The Landscape Guide

Sculpture, ruins and gardens

For garden sculpture, as with the renaissance passion for ruins, we find only isolated instances among Italians at this time. Yet the mighty statues erected by their forefathers in Rome excited their imagination. A longing to possess as their own some real antique statues and ruins not only led them to construct gardens round genuine ruins, but also round “ faked “ ones.  Vasari speaks of a sham ruin in a barchetto (small park), which the prince put in the old restored castle of Pesaro. Inside it there was a handsome staircase like the one at the Belvedere in Rome. Polifilo also, in his Hypnerotomachia, gives a most romantic account of a ruin of this kind (Fig. 158). 

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But these seem to have been exceptional, for in Italy there was such an immense quantity of genuine remains of the past that the disguise seemed too poor and thin.

The ruins of ancient sculptures had quite a different bearing for the garden. Statues were continually coming to light out of the rubbish heap, and soon there were so many of them that the houses could no longer contain them all. Presently the idea came that  statues would make suitable ornaments for a garden. At the beginning of the fifteenth century the first timid attempts were made to put them there. Learned men and artists first created garden museums. The humanist Poggio relates how he set up antique statues in the little garden that he laid out about 1483 at his own villa in Terra Nuova, and how his friends, the other speakers in the dialogue De Nobilitate, laughed heartily at him. He had put up these marble statues, they said, instead of his beggarly ancestors to give an appearance of nobility. Proudly did the great humanist take up the jest: he had won his nobility, he said, by finding and collecting antique remains. But what was now criticised as a novelty, and was scarcely to be found in gardens of the middle of the century, was destined to become a universal custom, as the soils of Italy and Greece delivered up ever more and more of their buried treasures. Poggio’s things passed into the Medicean collection, and (together with another of Niccolò Niccoli and certain acquisitions of Cosimo’s) laid the foundation of that enormous collection of art treasures. Cosimo himself was already putting antiques in his gardens: there was a Marsyas at the door of his palace at Florence. Lorenzo put up a casino, and laid out gardens on the Piazza San Marco, where later his second wife would sit when she was a widow. Here, we are told, “ in loggia, in private rooms, and in the garden “ he set out his antiques, and established a drawing school, wherein Michael Angelo learned the art of sculpture from the study of these ancient statues.

The works of Mantegna, which Lorenzo thought worthy of a visit in 1487, also belonged to these early collections, and enjoyed a great reputation. The beautiful round court at Mantegna’s house in Mantua, now poorly preserved, had niches where the artist liked to set up his well-beloved treasures. Bembo also, rather later, after his separation from Leo X., made a garden at Padua, where the summer-house served as a studio; and round about it among espaliers of lemons and oranges of various unusual kinds he set up his collection of antique statues.