Paesaggio e letteratura

Posted on January 19th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Michael Jakob, Paesaggio e letteratura. Giardini e Paesaggio, Vol. 11 (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2005), 244 pp., €24.00. ISBN 882225399X

Michael Jakob has composed a long essay that will undoubtedly appeal to the common reader on gardens, as his critical position – as stated in the introductory chapter on the concept of landscape – is one that acknowledges the dimension of reception and response to the literary text. This justifies a broad neo-historical approach to a series of texts that cover, within our Western culture, a period starting with Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey and ending at what he defines as the ‘threshold-moment’ of the landscape idea – a moment occurring between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries.

The relationship between landscape and literature is examined over this extended territory, selecting moments or discourses that constitute the features of a literary history of landscape, as fixed by a subjective standard established by the landscape-making subject, who thus discovers his own (cultural) identity. Thus, in a long second chapter, Jakob traces the origins of the Genius of the Place as occurring in ancient Greek, then Hellenistic, Roman and Medieval literature. His tribute goes to Homer (read through Schiller’s lens) to chosen passages in Plato, to the Idylls of Theocrytus, thence to reach Rome, Virgil and Horace, the Bible and Greek Patristic authors. A letter by Basilius, a kunstbrief, is examined, and again the filter is E. R. Curtius’s Europaische Literatur, and specifically his chapter on ‘Die Ideallandschaft’. The Middle Ages evoke the verse of Beowulf; then Petrarch holds the stage with his celebrated description of the Mont Ventoux.

The developing theme of sublimity is credited, in the literary awareness of European letters, to the Traité du Sublime by Boileau. Montaigne and Konrad Gesner are mentioned as writers who show an awareness of the complexity inherent in the natural experience artistically mediated. At this point we reach England, Dennis’s idea of the sublime, Burnet’s Theoria sacra telluris and Shaftesbury’s Zivilizationskritik as expressed in his well-known passage on the pleasures of wilderness. While declaring his awareness of the cultural complexity inherent in his theme, Jakob deconstructs a fascinating yet idiosyncratic history of landscape literature. Passages from Addison, Pope, Milton and Marvell are the natural steps to move to Rousseau, Goethe, Coleridge and Chateaubriand.

With its well-written (in Italian), pleasantly readable pages of literary criticism, this book bears further proof to the fact that where landscape and landscape aesthetics are concerned, Italian or Continental culture remains close to the influence of German philosophy and aesthetics (or to the French debating tradition). The alternative would be to acknowledge the existence of a culture that not only provided a reading of classicism as a key to landscape perception, but also which produced texts that have shaped the specific awareness of landscape and landscape theory in the modern world. To examine the reasons for this cultural difference would take us towards paths where art, religion and politics intertwine. Simply to focus on the present, one may observe that in this study (as in Rosario Assunto’s writings on landscape, which are acknowledged throughout as inspiring sources) the role of the English garden history tradition is assessed with less emphasis than the subject would require. In times of postcolonial awareness, it is no doubt a welcome diversion.

Francesca Orestano

State University of Milan

33:1 (Summer 2005)

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