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Inventing the Garden
Inventing the Garden
Matteo Vercelloni
J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011
240 pp., $74.95

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Susan VanZanten


Embodied Order

A history of gardens.

In 1984, the English landscape architect Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe designed a wonderful theme park for the Moody Foundation that, alas, was never built. The Moody Historical Gardens were to feature a boat tour through 15 garden reconstructions, including the Garden of Eden, a classical Roman garden, a medieval enclosed garden, a formal 17th-century garden, and a picturesque 18th-century garden. Unfortunately, the Moody Gardens found in Galveston today contain more mundane attractions such as an aquarium, a rain-forest pyramid, and a golf course.

Although we can't visit Jellicoe's park, we can tour Inventing the Garden, a lush history of the garden in Western culture. Translated from the Italian in a sumptuous coffee-table edition, Inventing the Garden traces the changing ways in which humans have conceptualized their relationship to nature through their gardens. Elucidating the aesthetics and philosophy of garden design, the Vercellonis trace how the Western idea of the garden began with the enclosed garden, expanded into the landscape garden, and eventually grew to a concept of the entire planet as a garden. Their account employs paintings, sketches, plans, photographs, literature, philosophy, and social history to produce an absorbing narrative and a rich treasure chest of images.

In "On Gardens," Sir Francis Bacon writes, "God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures," but the Vercellonis have little to say about Christian perspectives on gardens. They don't even note that the garden is a central biblical motif, from the beauty and utility of the Garden of Eden, to the garden in the heart of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation. Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray on the night that he was betrayed, paradoxically sweating drops of blood in a place that symbolizes life, and later Mary assumed that the resurrected Lord was a gardener. Many Christians, myself included, find gardening to be a powerful spiritual discipline—experiencing ...

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