Friday, February 26, 2016

The Italian Renaissance: new thoughts, new gardens

The word “renaissance,” means rebirth – and in the early 14th century, Italy was experiencing a rebirth of the classical style. The art, music, and architecture of the time all were results of a renewed spark of interest in the ancient Greek and Roman ideals. On the philosophical and intellectual level, people were beginning to consider their position in all of Creation and nature, pondering their relationship with God and the spiritual. Ultimately, the Italian Renaissance combined the ancient classical philosophies with the new Christian doctrine to create a new perspective that strongly affected the progress of civilization throughout the rest of history.

One prominent example of this merging of ancient Greek and Rome with the Catholic Church is found in St. Thomas Aquinas, an Italian philosopher and theologian of the early Renaissance. Thomas Aquinas was a proponent of natural theology, the idea that we can discover more about God through a study of his Creation – nature around us. By combining Christian doctrine and Aristotle’s logic, Aquinas’s studies ended up laying the basis for modern science.

Shortly after Thomas Aquinas came Petrarch, a humanist. Humanism during this era was not what we know it as today – it was the view that humans, though creatures of a greater God, are rational and capable of thinking for themselves. This was in contrast to the views common during the Middle Ages, which looked very much towards the afterlife, and what must be done on earth to achieve Heaven. Petrarch didn’t deny the existence of God or the afterlife – he just said that life on earth didn’t have to be entire drudgery. We could still experience and actively participate in the beauty and joy of life in God’s Earthly Creation before we (hopefully) experienced His Heavenly one.

Aquinas and Petrarch are good examples of the general philosophies that outlined the Italian Renaissance, and stretched into its art and science. Paintings and sculpture achieved a sense of perspective and realism. Architecture adopted the elegant lines and columns of Roman temples, returning to buildings that were pretty to look at, and not just defensive like the castles of the Middle Ages. Scientific method emerged, and studies in astronomy replaced the geocentric model of the solar system with the heliocentric. Every facet of life was affected by the new cultural perspective of the Renaissance.

Gardens, of course, were very much so affected by the Renaissance, and mirrored the new thoughts and ideas of the time in their designs. Classical models of the Roman Villa reappeared, to be both "looked at and looked out from," as said Leon Battista Alberti, the embodiment of the Renaissance Man. No longer were gardens an afterthought, squeezed into an enclosed corner in a Medieval castle - instead, they were incorporated into the architecture of the villa, like the peristyle gardens of ancient Rome. The garden was just as important a part of the architecture as the building was. Also like in the classical peristyle garden, the gardens of the Renaissance were full of the sound of rushing water through many fountains, and numerous meanings and allegories could be found in the statues, water features, and plants.

But in the peristyle, the gardens were enclosed - now, they stretched out openly from the villa, a physical representation of the new outward-looking philosophies at the time. Just as scientific liberation and enquiry was beginning to take hold, so gardens mirrored this with more expansive, worldly designs. The residents of the villa would be able to look out over the garden, and even beyond onto the cities and fields technically not a part of their property, and yet still merged with it, a kind of "borrowed landscape." 

In the Villa Lante, the garden changed in design as it descended from the house. Higher up was the area called the Bosco, or forest, which was more informal and supposed to feel more natural and less constructed. But further down - following the water paths - the garden ended in a more formal section, as though expressing the ideas of the time that the world was something that could be rationalized and controlled by humans. 

The Italian Renaissance garden was an attempt at that control. It was an attempt to find the balance between man and God, the balance between artistic nature and real nature. If we were rational humans in control of our own lives, with the ability to create art for our own enjoyment here on Earth, how far could we go combining God's (supposedly perfect) Creation with our own efforts at perfection? 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What does the word "garden" mean to me?

When I was very young, we had a square fenced-in herb garden behind our house that we called the Secret Garden after the one in Frances Hodgson Burnett's book. It wasn't at all secret, but we liked the idea of being able to wander around the small round path amid the plants and imagine that the white picket fencing was actually a giant hedge, separating us from the rest of the world. When my sister and I tired of running around in the adjoining lawn, we would unlatch the little gate and pick some of the black currents growing on the far end of the garden. 

Later, when we remodeled our house, the Secret Garden was replaced with more lawn, and in exchange, my father built a long raised bed up against the garage. This was supposed to be a place for myself, my sister, and my mother to all grow our own plants, but my sister and I neglected our plots and eventually it was all taken over by my mom. Here, she grew vegetables, leafy greens, tomatoes, and – after my father added a lot more trellising – beans. The entire southern outer wall of the garage became a glorious mess of vines and leaves. For my mother, productivity and beauty always had to come hand-in-hand, and her garden was evidence of that.

Another favorite activity for my family was visiting the Chicago Botanic Gardens, and, as a child, I loved exploring the rocky steps and winding gravel paths leading up to hidden waterfalls. The huge expansiveness of the Gardens, and the wide variety, provided a perfect venue for my imaginative brain. We would wander for hours, relaxing beneath the willow in the Japanese garden, running through the fountains outside the rose garden trellises, and crawling into the alcoves in the walls of the English garden.

These three examples show the impact of the garden on my life. The garden is a place where I, firstly, go to relax, whether it be from playing on the lawn with my sister when I was eight years old, or now, when I need a respite from the work of the day. It’s a place to let the creative mind wander and contemplate the world, even as a child running through the mysterious paths of the Botanic Gardens. It’s a place where we can commune with nature – without being in great danger of nature’s perils.

My mother additionally found peace by the actual act of planting and maintenance of a garden. She was thus able to work alongside nature to create something beautiful – and most of the time, it was edible and nourishing as well. So whether by experiencing the garden through its maintenance and care – as my mother did – or by simply enjoying it as a viewer, the garden will always be a place for finding solace, relaxation, and pleasure.