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Inventing the Garden
Inventing the Garden
Matteo Vercelloni; Virgilio 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 a connection with our Creator when we plunge our hands into soil, root out weeds to combat ugliness and disorder, savor the sights and fragrances of creation's plentitude, and form communities to provide food and fellowship.[1]

The idea of a garden cultivated for visual and olfactory pleasure—not only for food—arose in the Middle East, with the earliest recorded garden a Sumerian pictogram from 3,000 BC depicting a tree in a triangular enclosure. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, described in numerous texts from the 4th century BC on, probably date from the 7th century BC, and gardens also appear in ancient Egyptian art. The Vercellonis note that "when seventy wise Hebrews had to translate the biblical term Gan Eden into Greek in the third century BC, they used … paradeisos, a word of Persian origin coined by the Greek historian Xenophon a century earlier to describe the large Eastern gardens and parks he had seen during the Persian wars." The idea of an enclosed garden built for a wealthy ruler eventually spread throughout Rome and its empire. Roman gardens were attached to urban and rural villas and featured tall trees, trellises, perfumed flowers, urns, and fountains laid out in geometric arrangements. A spectacular contemporary replica of a Roman garden can be visited at the Getty Villa in California.

In the medieval period, gardens were found in monastery complexes, which typically had three gardens: an orchard, a kitchen garden, and a medicinal garden. Separated from outlying agrarian fields by walls, the hortus conclusus ("enclosed garden") was highly symbolic: roses grown on espaliers attached to the outer walls, beds laid out in geometrical patterns forming enclosures inside of enclosures, and a central fountain all established the garden as a microcosm of the life at the heart of the world. Medieval monastery gardens were used for private meditation as well as the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, but the enclosed gardens of medieval castles became sites of romantic courtship. In the Renaissance, formal gardens proclaimed human achievement as they revived the classical Roman past. Walled gardens were a key part of the architectural design of Italian villas with symmetrical layouts coordinated with the house, trees severely pruned into geometric shapes, and exotic water features displaying hydraulic skill.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, gardening had become both a scientific pursuit and an amateur passion, especially in England. The first book in Europe devoted to gardening was published in London around 1558. British explorers collected exotic species from around the world and experimented with growing them in gardens and hothouses. In England, unlike other European countries, botanical science and the practice of gardening existed together, as in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, founded in 1754 as part of the royal estate. Today, Kew contains thousands of species of trees, bushes, flowers, and herbs in one of the world's most famous public gardens. British gardens demonstrated a passion for collecting, analyzing, and cultivating, but French gardens—epitomized by the massive formal gardens of Versailles—were potent symbols of human power exercised over both lower classes (excluded) and the reign of nature (conquered). The French formal garden, with its carpet-like parterres of flowers, foliage, or colored gravel, precise mathematical lines, and theatrical attention to vistas, soon became a regular feature of European aristocratic homes.

A revolution in the philosophy and practice of gardening occurred in the 18th century, with the development of the landscape garden, as the walls of the hortus conclusus were eliminated with the invention of the ha-ha, a sunken ditch keeping animals out of the formal gardens but allowing limitless views. (The ha-ha was so named because people expressed surprise at finding the hidden trench during a walk.) All nature thus became a garden, as Horace Walpole opined. Garden landscape design, led by Capability Brown, moved from the artificial to the natural, using serpentine rather than axial lines and irregular plantings of trees, bushes, and flowers. Today's British cottage garden, characterized by curving beds, mixed plantings, and asymmetrical splashes of colors, bears the legacy of this revolution. The landscape garden also became the model for 19th- and 20th-century public parks, which were especially popular in the United States.

Today's growing environmental awareness has resulted in a plethora of new ideas about gardens, which continue to break out of the enclosure—particularly in cities, where we find roof gardens, wall gardens, and former industrial sites transformed into gardens (such as New York's High Line or Seattle's Gasworks Park). Other new kinds of gardens found in Seattle but not mentioned in Inventing the Garden include community P-patches, parking strip gardens, vegetable gardens shared with the homeless, healing gardens at hospitals and cancer treatment centers, and rain gardens easing the burden on the municipal sewage system. When we view the entire planet as a garden planted by God, we may work harder to care for it and to extend its beauty and bounty to others.

1. See "Back to the Garden," Christianity Today, July 2011. Vigen Guroian provides reflections on gardening and spiritual life in Meditations on Gardening (1999) and The Fragrance of God (2006).

Susan VanZanten teaches English at Seattle Pacific University and is the author most recently of Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson (Cascade) and Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New Faculty (Eerdmans). Her small Seattle yard includes fruits, vegetables, herbs, a rain garden, a Dutch bulb garden, a blue garden, and some English cottage garden beds.

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