The Landscape Guide
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'THE RETREAT 1745' This lettering on a doorway in the north of England reflects the mood of the times

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Renaissance had a vast impact on British culture. It was natural that writers on gardening and agriculture should join with their contemporaries in looking to Italy for artistic and scientific knowledge. They looked both to Renaissance authors, such as Alberti , Palladio and Colonna, and to their Roman predecessors, including Virgil , Vitruvius, Pliny and Columella. For practical advice the best sources were Virgil's Georgics and Columella's De Re Rustica. English writers on gardening found that the Georgics and De Re Rustica contained a wealth of advice on rural topicsincluding tillage, agricultural tools, raising trees, pruning, caring for animals and the management of bees. Columella loved county life and believed that agriculture is 'without doubt most closely related to and, as it were, own sister to wisdom'.

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Virgil, the greatest Roman poet, delights in practicalities but, though 'Georgic' means 'to do with agriculture' it was not the poet's sole purpose to write an agricultural treatise in verse. His aims were also political and philosophical. Like Horace, his contemporary in first century BC Rome, Virgil delighted in the life style of rural retirement. The two poets contrast the virtues of pastoral life with the civil war, waste and political turmoil which plagued Rome after the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC. They dreamt of a new Golden Age embodying the virtues of peace, productivity and continuity. In particular they pointed to the life style of what Maren-Sofie Rostvig has called the happy husbandsman. His life was one of rural retirement and peaceful toil, free from the temptations of money, power and political advancement. The Georgics often return to this theme:

 Blest too is he who knows the rural gods,......... never pitied he
Him that hath not, nor envied him that hath.
What fruits the branches, what the willing earth
Freely afford, he gathers, nor beholds
State archives, ruthless laws and city broils.
Others may vex the treacherous firth with oars
And rush upon the sword; through palaces
And courts of kings their headlong course they hold...

Meantime the husbandsman with crooked plough
Has cleft the earth: hence labour's yearly meed,
Hence feeds he little child and father land.
Hence are milch-cow and honest ox maintained.
Earth never rests: either with fruit she flows,
Or with young lambs, or with the wheaten sheaf
Beloved of Ceres: increase the drills
And barns are overcome.

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Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
'Blest too is he who knows the rural gods...' These words from Virgil's Georgics characterize the 'rural retirement' theme which so appealed in seventeenth century England, beset as it was by the Civil War and its associated troubles. The wood cut is from a 1502 edition of the Georgics (Book IV). It shows contented farmers looking after bee hives.

Although Virgil and Horace are amongst the greatest poets to have praised the virtues of rural retirement, Greek poets, were the originators of the theme. The peacefulness of rural life was a favourite topic of Homer and Theocritus, upon whom Virgil and Horace modelled their poetry. In Greece philosophy had long been associated with gardens. Horace studied at the academy in Athens as a young man and may have been taught philosophy in the garden, as had been the custom of Plato and Epicurus. Horace particularly admired Epicurus' doctrine that happiness results from the enjoyments of the mind and the sweets of virtue. He was offered the job of private secretary to Augustus but turned it down because he liked best the life of rural retirement on his farm in the Sabine Hills:  

Happy the man who bounteous Gods allow, With his own hands Paternal Grounds to plough.  

There he could live amongst happy husbandsmen with cheerful faces engaged in pruning the vine, shearing lambs, gathering fruit, ploughing the soil, and looking after bees. To Virgil, Horace and all those who later admired their poetry, the Age of Augustus was a golden age.

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