The Landscape Guide

Boccaccio's tales and medieval gardens

[There are excerpts from Boccaccio's Decameron on the CD]

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see is to be expected, Italy takes a prominent place, not only on the practical side of aesthetics in gardening, but also in poetical descriptions in the fourteenth century. Boccaccio, the poet who above all others is identified in every department of art with the immense stride from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, stands on the threshold of both worlds. Second only to the Romaunt of the Rose, we have his description of a garden in The Vision of Love, which takes its place in direct line with the antique Byzantine love- romances. The poet enters the garden; over the walls flowering branches are beckoning, the beauty of the grassy lawn decked with a host of flowers overmasters his spirit, there are tiny rivulets, animals playing on the green grass, the comforting songs of the birds; in the midst is a fountain—and here his description soars above that of Eustathius, and takes two chapters in the telling.

We hear of a lovely basin of red marble, on whose four sides stand figures in different attitudes, also made of priceless marble, In the middle, on a very beautiful support, stands a pillar like diamonds to look at, with a golden capital. On this there are three female forms, their shoulders touching, each of a different-coloured marble, One of them is black, and the water flows like tears from her eyes; the second one is red as fire, and the water flows from her breasts; the third is almost white, and she flings the stream over her head. It then passes through shells and various heads of lion, bull, and man, and finally proceeds to water the garden.

The delight in these fantastic water arrangements has a further effect, for Rabelais in the court of his Abbey of Thelemites has a very similar fountain, which he describes in a humorous way. Almost all Boccaccio’s accounts of gardens are in the conventional manner, and since he adopted the list of trees in his Theseid, the ancient tradition (as we said before) remained alive right on into Renaissance days.

But Boccaccio knows also how to keep his eyes open to actual fact, as no man before him had done. This is plain to see when he gives us a bit of the history of his own times, in his inimitable style, in the tales of the Decameron. As Villani in his history gives a general picture of the beauty in the surroundings of Florence, as Petrus Crescentius as a teacher exhibits a specimen of a lordly estate, so does Boccaccio’s picture of the loveliest of villas produce a clear, intelligible view of some nobleman’s seat of that day, standing on the heights of Fiesole over the city. Undoubtedly these villas did exist in truth and still exist in fiction, exceedingly like to one another: here the gentlemen and ladies of the Decameron spent their days. The round of ideas for the garden is still small, and it reverts to type, but what the poet sees and makes us see is what was really there: the house was on a hill, surrounded by meadows, and a smooth, pretty and almost untrodden path led up to it. A fine inner court was roofed with a flower-bedecked loggia, where the guests were received. The garden, where they went afterwards, was at the side and had good walls. Round by the walls and in the middle there were straight paths as broad as a street, with many arbours clad in vines, which in that year gave fairest promise of a rich harvest, and already from their blossoms wafted a delicious scent abroad. The sides of the paths were enclosed with red and white rose hedges, so that one could walk in the shade not only in the morning but also at any other time of the day.

How the other plants were arranged, the poet unfortunately had not time to tell. But in the middle there was a closely mown lawn, of such a dark green that it almost looked black, and it appeared to be painted with a thousand different flowers. Round about it was a border of green oranges and citrons, their flowers and fruit growing together. In the middle of the lawn is the white marble well, with beautiful sculptures on its border. A figure with a column or pipe inside throws a water-jet—whether this is from an artificial or natural spring the poet does not say—so strong that one could have driven a mill with it. The stream is conducted under the meadow and into canals for the watering of the garden. Naturally in this lovely spot men’s hearts are rejoiced by the songs of birds, and they allow themselves to be pleasantly teased by the animals, deer and rabbits. On the lawn tables and chairs are put out, where people who are tired of singing and dancing can get rest and refreshment. What pleasure and what joie de vivre is shown in this account of life at the villa! We detect a new vigour in their gardening, and the whole scene becomes more living to us because we here have actual biographical details.

Petrarch seems to have wanted, wherever he went, to have a garden that he could care for himself. He possessed one at Parma, where vines grew between the trees, and here the famous meeting between him and Boccaccio took place. He said of his garden at Vaucluse that he had planted it with his own hands, and happily compared the divine activities of Bacchus and Minerva with his own, saying that he had not concerned himself with a shelter for his grandsons, but would walk in it himself.

And to this day, on the slopes of the Euganean hills, overlooking a heavenly landscape, there stands the little house which the poet kept as a retreat for his old age in the lovely village of Arqua, so renowned for its vines, From the village street one steps into the garden, where a thick laurel avenue leads up to the house. To-day, as then, flowers bloom to right and left in the simple beds, At the other side of the house is the open loggia, like the one in Boccaccio’s garden, and from here one can both enjoy the lovely view, and look towards the garden at the back which is completely shut away. At the foot of the hill, near the church, stands the sarcophagus which holds the poet’s bones; but above, green and sweet, grows the laurel, by him beyond all other men beloved and sung.