to have worked very well. It veered from the corny to the off-key. The public nature of the place played against romance. It is interesting to reflect on what kind of spaces can work romantically as being both private and public. For this to work in a garden one needs nooks and crannies, but it us almost impossible to arrange a busy place so that people being private do not have their privacy interrupted by others. What seems to work best, as with the wish-writing here, or putting a padlock on a bridge, are symbolic acts that create a private bond in a public place. Such acts differ from a wedding ceremony in that at a wedding the couple is the focus of attention. With symbolic acts the couple occupy a private world that cannot be interrupted by the indifferent crowd around them.

So what kind of ‘lover’s garden’ might actually work? Forget the hortatory inscriptions. And forget mass tourism. The greatest model is surely Watteau. The point of a Watteau painting is that you have several pairs of lovers, or a small group in the process of pairing off. The space they occupy is sufficiently large for couples to wander off out of site of the others (Fig. 38). There is plenty of statuary, which is set naturalistically among the vegetation (Fig. 39). The subjects of these statues are erotic, and set the mood by sight, and potentially through touch, although the jury is out on whether touching statues was an activity for couples. The intricacy of a formal garden can work just as well, using geometry to maximise the number of spaces that cannot be looked into from a distance. The maze is the most developed form of this idea. The point is to become lost and separated.

The Watteau example makes one realise how important statuary is. Contemporary garden statuary, however well it might work in an art gallery, is inevitably an interruption, and worse than nothing at all, because, in pursuing the goal of art as ideas, we have lost sight of its function. The point of garden statuary is that the statues are alive—be they people, satyrs, or monsters. Abstract sculpture can never be alive. Coming across a statue of a satyr at Rousham (Fig. 40) makes you shiver at the realisation that this space is occupied by ancient spirits, and coming across a statue of Cupid and Psyche is an act of voyeurism. One could, however, make a variation on this. Sacri Monti like Varallo or Varese have shrines that take you through the stations of the cross. A romantic garden on this model might have shrines with pictures, not of the passion, but of great love imagery, like the aforementioned Ingres’ Paolo and Francesca and Hayez’ The Kiss. And yet this runs the danger of the obviousness of ‘I love you’ inscriptions. Half of the point of romance is what is unspoken, and these shout a little to much, whereas a statue, however suggestive, does not demand verbalisation. Paintings ask us to discuss their subject, and lover’s gardens should not be didactic.

©David R. Marshall 2018

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