Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Short History of Gardens by Laura Jean Zito

A Short History of Gardens by Laura Jean Zito

Did you know Egypt had the first formal ornamental gardens, pairing tall, elegant palms and horizontally spreading acacias in long sweeping symmetrical lanes through rectangular lotus ponds that seemed flower-strewn carpets? The four corners symbolized the four corners of the compass, or the four rivers of paradise later during Islamic times.

Persians raised the bar with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The garden was the place where everything important in life took place: the signing of political treaties, social gatherings of import, seclusion, refuge, contemplation, feasts, romance.

Prominent Egyptians and Romans, but curiously, not so much Athenians, had their private gardens to walk and teach in. Although Theophrastus, a writer on botany, inherited the private garden of Aristotle, Greek gardens more often surrounded temples and lined roads, than were kept privately.

Ptolemy’s gardens in Alexandria were the most celebrated in the ancient world. Lucullus brought the Persian gardening traditions of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon home to Rome around 60 BC, the story recorded in the cave paintings of Pompeii. The Gardens of Lucullus on the Pincian Hill introduced the idea of the Persian garden to all Europe.

Topiaries, arcades and rose gardens were implemented to create spaces of privacy, shade and ornate cultivation such as Hadrian’s Villa. Islamic gardens continued the use of ponds and pools, fed by narrow straws of irrigation channels. Mesopotamian gardens were big on shade and cool water, Hellenistic and Byzantine gardens on precious materials.

Thus ensued the popularity of enclosed gardens, with walls to show off those materials, and to serve as outdoor rooms with a special affinity with divinity. This spiritual symbolism was reflected in many paintings of the time that depicted the Virgin Mary praying in an enclosed garden, the lost Eden, often with a fountain, a unicorn and roses.

As city sizes and individual assets dwindled or swelled, the gardens reflected all fluctuations, and in the leanest times, only the vegetable gardens remained.

Authority, wealth, and power became identified with the garden, an exterior and therefore obvious indicator. The rich had grape arbors to provide their own wine, and waterfowl wading in their pools. Later, Italian Renaissance gardens used pools and water to represent fertility. French Renaissance gardens spoke to man’s ability to conquer nature on a grander scale, replicating the more open-spaced ancient Roman villas described in ancient, unearthed texts, and public parks were born.

Descartes’ ideas of measureable geometry from a century earlier influenced the head gardener of Louis XIV, who gave them physical and visual representation in Versailles, the model for the formal gardens of Europe. In copycat versions for estate owners, the main house was made to appear larger by exaggerating the horizon line. Spaces to stage plays, concerts and fireworks were built in to amuse the garden stroller en route to the main house, encouraging the use of grottoes, fountains and cul de sacs.

The Spanish Crown built the first public gardens in Europe and in the Americas in the 16th Century. Spain had taken a cue from the Moors, and gardens were far more developed there than in other parts of Europe. They were used everyday, and for every public occasion, as the place for respite from the hot noonday heat and the hassles of commerce.

Monasteries were the true purveyors of botanical lore and preservation of horticultural methods. Aside from their role as practical producers of vegetables, fruits and herbs, monastic gardens were designed geometrically around water to create microcosms that would mathematically mirror the macrocosm of the universe.

In China, and Japan, as temples were the centerpieces of Zen gardens, ponds were the centerpieces of miniature landscapes that developed the theories of Yin and Yang, and also of myths of longevity. Deliberately zigzagging paths mimic the paths life often takes, and remind one of the unseen and unknown future.

The Romantic movement in England brought another current of thought to the precise geometry of the French Renaissance gardens. The picturesque gardens, with wild flowers randomly scattered about, came as a reaction against the influence of stereotypical compositions of landscape painters Claude Lorraine, Poussin and Salvator Rosa that had guided garden theorists of the time.
Influenced by painter William Gilpin in England and Jean Jacques Rousseau in France, as well as by Claude Henri Watelet, Francois Boucher and Hubert Robert, and the Dutch 17th century landscapists, garden theorists such as Humphrey Repton were able to transform the look of gardens to naturally scripted elements that seized actual topography as their roadmap.

This led to the gardenesque style of gardens, where special collectors’ item plants were highlighted in their own beds and trees were positioned to show off their attributes as the first priority. Winding paths connected these highlighted botanical imports.

Garrett Eckbo, James Rose and Dan Kiley,” the bad boys of Harvard” became iconic figures at the head of the landscape architecture movement that embraced modernism, and set aside the form follows function philosophy for one that saw the garden as the outdoor room whose essence mimic’d the nature it tamed, while employing abstract visual art and sculpture to embellish and make a statement. The kidney shaped swimming pool adorned with an abstract sculpture in the 1948 Donell garden by Thomas Church became an icon for modern outdoor living, as exemplified by “Sunset” magazine if the Southwest. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater had much influence as a near perfect harmonizing of man’s dwelling needs with the forces of nature. His nod to the future of gardens in Taliesin as seamlessly integrated into their natural settings yet fulfilling vital desires brings the philosophy full circle.

The gardens of the future, while greening up some city roofs, with attention focused on water shortages, sustainable design and desertification, will also be tailored to humankind’s needs for physical and psychological nurturance. The variegated shapes and settings will provide a wealth of uniqueness in a world ever more uniform and generic. The garden, originally emphasizing man’s ability to impose order on the natural environment, was naturally following a formula of the times. Now the garden pays homage to nature’s defining characteristics, the randomness, the sumptuous chaos, the perennial cycles. All rights reserved © 2011 Laura Jean Zito

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