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    Italian Gardens: A Cultural History

    Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

    Helena Attlee, Italian Gardens: A Cultural History (London: Frances Lincoln, 2006), 240 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £30.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780711226470

    This is an enjoyable book to handle, packed with fine illustrations, which at once must excite and encourage every garden-minded person to delve more deeply into the cultural history of Italian gardens. It is written with inspiring prose that lays out a clear foundation to the dominant themes and preoccupations of Italian gardeners through the centuries.

    The book begins with the foundation of Renaissance thinking, emphasizing Petrarch and Leon Battista Alberti in particular, which develops the programme for the Medici gardens of the early sixteenth century on the outskirts of Florence. Helena Attlee unfolds a visual description of their landscapes against a clear analysis of the powerful symbolic associations — the complex iconography of the humanist imagination. This approach is the key to her subsequent development of the Renaissance garden. Broadly the sequence of the chapters takes the gardens chronologically, but within that the groupings are both stylistic and thematic. The Villa d’Este and the Villa Lante are given full coverage in the High Renaissance, as they deserve, and the mannerist gardens, the Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo in particular, are in the following section, although they were planned and executed in parallel during the second half of the sixteenth century. The vigorous and commanding Baroque follows with such splendid, but less well-known examples, as the Villa Cetinale near Siena and the Villa Barbarigo in the Veneto. Especially exciting is the revelation of the illusions made by manipulation of the perspective at the Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati. From the eighteenth century on it becomes clear how the stage for Italian gardens becomes increasingly international with the dominance of such key figures as André Le Nôtre from France and, finally, the influence of the English Landscape Garden. European fashions in the nineteenth century are followed by a final section on the twentieth century with an emphasis on the expatriate English and Americans who manifested their love affair with Italy by rejuvenating the Renaissance garden, of which the Italians seem to have lost sight. Bernard Berenson’s garden at Villa I Tatti and Sir Harold Acton’s at La Pietra, in this context, could not be ignored. Cecil Pinsent and, more recently, Russell Page are both covered with reference to specific commissions.

    Interspersed with this narrative thread there are notable and pertinent sections, one dealing with the expanding horticultural world in the seventeenth century and the resulting impact on Italian plant collections. This flourishing horticultural climate was felt throughout Europe but English views of Italian gardens have been inclined to overlook the passion and excitement that horticulture engendered there. Another is the delightful chapter on the social role of gardens in entertaining the guests; all aspects of life seem to be catered for: love, food, wine, music, theatrical shows, spectacular naumachia and, of course, the giochi d’acqua (water jokes) so diligently and deftly managed by the hydraulic engineers.

    Throughout the book Attlee has drawn on an enormous fund of knowledge, much of it from primary sources, to underpin her view of garden culture. She has illuminated her text by quotations from numerous sources; these are often contemporary with the making of the garden and bring us closer to the context and thinking at the time. In places she has chosen to invent or paraphrase the thinking of a visitor of the period as a means of bringing the experience alive — an experience which is difficult for us to grasp from today’s vision. This device is used very effectively in the case of the Villa della Torre in the Veneto that was built to subvert classicism with the mannerist style. The appreciation of the design is seen through the eyes of a fictional young architect, versed in the vocabulary of Vitruvius, as he explores the villa and begins to take note that all is not what is seems to be. Elsewhere the author encourages the reader literally to become the visitor and take the path or climb the stairs and see the scene as if it was set before us.

    To stimulate our imagination the first half of the book is peppered with fine contemporary paintings and engravings, which along with the photographs are the tools by which we can develop the vision of what it was like to be there and, in some cases of course, the gardens still survive with the ground plan intact, as for example at the Villa Lante. The landscape section and beyond is devoid of bird’s-eye views, but for good reasons, as this form of representation went out of fashion — the overall plan of the gardens is, therefore, much more difficult to grasp in these sections.

    Special note must be made of the photographs by Alex Ramsay which are of high quality and speak of a long association with, and appreciation of, the subject-matter. They run beautifully alongside the relevant text so that endless turning of pages to find the appropriate illustration is unnecessary. Moreover, the book includes a very useful guide to gardens to visit and a helpful bibliography.

    It is clear from an early perusal of this book that it is selective, choosing only to deal with the key gardens which make up a convincing cultural history. This is to its advantage, while some other books published over the last twenty years have looked more widely at the subject and inevitably covered some gardens in greater depth. Attlee’s study therefore will be of lasting value as it encompasses a sympathetic and lively overview to which it will always be a delight to return.

    Robin Whalley

    35:1 (Summer 2007)

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