Minding Your Mannerism in Italian Gardens
For anyone who can appreciate a good bust, grotto or flimsily draped heroic nude (and who amongst us cannot, I ask?), Italian gardens hold a special allure. Symmetry, formal order and historical reference add to the appeal. In our own backyard, tasteful versions of the "Italian Garden in America" abound. Blithewood at Bard College,
the Vanderbilt garden in Hyde Park,
and the Mount in Lenox
all go far in erasing negative stereotypes associated with the idiom thanks to the popularity of Bathtub Madonnas
and landscaping at the Olive Garden chain.
I was ecstatic therefore when a trip to Rome last year gave me my first opportunity to see some Italian-Italian gardens in the flesh, or maybe more accurately, marble. I immersed myself in research, trolling the Internet, pouring through garden guides and scanning countless articles on famous Italian gardens. Though the city itself had a number of good examples, exotic names such as Viterbo, Villa Aldobrandini Vignanello, Bangaregio, Bagnaia, and Bomarzo swirled pleasantly around my head, fueling my desire to visit some a bit farther afield. As I was only going to be in Rome for four days in Rome alltogether, I forced myself to narrow the list to those I imagined I could cram into one (long) day’s outing. Hadrian’s Villa, Villa D’Este, Ninfa, Villa Lante and the Sacro Bosco, all within an hour or two’s drive, made the cut.
After arriving in the Eternal City, an honest assessment of my driving skills and Google mapping made it clear that seeing all five in one day without the aid of a helicopter was going to be an impossibility. I would have to choose one general direction to drive in, and see the gardens in that area. To the south lay Hadrian’s Villa, which had captured my imagination since childhood, Villa d’Este, one of the great baroque gardens of the country, and Ninfa, created from of an abandoned medieval town thanks to the passion (and fortune) of an American-born heiress. As enticing as these were, I selected two gardens the north; Villa Lante, which received universal praise, and the Sacro Bosco, a surreal park full of fantastic statues. There was something else that also helped tip the scales in the latter two gardens favor. Both gardens were described in various sources as being in the “Mannerist” style.
Reaching far back to Professor Bernstein’s Survey of Western Art course in college, I remembered Mannerism as a period in art that came between the High Renaissance and Baroque. Influenced in part by the social and political upheavals of the era, Mannerist artists distorted proportions and twisted motifs associated with the classicism and balance of renaissance art. The dramatic, in some cases seemingly bizarre images and compositions paved the way for the exuberance and emotionalism of the Baroque period that followed. I think I think I understood, but how the heck did Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck translate into garden design?
The answer as it turned out, was not so cut and dry. Garden History I discovered, is relatively young as a subject of research and scholarship in comparison to art history. The direct application of stylistic traits from art to gardens is not an exact science either, leading to confusing and at times contradictory conclusions, especially to the layperson, and even more so when looking at Italian gardens of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Villa Lante, for example, is referred to as a Renaissance (with the well meaning prefix of “high” or “late” sometimes added for good measure) or Baroque garden nearly as often as it is described as Mannerist.
That aside, some definite design hallmarks and themes emerged that might help to identify a garden as Mannerist. Unusual and entertaining elements, including fantastical or grotesque figures, as well as the use of water in unexpected ways reflected a more expressive outlook beyond the traditional idealistic elements associated with classicism and antiquity. Paths with bends, irregular nooks, and hidden rooms also play with the traditional symmetry and axial geometry of renaissance garden design. Armed with about as much rudimentary knowledge as I was ever going to retain, we eagerly started out Sunday morning in our rental car, ready to see gardens in the Italian Countryside through new Mannerist tinted glasses.
The expression “Getting there is half the fun” rings especially true for me when driving in a foreign country, particularly if I am not behind the wheel. Brendan indulged me and agreed to drove north via the city streets, ignoring the protestations of the GPS system urging him to use the Major. As city center eventually melted into fringes, then slowly into suburbs, he patiently nodded for over an hour as I wondering aloud,
“Do you think they make metal grills in that factory over there?”
“Who would have thought there would be THIS many ceramic tile outlets? “
Eventually traffic picked up and cows in fields began to outnumber cars in dealers’ lots as we entered the countryside in the direction of our first stop, the Sacro Bosco in Bomarzo. Our plans took an unplanned detour when a sign bearing an arrow indicated Villa Lante was only a right turn and 3km away. Thankful for some practical route guidance at last, Brendan followed the sign to Bagngaia, the small 13th century hill town where Villa Lante is located. Making our way towards the gate to the villa’s park, the narrow streets with laundry hanging from windows, sounds of domestic chatter and cooking smells emanating from the old stone buildings continuously in use for centuries embodied the concept of “living history” in a way that a Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village could never truly reproduce.
Upon entering the grounds, we immediately encountered an elliptically shaped Pegasus fountain. Though Impressive, It didn’t prepare me adequately for the sheer aesthetic perfection of the (justly) famous Quarato just beyond it, a square parterre featuring a central fountain and water basins.
A study in symmetry and dynamism, the exuberant patterns of the crisply trimmed box and elements such as Chinese men manning their stone boats keep the composition feeling lively yet formal at the same time.
As we continued up a series of terraces beyond the twin casini, I was mindfull of my mission to identify what made this garden mannerist (as I thought I understood it). Helpful "mannerist" hints were beginning to emerge. A circular, tiered “ fountain of the lamps” features small fountains lined on multiple ledges spouting small jets of water which are meant to appear as if blazing in the sunlight, simulating Roman oil lamps.
Above, Water Gods looked out over a stream, which in turn flows through a channel carved through the middle of long stone banqueting table, ostensibly to keep the dinner guest’s wine chilled.
“Aha!” I thought momentarily, “Mannerism" although I didn't entirely convince myself and I have to admit that was just about my last academic thought of the day before succumbing completely to the sensory experience of the place .
Though hard to leave, we pushed on to Bomarzo and the Sacro Bosco. Also known as Parco di Monstri, they were begun in the 1550s by Pier Francesco Orsini, as a monument to his late wife. If some discernment might be called for to readily identify Mannerist elements at Villa Lante, at the Sacro Bosco they hit you over the head. Heroic statues with arcane symbolic associations are strewn about in seemingly random order. Fantastic creatures and deities create a menagerie cum sideshow.
Even Sculptures with real historical reference have a dramatic twist, such as one of Hannibal’s elephants about to hurl a Roman soldier wrapped in its trunk.
At first galnce it appears poles apart from Villa Lante, but it is not hard to similar allegorical references and decorative elements. A River God is found here as well, although seemingly having clambered ashore.
While a grotto at Lante might hold a sculpture, at Sacro Bosco, it goes one step further, with the grotto actually becoming sculpture in and of itself.
Ultimately, each garden stands uniquely on their own, and providea a very different equally worthy experience. Thinking back and taken together though, I think both have elements of surprise, fantasy, and emotionalism that help label them as Mannerist. In the case of Villa Lante, it occurs by employing twists to traditional elements of High-Renaissance garden design, while at the Sacro Bosco, the Mannerism seems to point more to the unbridled exuberance of the Baroque period to follow. Whether I am right or wrong – they beat visiting a Bathtub Madonna any day!