Seventeenth century aesthetic theory is variously described by art historians and philosophers as 'Rationalist', 'Neoclassical' and 'Neoplatonic' but each of these words has also been given more specific meanings. For example 'Rationalist' is used as a contrast to 'Romantic', 'Neoclassical' to describe the period 1750 to 1850, and 'Neoplatonic' to describe the ideas of the third century philosopher, Plotinus. In this book 'Rationalist' will be used to describe a theory of knowledge which contrasts with empiricism, and 'Neoplatonic' to mean derived from the writings of Plato. Plato has of course been very freely interpreted by later philosophers but the aspect of his aesthetic theory which concerns us has its origins in the Theory of Forms and cannot be explained without a brief description of the theory.

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The Theory of Forms rests on the difference between particulars and universals. Particulars are the individual things which compose the visibile world. Some are animal, some vegetable and some mineral, but all are imperfect and subject to change. Universals, on the other hand, are general concepts such as straightness, yellowness, beauty and justice. They are perfect and not subject to change. Let us take straightness as an example. It refers to a line which is absolutely and perfectly straight, though we can never see such a line. Every particular example of a straight line will deviate from the universal idea of 'straightness' because of imperfections in the drawing instrument and the surface upon which the line is drawn. We know that nothing could happen to change the concept of straightness, but every example of a straight line can be corrupted. Plato reasoned that since the visible world is composed only of particulars, and since we know that there are such things as universals, another world must exist which is composed only of universals. He called universals 'forms' or 'ideas' and his theory about their nature and existence is known as the Theory of Forms.

 Because the world of the Forms is perfect and changeless Plato thought it superior to the visible world. He believed that the more we know about the Forms the better equipped we will be to conduct our lives and the government of our society. From this point of view some Forms, such as beauty, truth and justice, are more important than other Forms, such as straightness and yellowness. The Forms can therefore be arranged in a hierarchy with the most important form at the top and the least important form at the bottom. In Plato's view the most general and most important form is goodness, which he called the Form, of Idea of the Good. 'Goodness' is a most difficult quality to define but an understanding of its meaning is of the first importance for the conduct of our lives and the production of works of art.

 Among philosphers there are numerous and ancient disputes concerning Plato's theories. Some have doubted whether Plato believed in the separate existence of the world of the Forms, though Aristotle, who spent twenty years in Plato's Academy, and Plotinus, who incorporated Plato's ideas into Christian theology, certainly believed that he did. It may be however that the the Theory of Forms was only intended as a simile. Plato loved similes and used many of them, including the famous simile of the cave, to explain the Theory of Forms. From our point of view what matters is not so much what Plato believed but the manner in which he has been interpreted by artists and aestheticians. It is for this reason that the influence of his ideas is best described as Neoplatonism.

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A N Whitehead remarked that 'the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato'. A lengthy footnote would be required to deal with Plato's influence on aesthetic theory and the work of practising artists. The discussion of mimesis (imitation) in The Republic, The Tima and The Laws was taken up by Aristotle and by countless later philosophers. They have argued that since the world of the Forms is better than the everyday world, artists should imitate the ideal Forms in their work. 'Art' we are told by Neoplatonism, 'should imitate nature'. By 'nature' they meant the world of the Forms - not the visible everyday world. In the course of its long history the consequences of this axiom have varied according to the different interpretations which have been placed upon 'imitation' and 'nature'. Before discussing the influence of the axiom on garden design it is worth pausing to look at some of its effects on the other arts.

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The idea that art should imitate nature was transmitted to medieval art by Aristotle. He adopted the idea that art should imitate the Forms but did not believe that the Forms existed in a transcendent world. Aristotle's theories had a profound influence on Christian art. Erwin Panofsky has explained how 'the High Gothic cathedral sought to embody the whole of Christian knowledge, theological, moral, natural, and historical, with everything in its place' and arranged to manifest the 'uniform division and subdivision of the whole structure', and the separate identity of each part. 'Nature' was understood as a Christian version of the hierarchy of Forms, as 'the whole of Christian knowledge.......with everything in its place'. 'Imitation' was interpreted as the process of manifesting this body of knowledge in the fabric of the cathedral. Thus the central portal of the west facade of Notre-Dame in Paris was arranged visually and structurally to show the hierarchical relationship between the Damned, the Resurrected, the Apostles, the twelve Virtues, the Saints and the Wise and Foolish Virgins.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
The central portal of the west facade of Notre-Dame, Paris, is arranged in a Platonic hierarchy, showing how the body of Christian knowledge was 'imitated' in the fabric of the cathedral, with everything in its place.
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
The Medici Villa at Careggi, where Lorenzo de Medici founded his Platonic Academy and re-introduced Plato's works to European culture.

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Although Aristotle's influence displaced that of Plato during the Middle Ages, Plato's works were rediscovered in Renaissance Italy. In 1439 Lorenzo di Medici founded a Platonic Academy in his garden at Carregi outside Florence, and from this point onwards Plato had a direct influence on Renaissance art. Humanist architects, such as Alberti and Palladio, studied classical architecture in the light of Plato's theories and rediscovered the fact that Greek and Roman architecture were based on mathematical proportions. Thus the relationship between the width of a column and its height was found to be based on Plato's conception of harmonic proportion and was taken to be an example of architecture imitating the Forms. Wittkower has described the manner in which Palladio was inspired by Neoplatonism. His architecture was based upon the circle, the square and the principle of harmonic proportion because Palladio believed them to represent the Forms of the Good, of Justice and of Harmony. The imitation of these essential Forms was a way of producing buildings which partook of the nature of the world. [See quotations and analysis of Palladio on CD]

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Similar beliefs underlie the mathematically calculated 'Cartesian' gardens of the seventeenth century. Descartes did not write either on aesthetics or gardening but his use of the geometrical method in reasoning led philosophers and artists to seek self-evident axioms on which to base aesthetics. The axiom that art should imitate nature fitted in perfectly with Cartesian philosophy. 'Nature' was understood once again as the essential and universal forms underlying the visible world. We can find the 'geometrical method' in Poussin's use of grids, in Racine's plays, in Le Notre's garden designs, and in the formulae which Boyceau gives for calculating the correct relationships between the length, height and width of an avenue. The latter correspond to the formulae which were used by Palladio to work out the mathematical relationship between a pavement and its adjacent arcade.

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Neoplatonic ideas also had wide currency in seventeenth and eighteenth century England. We find them in the writings of Dryden, Shaftesbury, Pope, Johnson and Reynolds. In one way or another these authors all tell us that art should imitate nature. The theory was also taken up by gardening authors and became commonplace. It was expressed by Pope in his famous lines:

To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the Column, or the Arch to bend,
To swell the Terras, or to sink the Grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.

Pope's garden in Twickenham was essentially a British version of a geometrical French garden. It presents us with another example of the puzzle which was discussed in connection with Temple, Shaftesbury and Switzer. Pope is renowned as one of the prophets of the new English style but his own garden was distinctly French. When Pope writes that 'all art consists in the imitation and study of nature', the idea of nature which he has in mind is mathematical and Neoplatonic: 

First follow Nature, and your judgement frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring NATURE, still divinely bright, One clear, unchang'd, and universal light, .....
Those Rules of old discover'd, not devis'd,
Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz'd;
Nature, like Liberty, is but restrain'd
By the same Laws which first herself ordain'd. 

It is clear that in this quotation from his Essay on Criticism Pope is using Nature to refer to the universal Forms and the rules of proportion which, in Neoplatonic theory, it is the task of the artist to imitate. However when Pope writes of 'the amiable Simplicity of unadorned Nature, that spreads over the Mind a more noble sort of Tranquility, and a loftier Sensation of Pleasure, than can be raised from the nicer Scenes of Art', it appears that he is using 'Nature' in an entirely different sense: to refer to a natural scene. It is this sense of the word which revolutionised the art of garden design. The use of 'nature' to mean empirical reality was not new but it was given great impetus by the philosophical school known as empiricism. Eighteenth century England saw a steady swing from Cartesian rationalism to the empiricism of Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Hume. The empiricism which we find in Pope comes directly from the writings of Locke and Shaftesbury.

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