The Landscape Guide

7.7 Metaphor and Garden

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Were Europe sinking beneath the waves, like Atlantis, and only two gardens could be saved for posterity, which should be chosen? I would ask for the Villa d'Este and for Stourhead. Both come near to perfection and both achieve a harmony between the four noble elements of landscape design: land, water, vegetation and buildings. Significantly, Stourhead and the Villa d'Este are based on metaphors. Every visitor acknowledges them as great works of art, though only the learned will know the role that stories played in their generation. Metaphors raise gardens to higher planes. Instead of being mere places of display, these gardens partake of literary and philosophical values. A book can be well written, well illustrated and well bound, but devoid of literary or artistic merit. Most large gardens are like this. Only a select few appeal to the soul, as works of art.

The Villa d'Este has inspired more wonder than any other garden in Europe. It was designed for this purpose, and it set the standard that Louis XIV wished to surpass at Versailles, Peter the Great at the Peterhof, and Paxton at the Crystal Palace. Each is a visual spectacle. But after the show one hardly cares to read the book. From the Villa d'Este, one comes away with a sense of mystery and power, a desire to return, and an awareness of meanings that have not been penetrated. Cardinal Ipollito II d'Este was the son of Lucrezia Borgia. He possessed the legendary ambition of the Borgias combined with the pride of the Estes. The garden he made was no Sabine farm, no rural retreat from the pursuit of power. It was a manifestation of wealth, power and ambition, designed by a great artist, Pirro Ligorio. Jellicoe wrote that

The importance of Ligorio in garden history cannot be overestimated. From his profound knowledge and understanding of Roman antiquity his brilliant imagination evolved designs that were wholly original, individual to himself, and essentially of the virile period in which he lived. (Jellicoe, 1986)

The story of the Este Villa is the story of one of Italy's oldest and most illustrious families. The Gods of Antiquity were summoned to help with the story, many of them being excavated from the ruins of Hadrian's Villa. Ligorio drew a plan of Hadrian's Villa and advised on the iconography of the Este Villa. It was inspired by the story of Hercules' eleventh labour, in which he took the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. Hercules was seen as an ancestor of the Estes and a symbol of their strength and virtue. Scenes from Ovid and geographical symbols embellished the story. Louis XIV and Peter the Great also used stories and classical statuary stories to manifest their power. Louis' garden at Versailles paid tribute to Apollo, the sun god whose power Louis compared with his own. The Peterhof garden celebrates Russia's "recovery' of the Baltic states and a sea access to Europe, with a mighty cascade and a canal leading from the palace to the sea. In princely gardens, commanding the waters symbolizes power.

Stourhead, by contrast, was designed as a rural retreat. No space beckons the crowds to gather on state occasions. Instead, there is a walk on which the Hoare family and their friends might conduct a few learned guests before a hearty meal. The walk was rich in classical allusions, especially to Virgil's Aeneid. A Temple of Flora was placed above the Paradise Well, to honour one of the sources of the lake's water. The Grotto celebrated another source of water, and an inscription associates it with the cave where Aeneas landed after his flight from Troy. Kenneth Woodbridge explains that the garden was designed to be experienced sequentially:

Walking from his house towards the hillside, Henry Hoare could look down on a Claudian idyll, the lake and the Pantheon framed by trees. In his fancy it could be Lake Nemi, where the nymph Egeria, mourning for her husband Numa, had been turned by Diana into a spring. Or Lake Avernus, traditionally the entrance to Hades. The latter association is explicit in the inscription on the Temple of Flora, Procul, o procul este profani. "Begone! you who are uninitiated, begone!' These are the words from the sixth book of The Aeneid, of the Cumaean Sybil who is about to lead Aeneas into the underworld where the story of the founding of Rome will be foretold. It seems that Henry Hoare saw the path through the Grotto as an allegory of Aeneas's journey, for he wrote in a letter, "I have made the passage up from the Sousterrain Serpentine & will make it easier of access facilis descensus Averno'. ( Woodbridge, 1971)

Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe is the most notable modern designer with an interest in literary themes, if not in stories. A memorial garden for President Kennedy, at Runnymede, was his first venture into allegory (Figure 11). This project inspired his scheme for the most significant twentieth century garden in England: Sutton Place. The scale of Stourhead and the Villa d'Este might suggest that stories have a place only in large gardens. They can also guide the detailing of small gardens. A London gardener found a carving of a child's head in an antique shop. The idea that she was a fallen angel suggested placing her at ground level. Now she sits in a rim of begonias, as in an architectural moulding. Metaphors can inspire the great and the small:

The Kennedy Memorial landscape was inspired by the Pilgrim’s Progress, with the stones representing pilgrims.

Look to the Rose that blows
about us -- "Lo,
"Laughing," she says, "into
the World I blow".

(Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyám)

Villa d'Este


Villa d'Este


Kennedy MKennedy Memorialemorial

Kennedy Memorial

Look to the rose