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Landscape gardens - their origins and meaning

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Contrary to popular opinion, landscape garden is not something that all of a sudden was
invented in the 18th century. The truth is that most regular gardens always had adjacent "islands of nature", completely untouched by the hand of landscape designers. It would also be unfair to think that these forests, lakes and what have you received no attention from the owners of regular gardens and parks, because the premises of landscaped areas could very successfully be used for walks, not to mention hunting and other sportsmanship activities. It appears that over time the natural surroundings of regular gardens took over the garden proper and landscape gardens were the immediate aesthetic result of this change.

It is quite interesting that just as the regular gardens of the Middle Ages followed the archetype of the Garden of Paradise, landscape gardens also received a similar theological background. The primordial garden described by Milton in Paradise Lost is very much a landscape garden, nature at its best, so to speak:

Southward through Eden went a River large,
Nor chang'd his course, but through the shaggie hill
Pass'd underneath ingulft, for God had thrown [ 225 ]
That Mountain as his Garden mould high rais'd
Upon the rapid current, which through veins
Of porous Earth with kindly thirst up drawn,
Rose a fresh Fountain, and with many a rill
Waterd the Garden; thence united fell [ 230 ]
Down the steep glade, and met the neather Flood,
Which from his darksom passage now appeers,
And now divided into four main Streams,
Runs divers, wandring many a famous Realme
And Country whereof here needs no account, [ 235 ]
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Saphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rowling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazie error under pendant shades
Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed [ 240 ]
Flours worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
Powrd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plaine,
Both where the morning Sun first warmly smote
The open field, and where the unpierc't shade [ 245 ]
Imbround the noontide Bowrs: Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view;

Landscape gardens also carried a certain political message. Early on, they were identified with British liberalism, distaste for tyranny and autocracy, and reliance upon home-grown aesthetics, as opposed to foreign influences. It is notable that in the 18th century liberalism was linked to rationalism. This probably explains why "liberal" approach to gardening coincided with Neoclassicism in architecture - classical art was considered the pinnacle of human intellectual history and it had to be followed and replicated because it was rationally understood as best practice.

Baroque garden principles and modern garden design

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The Italian poet Giambattista Marino deserves credit for what is often perceived as the best summation of Baroque aesthetic principles: Chi non sa far stupir, vada alla striglia! (Who is unable to cause wonderment, go to get a horse-comb). Originally applied to poetry, this principle highlights the importance of everything wondrous, amazing, extraordinary and fascinating for Baroque garden designers. There were many ways to achieve this goal.

Baroque garden architects were especially keen on using layering in a form of terraces, cascading waterfalls and varying hights of trees and plants. One must keep in mind that such features require great engineering knowledge and the costs involved are astronomical. Not surprisingly, these elements were not used on a regular basis in medieval and even Renaissance gardens. The wealth and sophistication of garden owners were also expressed through astonishing numbers of statues, benches, staircases, gazebos, urns and other ornamental elements. As opposed to medieval gardens, the symbolism present in a garden no longer had to be interpreted through a single unifying system of Christian thought, but rather demonstrated the owner's education and taste, while attempting to amuse the visitors.

The attention to everything out of the ordinary naturally produced interest towards curiosities: fountains that spring up unexpectedly, optical illusions, faux pavilions, hidden grottoes etc. Irony and unlikely juxtapositions often played a role in these playful contraptions.

The most lavish of Baroque achievements are quite obviously of of reach for most of modern garden owners and designers. But the very principle of trying to astonish, to impress and to surprise can be very easily implemented while staying within a very modest budget. This includes some features already mentioned here, but these days some spectacular lighting effects can really make a garden sparkle: solar step stones, track lights, motion activated flood lights etc. You may or may not directly link all this to Baroque, but when it comes to a good conversation about your garden, why not show some knowledge of gardening design history?

See also:

Decorative columns in the garden at Architectural columns in your house

Garden views from old books and prints

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Medieval garden: design ideas and symbolism

At the very core of medieval aesthetics lies the concept of Creation. The entire universe was firmly believed to have been designed and created by the omnipotent God, the Source of everything that is good, right and beautiful. As a natural outcome of such a worldview certain objects and systems were seen as directly modeled after the Universe itself. In modern accounts this aesthetic principle is described in terms of macrocosm and microcosm. Along with the human body and church edifices, gardens were deemed to represent the essential structure of the entire cosmos, because a garden contains within it the same harmony, rhythm and richness that characterizes the created world as a whole. In addition, a medieval garden was supposed to be read in the manner of a book, thus revealing through symbols and allegories many spiritual truths, as well as general knowledge about nature and the humanity. A trained eye of a medieval monk or an educated layman never failed to decode the message hidden in every detail of a garden design.

A typical monastery garden had the form of a square divided into four parts by paths. The crossing of the paths obviously pointed to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His subsequent resurrection. In the middle of the garden one would often find a well, a fountain or a small pond, with water acting as a symbol of life or knowledge. Sometimes, a tree planted in the middle of a medieval garden served as a reminder of Paradise. This idea helped create a new concept of an "enclosed garden" (hortus conclusus), because after the Fall the Garden of Eden became inaccessible. Also, Virgin Mary became closely associated with hortus conclusus as a symbol of perpetual virginity, chastity and yet the ability to bear fruit. The Annunciation illustration from a medieval "Book of hours" shown above has some very specific plant symbols connected with Our Lady: the white lily, emblem of her purity and holiness,the red rose, emblem of her burning love of God, the myrtle, emblem of her virginity, the violet, emblem of her humility, the columbine, emblem of the Holy Spirit, and the strawberry, emblem of the divine fruit of her womb, Jesus.

These motifs were to some extent also present in the gardens of medieval nobility, but these "enclosed gardens" of castles and estates were often more utilitarian in their use, providing herbs, vegetables and, one can assume, poisonous substances for various uses. These gardens also incorporated some aspects of "loci amoeni" (pleasurable places) of Antiquity, with emphasis of earthly pleasures.

It appears that medieval notions of garden design can be easily implemented in modern times. The basic layout of such a garden would be simple, as described above, but rich symbolism must be established through the use of just a few accents. The medieval inspiration of your garden can ultimately be purely cerebral. If you have a solitary tree or a centrally located fountain all it takes is a mental exercise in seeing these objects as representations of some important universal truths and archetypes.


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