Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Mirka Beneš, Michael G. Lee (ed.), Clio in the Italian Garden: Twenty-first-century Studies in Historical Methods and Theoretical Perspectives. Dumbarton Oaks colloquium on the history of landscape architecture, 32. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2011. Pp. viii, 280. ISBN 9780884023678. $40.00 (pb).

Reviewed by James J. Yoch, University of Oklahoma (jyoch@ou.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Edith Wharton praised the Italian garden for its "more permanent effects [than floriculture] to be obtained from . . . marble, water and perennial verdure."1 In contrast to stasis, Clio in the Italian Garden sees these places as full of movement, a dense traffic of ideas and diverse periods evoked for inventive patrons. Moving beyond early commentaries about villas as sites proclaiming salubrità, grandezza, and moralità, the eight essays offer with more than usual clarity theoretical analyses that deftly explore the reshaping of ancient models for early modern Italy. Truly and profitably interdisciplinary, the authors fuse varied studies between Burckhardt and Geertz including classical literature and its mythologies, literary theory, anthropology, art history, social history, agricultural production and economics, and politics. The result enables readers from many backgrounds to appreciate readily the ingenuity of villa owners and designers who expressed portraits in the landscape. Even for well-studied places including Villa Adriana, Villa Lante at Bagnaia, and Villa d'Este at Tivoli, the book offers enlightening observations.

All eight essays work together harmonically and display exemplary teamwork. Shared methodologies, teachers, readings, travels, Dumbarton Oaks seminars, Graduate School of Design courses at Harvard, and international colloquia link the writers. Readers will find a generally agreed-upon creed variously joining all the essays, along with overlapping arguments and bibliographies that recognize often the same saints as well as heretics, including two esteemed scholars who receive both blame and praise. The writers all have an impressive command of the literature that precedes their work, and they offer appreciative tributes to the inheritance of scholarship they draw on. The extensive introductory notes and substantial bibliography provide the best evaluative summary of current scholarship in the field.

Emerging from a colloquium Michel Conan organized at Dumbarton Oaks four years ago, the book begins with Mirka Beneš and Michael G. Lee's description of new ways of looking at Italian gardens that have risen over the last forty years following the 1971 Dumbarton Oaks seminar on Italian gardens. Inviting new explorations atop earlier studies of the villa's roles as a central cultural figure rich in physical pleasures, social sorting, and spiritual aspirations, the introduction suggests possibilities for new approaches, illustrated by the authors that follow.

The first pair of essays (on the Historiography of Italian Gardens and Landscapes) opens with Beneš, exploring her own efforts to give order to a study so inchoate by carefully studying predecessors for their use of historiography. She particularly focuses on the Villa Doria Pamphilj as it related to the ancient Roman system of property belts: suburban vigne, campagna farms, and outlying towns amidst agricultural fields and forests. Next, Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto shows convincingly how the 1931 Italian Garden Exhibition, put on by the fascist government, wrongly promulgated a single vision of the Italian garden that suppressed regional and class differences in approaches to the landscape. The conflict in interpretations brought ancient disputes into modern times. Cicero argued for "Italian diversity" whereas Vergil lamented the Civil War's disruption of "Italy as a single patria."2

The following pair of essays on territorial systems in villa gardens opens with Marcello Fagiolo's inventive discussion of scenographic similarities in princely Italian residences from the Piedmont to Sicily with a coda on design similarities in Spain's Aranjuez, René Descartes' "ideogram of the vortex theory," and a map of Washington, D. C. as an ideogram of the "polycentrism of the [city's] squares as a synthetic image of the United States." Focused on congruent and meaningful clusters of villas, Vincenzo Cazzato shows that royal, aristocratic, and bourgeois patrons from Naples south combined in their villas the dual classical purposes of "agricultural production and otium." This combination, as an eighteenth-century chronicler described it, led to a surprising result in which "noble sites… coexist harmoniously with the rustic residences of the farmer and with agricultural buildings."

In the third pair of essays on "Agents of Landscape Transformation," Mauro Ambrosoli revises the definition of a garden beyond villascape to "any space determined by its social use and under intensive cultivation practices." Debates arose about whether viticulture, soil preparation, and crops should continue classical traditions such as Virgil outlined in the Georgics or change to new agricultural practices and horticultural tastes introduced by foreign owners. Readers can recognize the anguish in decisions reshaping the stereotypes of the garden of Italy. Emphasizing similarly difficult choices, Lionella Scazzosi, an architect involved in the negotiations for preservation and conservation, discusses the factors to consider when deciding whether to recover the antique or accept changes that have come into an esteemed landscape through time. The essay offers theoretical schema in which to see gardens and landscapes as "open-ended works," continually able to grow forward or backward depending modern needs for adjustments to present conditions or for restoration to historic ones. The process of translation for the twenty-first century requires a judgment among conflicting values related to those needed in other renditions of antique texts into modern idioms.

The fourth pairing of essays invites the reader to combine approaches to villas that concentrate on phenomenological characteristics, physical and sensory elements as they generate new discoveries and connections in famed sites including the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, the Villa Lante at Bagnaia, Medici villas, and the palazzina at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. Antonella Pietrogrande demonstrates how modern theorists have discovered in Renaissance Italian gardens bold affirmations of "generative nature" and the earth mother, feminine powers superseding medieval concentration on the otherworldly. Her discussion of the grotto in touch with darker, non-rational powers supports her argument that modern studies of the Italian garden go beyond the "metaphorical use of the ancient world." Instead, she observes the "originality of the Renaissance in representing ancient myths" by abandoning layouts with harmonic geometry in order to create "a place of spectacle designed to inspire wonder." Finally Denis Ribouillault's provocative essay suggests lively rather than static interpretations of a villa landscape in a "contextualized analysis" requiring both vision and movement. He "raises new questions about the relationship between vision, representation, motion, and memory in Renaissance villa culture" and coins the phrase, "the archaeology of the gaze." Building on the work of John Dixon Hunt and Michel Conan, Ribouillault sees the villa as a place of visual stories inside and out that provide the observer with "a moving picture show." Examining closely paintings usually overlooked inside the influential Villa d'Este at Tivoli, Villa Farnesina in Rome, and the Villa Farnese at Caprarola, his argument demonstrates the intimate connections of painted and actual garden views. These often include motifs from Rome and, he notes, recall Pliny the Younger's "remark on the painterly quality of landscape" seen outside his Tuscan villa. The recognition of links between seen and imagined views mirrors the book's blend throughout of perception and theory, thereby eluding Ribouillault's final axiom: "Pure landscape cannot exist without pure vision, which exists, precisely, only in theory."

In addition to the full bibliography at the end of the book, the essays embed in their notes helpful shorter bibliographies on specific topics. Throughout the notes generous attributions recognize scholars who have supported current work in the field including two monumental studies: Emilio Sereni's Storia del paesaggio agrario italiano and the Bibliografia del giardino e del paesaggio italiano, 1980-2005, Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi and Luigi Zangeri (edd). A minor concern: the latter is mentioned in the first footnote in the book but does not appear in the bibliography, except within a listing for an article by Zangeri.

Photos throughout the book support the arguments. Especially good, the pictures in Cazzato's essay on villa systems in Southern Italy show the advantage of long and consistent daylight. Ribouillault includes sharp images of interiors large, small, and often difficult to see in the best of circumstances. Because the twenty-six maps, mappe, kriegskartes, ideograms, plans, and schematics including Cythera from the Hypnoerotomachia Poliphili, are so useful in understanding the text, it is surprising that Harvard UP announces only three maps.

In these essays, villa gardens become memory theatres, bringing classical themes and gods into new forms, rich in imaginings about owners who establish their identity by participating in the classical tradition. Among the most suggestive dimensions of this book is the connection of landscape ekphrasis as part of villa rhetoric. Ribouillault argues that the Council of Trent encouraged the support of religion with images. This ancient and Renaissance custom had a long history in Italy and suited cardinals of the Church in their villa projects. That this taste often led to scenery with riddles and codes requiring an interpreter is no surprise, for taking on this role was the practice of earlier learned Renaissance art collectors like Isabella d'Este, who enjoyed stumping her guests with allegorical paintings and then unraveling the mysteries for them. Those who adventure into the places written about in Clio in the Italian Garden will find the book a knowledgeable guide to the hidden energies at play in storied villas and their gardens.

Table of Contents

Foreword ( John Beardsley)
Introduction: The Study of Italian gardens: A Newly Expanding Field (Mirka Beneš and Michael G. Lee)
Part I: Historiography of Italian gardens and landscape.
Methodological Changes in the Study of Italian Gardens from the 1970s to the 1990s: A Personal Itinerary (Mirka Beneš)
"Grafting the Edelweiss on Cactus Plants": The 1931 Italian Garden Exhibition and Its Legacy (Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto)
Part II: The Notion of Territorial Systems in Italian Villa Gardens
Systems of Gardens in Italy: Princely Residences and Villas in Rome and Latium, Savoy Piedmont, Royal Bourbon Naples, and Bagheria, Sicily (Marcello Fagiolo)
Residences of the Emergent Classes in Two Areas of Southern Italy (Vincenzo Cazzato)
Part III: Agents of Landscape Transformation: From Microstoria to Policies of Stewardship
From the Italian Countryside to the Italianate Landscape: Peasants as Gardeners and Foreign Observers in Italy, 1500-1850 (Mauro Ambrosoli)
Gardens and Landscapes as "Open-Ended Works" between Continuity and Transformation: Notes on the Role of Historical Studies (Lionella Scazzosi)
Part IV: Ways of Seeing the Landscape: Reconstructing Horizons of Perception and the Imaginary
The Imaginary of Generative Nature in Italian Mannerist Gardens (Antonella Pietrogrande)
Toward an Archaeology of the Gaze: the Perception and Function of Garden Views in Italian Renaissance Villas (Denis Ribouillault)


1.  "Italian Villas and Their Gardens," New York: Century 1905, 5.
2.   See Clifford Ando, "Vergil's Italy: Ethnography and Politics in First-Century Rome," in Clio and the Poets; Augustan Poetry and the Traditions of Ancient Historiography, Levene, D. S. and D. P. Nelis (edd), Leiden: Brill, 2002, 138.

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