Helena Atlee Italian Gardens – book review

The illustrations are excellent but the text is disappointing. Italian gardens suggests a book about the gardens of Italy but as the subtitle – a cultural history reveals it is not a book about garden design.  Design is mentioned but it is not treated systematically. Chapter 2, on Medici gardeners 1518-1550 opens as follows ‘The desire to make gardens is like a hereditary disease’. While not objecting to wit, I do not see this as a useful explanation of  how one of history’s greatest gardening families acquired its passion for gardens. Nor does Atlee give any account of Italy’s Roman gardens, as the title would lead one to expect. A newcomer to the subject might think the first gardens ever made in Italy date from the fourteenth century. Atlee is the author of several travel guides to Italian gardens and this book is more akin to a guide book than a history book.

The cultural history of gardens is an interesting topic but I do not see why it should be detached from the design history of  ‘how and why gardens took their present form’ (see comment on John Dixon Hunt’s use of the term cultural history). One could write cultural histories of furniture, or milk bottles, but they would not serve as  substitutes for design history. So why separate the two approaches to history? My impression is that cultural historians have less appreciation of design than design historians have of culture. They tend to be ‘words people’ instead of ‘word and image’ people – and they don’t seem very good at reading plans. My recommendation to someone taking up garden history is to begin by measuring, drawing, photographing and writing about a single historic garden, including an account of  the cultural context in which it was formed. From the other end of the telescope, I believe designers should have a broad appreciation of the cultural,  technical and artistic context in which they are working.

4 thoughts on “Helena Atlee Italian Gardens – book review

  1. Kat

    I’m not sure that Helena Attlee’s work should be taken as a good example of the ‘cultural history’ of gardens. I agree the photos are gorgeous but that it seems a bit like her travel accounts. As someone who knows the topic very well I immediately noticed that all her text is essentially taken from a selection of well known secondary sources. There were paragraphs where I knew the exact book she had used to write it! I think it provides a really good overview informed by most of the key literature, but it is just an overview, no really new insights.

    At the same time I don’t really believe you can say that design historians necessarily have a better grasp of cultural history. I have read several accounts of the design of gardens that manage to completely ignore the cultural and social currents that informed the design. It is an interesting problem though that I do agree with to a certain extent, I came to garden history via art history so always have a strong inclination to begin with the work itself, be it the garden design or painting.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I think art history and architectural history are good backgrounds from which to approach garden history, because they both maintain a balance between the ‘word’ and ‘image’ aspects of the subject. It would be interesting to have an explanation of what is meant by a ‘cultural history of gardens’ and to make a comparison with the ‘general history of gardens’ or with other specialist approaches to garden history. I am not in favour of dealing with garden history primarily through words, as Katherine T. von Stackelberg mostly does in The Roman Garden (Routledge 2009).

    Kat: I like your Bosco Parrasio Blog – and I think Melbourne needs some regulations for the control of overhead cabling!

  3. Kat

    Thanks! I would love to see our electrical wires go underground, but most Melburnians have a bit of a soft spot for our trams and the trams cables. We even have some that are heritage protected. But it can sometimes be very annoying when trying to take a good photo of a building.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    Oh yes: keep hold of your trams. I framed an Edinburgh ‘Last Tram Week’ ticket at the age of ten – and now they are ripping up parts of the town to bring back the tram.


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