The Landscape Guide



German botanical gardens

Wherever the German language is spoken the history of garden design has been varied and irregular, but interesting. There was a miscellaneous collection of workers in this field, just as there was in all the other departments of study and culture that flourished at the time of the Renaissance. Side by side were princes, burghers and learned scholars.

In many ways the division of labour and interests was a check on the development of large standard types. Hitherto we have found this development working outward from individual important centres. In Italy one great town handed over the leadership, so to speak, to another. In France, England and Spain everything was concentrated at one royal court and in the nobility that was so closely connected therewith. But in Germany a peaceful uniform progress in garden design was out of the question. True, the stream of Italian art breaks through with much force at the end of the fifteenth century, but it is at once dissipated in a multitude of different channels whose fructifying work disappears only too often from our sight. Therefore we get the surprise of some work of art suddenly appearing, apparently in no connection with anything else that is going on; and we cannot feel (as we so strongly felt in France, and even in England) that foreign influence is simply food for what is indigenous to the soil; because these separate creations for the most part seem to fade away, leaving no real successors.

Almost at the same time that Charles VIII of France took his adventurous journey through Italy to Naples, a German prince, Duke Eberhard von Würtemberg, made his way across the Alps. He travelled modestly, like a tourist, with only a small retinue, among whom was the learned Reuchlin. Lorenzo de’ Medici received him as his guest in Florence, and showed him his garden, among his other treasures, with great pride. The duke, like his learned friend, admired everything immensely, but his own estate was too small to allow of his making anything similar at home. His journey must be counted among those numerous travels for purposes of study that were taken by learned men of his day. The result was not so much that they gave a strong impetus to effective art at home as that they imbibed at the great universities that interest in botany which was now flourishing in Italy, and caused it to spread rapidly in Germany from the first years of the sixteenth century. An accurate knowledge of medicinal virtues was in great demand, and almost all the plants then known were used in medicine. From this point of view most foreign plants were introduced, even in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the earliest botanists were physicians: they were the men who made botanic gardens in their own country when they came back from their travels in Italy. For the most part they were burghers of wealthy flourishing towns, and they had the means for indulging their tastes.

These learned students maintained intercourse eagerly with one another. Their gardens were worth seeing and attracted visitors from abroad. There is no doubt that in the first intention they were laid out for botanical purposes; but as soon as educated persons had returned from Italy, where they generally spent years, and had assimilated the art and skill they desired, it was natural that, in those early days when utility and ornament had gone hand in hand, the chief honour should be given to utility.

All the important scientific workers at botany in Germany were the owners of large gardens. As early as 1525 Henricus Cordus started a garden in Erfurt after he had taken a doctor’s degree at Ferrara, and therewith added a new title of honour to the town: at that time it was already called the Garden of the Holy Roman Empire because of the extensive gardens there. When, five years later, Cordus left for Marburg as professor, one of his first acts was to lay out a garden. His son Valerius, like himself a learned botanist, was a close friend of Conrad Gesner, the well-known physician and man of varied learning at Zurich, who devoted his entire life to science, and died in 1565 at the age of forty-nine of the plague, which he was attempting to combat a second time in his native city. Gesner was the centre of all botanical study in Germany and far beyond. At Zurich he owned a lovely garden, he travelled a great deal, and in his writings he has left behind the names of the well-known gardens of his time, with information about them. These gardens, belonging at first to private scholars, soon became attached as academic properties to the universities. After the Italian botanic gardens founded at Padua, Bologna, and Pisa about the middle of the century had shown how helpful they were for medicine, for plant production, and for the acclimatisation of foreign herbs, Germany and the Netherlands were the first to follow the lead. In 1577 there was founded a botanic garden at Leyden, in 1580 another at Leipzig, and in 1597 another at Heidelberg, to mention the most famous; but soon there were smaller ones in nearly all the universities.

The interest in botany in German countries was now so much in the foreground that it gave a certain scientific character even to the private gardens of important and educated owners. Erasmus, in his Convivium Religiosum, makes the guests walk before their meal into a well-kept garden, a square with a wall round it. “ The place is dedicated to the honourable pleasures of rejoicing the eye, refreshing the nose, and renewing the spirit.” Only sweet-scented herbs grow therein; the plants are set out in the most perfect order; every species has its own place, and each one has its own vexillum with its name and special virtues. Thus for example speaks the marjoram: “ Keep away from me, swine; my scent is not for you,” for although this plant has a sweet smell, swine cannot endire its scent. Thus the owner has talking plants, not dumb ones. The individual beds are enclosed with palisades, in one place striped with green, and in another with the complementary red. The whole garden is divided in two by a brook, which flows into a basin of stucco on whose base one sees beasts of all kinds and colours, and plants mirrored in the clear water. Round about the place there are covered halls, two stories high, making a shady border to the house. The lower story, made with stucco columns, is painted all over, and the pictures portray a second garden with animals and flowers.

Special excuses are given to justify these pictures, and here also the scientific interest in foreign fauna and flora preponderates, in contradistinction to the upper halls, which, lighted from windows on the outside, are painted with serious religious pictures. One gets there directly from the gallery which is beside the house in front of the library. At the end of these corridors there are little summer-houses where one can rest and look out over the kitchen-garden. This comprises the vegetable-garden, which is called “ the woman’s kingdom"; and the medicinal-garden, which contains the useful herbs for home consumption. On the left is the playground, a meadow with a quickset hedge, and a summer-house in one corner where people can take meals, and which can also be used as an isolation house in case of infectious disease. On the right of the vegetable-garden is the orchard, where more foreign trees are grown; at one end is the apiary, and by the pillared walk of the flower-garden a bird-house is approached by a flying bridge, which perhaps had water under it for the sake of water-fowl.

All the features that characterise the garden of Erasmus are entirely of the northern type—the two-storied corridor in the flower-garden which is laid out with a botanical intention, the bright stream enclosed in a basin, the special meadow playground with hedges round it—all showing the style of the North, one might say the style of the towns man’s garden, belonging to the well-to-do scholar; and it is quite likely that Erasmus had in his mind some particular garden of a gentleman’s family at Basle.