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Baroque Garden Cultures: Emulation, Sublimation, Subversion

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Michel Conan (ed.), Baroque Garden Cultures: Emulation, Sublimation, Subversion (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2005), 433 pp., illus. in black-and-white, £32.95 (hbk), ISBN 0-884-02304-4

That gardens once had significant cultural roles and meanings should be obvious to all save the most blinkered and obtuse. It is also true that gardens played an important part in the evolution of the Baroque in Europe: Baroque attitudes to past and future cultures attempted synthesis in a truly heroic attempt to link the diversity of historical cultural forms into a newly integrated whole. This aspect of Baroque art and design can be compared only with the Hellenistic and Roman syntheses of ancient and disparate cultures (as, for example, at the Villa Adriana, Tivoli), and it is arguable that the Baroque syntheses were altogether deeper, more comprehensive, and impressive even than those of Antiquity.* In many Baroque gardens are found aspects of garden-design as compendia, in which, compressed within their boundaries, are encyclopaedias of references, vast canvases of diverse historical, symbolic, allegorical, mythological, and artistic meanings, all combined in delightful, enchanting wholes. In them may be discovered one epoch inserted within another, reminders of Christian and pagan religions, the exotic, visions of Paradise, and much else, a huge combination with an almost infinite variety of cultural and mythological allusions, mnemonic triggers, and much, much more. The fully fledged Baroque garden is a Gesamtkunstwerk in which there can be found a creative tension in the synthesis and fusion of Antique architectural forms, ruins, the exotic (often Orientalizing buildings), allusions to Classical mythology and history, esoteric legends, and elaborate geometries into a new entity reflecting, perhaps, the whole of the known world, and not just the world one can or could see, but the world of the spirit and mind as well. This is an example of the Historia Universalis so essential to grasp in any attempt to understand much of what went on in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: a limited and impoverished modernist viewpoint is wholly unequipped to be able to begin to understand this phenomenon.**

Baroque Garden Cultures is essentially a study of how Baroque gardens were received and perceived by their contemporaries and, indeed, how the reception of historical gardens has changed over the centuries, even considering how modern tourists and critics might view them today. The book grew out of a Symposium on the ‘Social Reception of Baroque Gardens’ at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, in 2001, so there are several contributors. Michel Conan’s Introduction, entitled ‘The new horizons of Baroque garden cultures’, sets out the argument for a study of the social reception of gardens as a step in renewing our understanding of garden culture. Erik A. de Jong discusses reception and exchange of ideas in Northern European garden culture, 1648–1725, particularly through individuals, trade, books, prints, and so on, by which widespread emulation occurred, connected with a display of royal will and aristocratic noblesse oblige. He correctly identifies commerce and displays of political power as potent agents in the dissemination of ideas, motifs, and designs. Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi describes gardens of knowledge and the spread of cultural agendas, and there are other erudite contributions by Tracy L. Ehrlich, Magnus Olausson, Roland Puppe, Margherita Azzi Visentini, Stephen H. West, Lance Neckar, and Conan again. Particularly enjoyable is Puppe’s intelligent essay on ‘Saxon Baroque gardens (1694–1733)’, that is the reign of the remarkable Elector Friedrich August I, ‘The Strong’, who was King of Poland 1697–1706 and again from 1710.

This book is, Laus Deo!, not only interesting, but also very readable, largely free from the absurd and pretentious obfuscatory prose affected by certain so-called ‘academics’. It would have been more useful, however, if the rudimentary index was a lot more comprehensive, and if a bibliography had been included, rather than tucked away in the footnotes (the last, mercifully, are where they ought to be — on the appropriate pages).

For any student of the Baroque, this volume, with its wide-ranging subject matter, will prove to be a fascinating trawl through Baroque garden culture, plants, planting, gardening and gardeners, printed sources, botanical gardens as aspects of science and the acquisition of knowledge, pastoral landskips, social politics, Swedish Baroque gardens, gardens as essential extensions of palaces for entertainment in the glorious world of August der Stärke, shifting perceptions of the Borromean islands of delight on Lake Maggiore, friendship and imagination in French Baroque gardens before 1661, anger and awe in the Baroque landskip at Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, and even a foray into spectacle, ritual, and social relations in Imperial gardens in the Northern Song*** of China in which the garden is seen as a place that accumulated various forms of complex social relations between and among all classes in a sort of ‘sediment of experience and memory’, not unlike Baroque gardens in fact. And memory, really, is at the heart of the matter: if we understand that, we are getting somewhere.

James Stevens Curl

* Igor Doukhan, ‘Baroque city: the conception of time and history’, Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis, 21 (2001), pp. 263–75.

** Jan A. M. Snoek, Monika Scholl and Andréa A. Kroon (eds), Symbolik in Gärten des 18.Jahrhunderts: der Einfluss unterschiedlicher philosophischer Strömungen (The Hague: OVN, 2006), pp. 35–67. Also Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann, Topica Universalis: Eine Modellgeschichte humanistischer und barocker Wissenschaft (Hamburg: Meiner, 1983).

*** Also ‘Sung’, the name of the dynasty that ruled China from AD960 to 1279. The Northern Song had as its capital (AD960–1125) Bianliang (modern Kaifeng).

35:1 (Summer 2007)

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