Mara Miller. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
The term garden, which is of Germanic origin, means “yard” or “enclosure” and denotes ways of organizing earth, water, plants and, sometimes, people, animals, and art (sculpture, architecture, theater, music, and poetry), the formal qualitities of which are determined as much by pleasure, artistry, or aesthetics as by convenience or necessity. This definition excludes arrangements of sacred space based on religious customs and sports, exclusions that are consistent with most societies.
Not all cultures have gardens. For many reasons, anthropologists and garden historians consider most small cultivated plots to be forms of agriculture, as opposed to gardens. Gardens presuppose agriculture but in addition embrace a cultural and psychological distance from agriculture expressed in aesthetics.
Gardens in the History of Ideas
Gardens have the capability to give physical form to ideas either by being modeled on familiar ideas or by creating a new design that generates or evokes new ideas, or through a combination of the two. Gardens make abstract ideas concrete—visible, tangible, and kinesthetic. In so doing, gardens can communicate complex abstract ideas convincingly.
Gardens express ideas of victory over death in three ways. First, since their living components could die at any time (as a result of neglect or the whim of the owner or overwhelming natural forces), their mere existence represents a triumph over ill-will, chaos, and death; gardens signal that the world can be made right, especially through the use of human knowledge, skill, and spirit. Second, because gardens’ biological materials inevitably grow, die, decay, and are then reconstituted to form life once again, they provide a powerful symbol of the cyclical aspect of life, negating death’s apparent finality with a metaphorical triumph over death, fear, and hopelessness. This biological cycle implicit in the garden suggests a transmutation of death and an antidote to despair. Finally, depending on the culture, the form gardens are given reflects either (a) their triumph over the chaos found in nature, a chaos that is perceived as a constant threat to humanity—and in monotheistic cultures, a symbol of humanity’s distance from God, or (b) the tremendous power of nature, of which humanity is a necessary part. In this manner, the garden’s form reflects the innate hope that humans express by either taming or cooperating with nature. This hope, this expression, allows beholders to feel part of larger forces, bigger than their own short lives and limited powers. These three symbolic triumphs over death and fear are so compelling that exceptions, such as the “monster” sculptures in one part of the Boboli Garden at the Pitti Palace, are rare. Usually they are ironic: the agony of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane; the tortures of damnation in Hieronymous Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Time and Temporality
Related to death are the various ideas of time and temporality—the internal experiences of time. Gardens in seasonal climates reveal the cyclical experience of the seasons, and all gardens underscore the cycles of day and night. Through these cycles one becomes more aware of the passing of time, of recurrence and passing away forever. Gardens often utilize sundials, or poems, to highlight the awareness of a particular idea of time.
Poems and allusions of all kinds, as well as relics and historical artifacts, can also be used to make people aware of the past (or some idea of it) and of their collective or personal histories.
Order and Plenty
The people of ancient Egypt understood that by controlling the Nile River and the agriculture dependent upon it, they might impose order on the primordial chaos that was always a potential threat. Egyptian garden paintings, the world’s earliest, show geometry and symmetry as the formal indications of this valuable foundation of such order. These early images show rectangular pools filled with fish, ducks, and lotus surrounded by regularly spaced fruit trees—emblematic of an ideal of the good life as it exists around the world.
The idea of the garden as a place where order is imposed upon an inherently chaotic, disorderly, painful, and dangerous natural world is central to ancient Egyptian, Persian, Islamic, European, and European-American concepts of the garden. The noted landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1715-1783), famous for designs of gardens that looked liked natural landscape, considered his efforts as improvements on the natural state (as well as on the rigid and geometric designs of previous gardenists); even nineteenth-century Romantic-era gardens, which thrived on the appearance of disorder, were carefully planned.
Related to the idea of an order that provides for humanity—and to the idea of the garden as a triumph over death—is the idea of the garden as a site of never-ending bounty, never failing with the seasons. This idea is more common in India and the monotheistic Middle East, Europe, and America. Homer described the garden of Alcinous, king of the Phaeceans, in The Odyssey (book vii): “and verdant olives flourish round the year. / The balmy spirit of the western gale / eternal breathes on fruits untaught to fail.” Chinese and especially Japanese gardens differ in being more likely to celebrate the different beauties of the several seasons.
European villa gardens, of both the informal “pastoral” and the more formal French types, reflected instantiate the notion of the garden as a place of plenty by extolling the ideal of a close relationship to agriculture. Often this closeness was literal: gardens were situated within the larger farm, and might include (geometric) herb gardens, grape arbors, or symmetrically planted fruit groves; adjacent fields were actively cultivated.
The Lost Home
Nebuchadnezzar (r. 605-562 B.C.E.), the Chaldean king of Babylon, introduced another persistent idea of the garden, that of the garden as a lost home. Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, to comfort one of his wives, who missed “the meadows of her mountains, the green and hilly landscape of her youth” (Thacker, p. 16). A similar motivation prompted the creation of the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. The Qing emperor Kang Xi (1662-1723) built the Pi-shu shan-chuang at Rehe (Jehol) in China to emulate the Manchurian homelands. In the modern era, retirees in the deserts of the American Southwest, self-exiled from temperate climates, recreate the comforting lawns, maples, and flowers reminiscent of their previous homes. Homer used Odysseus’s memories of his childhood in his garden with his father, who gave him fruit trees and taught him the names of the plants, to underscore the hero’s longing for home.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were described by Diodorus Siculus:
Since the approach to the garden sloped like a hillside and the several parts of the structure rose from one another tier on tier … [it] resembled a theater … the uppermost gallery, which was fifty cubits high, bore the highest surface of the park … the roofs of the galleries were covered with beams of stone … sufficient for the roots of the largest trees; and the ground, when levelled off, was thickly planted with trees of every kind that … could give pleasure to the beholder … The galleries contained many royal lodgings; and there was one gallery which contained openings leading from the topmost surface and machines for supplying the garden with water. (Thacker, p. 17)
Admired by the ancient Greeks and Romans, they demonstrate several characteristics of gardens persisting to the early twenty-first century: the use of engineering and technology—often, paradoxically, to achieve a natural effect—and the attempt to make the garden a place of pleasure and sensuous delight; the integration of agriculture in the garden; and the integration of theater, poetry, and painting.
In terms of world history (not just garden design), the most far-reaching, if poignant, image of the garden as lost home is found in the story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis.
Garden as Paradise and Enclosure
In 401 B.C.E., the Greek historian Xenophon, in his Oeconomicus, Book IV, introduced the idea of the pleasure garden (Persian, paradeisos, “enclosure”) to Greece, based on gardens he had seen while fighting in Persia, and recommended its imitation. Xenophon’s description of the Persian gardens was again popularized in 1692 by the Englishman William Temple in his influential Essay upon the Gardens of Epicurs: Or, of Gardening, in the Year 1685 (1692):
a paradise among them [the Persians] seems to have been a large Space of Ground, adorned and beautified with all Sorts of Trees, both of Fruits and of Forest, either found there before it was inclosed [ sic ], or planted after; either cultivated like Gardens, for Shades and for Walks, with Fountains or Streams, and all Sorts of Plants usual in the Climate, and pleasant to the Eye, the Smell, or the Taste; or else employed, like our Parks, for Inclosure [ sic ] and Harbour of all Sorts of Wild Beasts, as well as for the Pleasure of Riding and Walking: And so they were of more or less Extent, and of differing Entertainment, according to the several Humours of the Princes that ordered and inclosed [ sic ] them … (quoted in Hunt and Willis, pp. 96-97)
Enclosure is central to many types of gardens, including ancient Roman courtyards, which were surrounded by the house, Chinese and Korean coutyard gardens, and Japanese dry rock gardens (karesansui). Unlike the medieval European cloister gardens derived from them, Roman gardens often included mural paintings of gods and landscapes.
The Persian model of the garden as a paradise on earth later evolved into the Islamic chahar-bagh, an enclosed quadrangular garden with central perpendicular paths or canals dividing it into four equal sections. Later made famous in carpets and brought to India by the Mughals, chahar-bagh s, the most famous example of which is the Taj Mahal, reached Europe as the medieval hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, as a result of the Crusades (1050-1150) and through Islamic gardens in Spain, Italy, and Sicily. Many twentieth-century rose gardens continue this form. Like its Islamic prototypes, the medieval garden was practical and symbolic, evoking the earthly and spiritual pleasures of the biblical Paradise and the Garden of Eden. Secular poetry such as the medieval French Le Roman de la Rose, purportedly composed during a dream in a rose garden, extended the hortus conclusus to include romantic love and Platonic ideals of fulfilment. Paintings and tapestries, too, especially the unicorn tapestries at Cluny and the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing unicorns and the “Lady in the Garden,” take on various symbolic and allegorical readings.
The Garden of Eden, of course, is also a “lost home.” Eden is described in Genesis as a kind of chahar- bagh, enclosed, divided into quarters by rivers meeting at right angles in the center, containing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Construed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as an actual place from the human past, it was distinguished from Paradise, which was an ideal realm to be experienced by the righteous or the beloved of God in the future, and for Christians after their death or after the Second Coming. Eden as a prototype for European gardens was vastly expanded by the literary version John Milton presented in his epic Paradise Lost (1667) as a natural landscape (Hunt, p. 79).
The earliest East Asian depictions of the four Buddhist paradises show Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in palaces surrounded by fragrant trees and flowers, dancers, and musicians. As cave paintings at Dunhuang (China) show, the religious significance of lotus suggested using the visual image of the lotus floating in a pond; azure rectangles of water with pink blossoms began to appear, growing larger, eventually with buds showing souls reborn in paradise as babies. This inspired actual gardens, including the famous Buddhist garden at Anapchi, in Kyongju, Korea (674 C.E.).
The pond at Anapchi shows a second visual allusion to paradise, the Daoist Isles of the Immortals. Depicted here as actual islands, they are sometimes represented by rocks on an “ocean” of dry gravel. Originating with the Chinese emperor Wudi (141-87 B.C.E.), such depictions were originally intended to attract the Immortals themselves, in the hope they would share their secrets.
A number of Fujiwara-period (989-1185) Japanese gardens, starting with the Byodo-in’s Phoenix Hall (a villa in Uji outside Kyoto), simulated the Mahayana Paradise described in a sutra that attested to women’s ability to reach enlightenment (yiengpruksawan). These gardens were designed to make paradise tangible and imaginable. Since the daughters of the Fujiwara clan were consistently married off to emperors, their eventual enlightenment was important both to their families and to the nation. The ability to visualize paradise was believed to facilitate enlightenment (legendary Queen Vaidehi’s instruction by Buddha in meditation through visualization, including visualization of Paradise, was painted at Dunhuang). The construction of gardens as an aid to such visualization meant that the empresses would actually attain Paradise more easily.
Garden as Rustic Retreat
The Romans invented the idea of the villa—a home and farm in the countryside—which they believed provided a manner of living superior to that of city life. The villa achieves this goal both physically and spiritually or culturally by affording self-expression, self-cultivation, and self-definition. The garden became the setting and the occasion of this ideal, where by emulating cultured and educated men one became more cultured and educated oneself. (Although the model is largely patriarchal, a few women have done the same: the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo [wife of Cosimo I] in the Boboli Garden, the Countess of Bedford at Moor-Park [Hertforshire], and Mildred Bliss at Dumbarton Oaks, designed by Beatrix Farrand).
The Roman pastoral ideal symbolized by the villa and its garden ideal was revived in Renaissance Italy and eighteenth-century England, whence it spread to America. It was based on models found in Vergil’s Aeneid and Georgics, in the letters of Pliny the Younger, and in the architect Andrea Palladio’s (1508-1580) books and buildings reinterpreting classical architecture. Pliny’s celebratory descriptions of life in the country influenced literati in their creation of an image of a life worth living—and in their designs of gardens within which to live. The Greek and Roman forms of government presupposed politically active citizens, and the resuscitation of these models as an ideal form elicited from Europeans, Britons, and Americans active participation not only in governing but in reimagining the ways the world might be governed and how social intercourse could be encouraged; creating gardens as representations of these emerging worldviews was part of the process of re-imaging.
The idea of the villa garden as a realm of personal cultivation in which one emulates historical role models is strikingly similar to one set of East Asian ideas of gardens, wherein gardens serve as places for contemplation, scholarship, artistic engagement, and social interaction with other literati. From the time of Wang Wei (699-c.760), East Asian paintings represent gardens of the literati as places of retreat from the corrupt world of everyday affairs, places that made possible the personal cultivation or “self-transformation” according to Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist models. Paintings of the scholar Tao Yuanming (365-457), famous for his integrity, show a rustic fence and a few chrysanthemums depicting the garden whose tending was the pretext of his retirement.
Fruit-bearing trees and other forms of agriculture were important parts of Chinese villas and literati gardens of “retirement” (Clunas), a feature that also recalls Paradise and the notion of plenty.
In both Europe and East Asia, villa gardens as ideal realms eliciting personal cultivation coexist with the ideal of the rustic retreat, be it a shell-lined grotto or a humble thatched hut. Both remained vital for centuries, inspiring garden construction and permitting endless reformulation of intellecutal literati ideas and ideals.
Garden as Art
Gardens were often regarded as art, both in theory and as a result of intimate and intricate relations among gardens and other arts. Most famous is Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797) theory of the interrelations of the “three arts,” poetry, painting, and the garden, in his History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1771-1780).
The inclusion of carved or handwritten poetic quotations is found frequently in Asian and European gardens of nearly all styles, and visiual allusions to well-known poems, legends, or stories provide the basis for garden vignettes, such as the flat angular “eight-plank” bridges alluding to the tales of Ise in Japanese gardens, as well as themes for garden “rooms” or motifs. Highly influential gardens have been designed—or described—by poets, most famously Murasaki Shikibu (d. c. 1014-1020), John Milton, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672), and Yuan Mei (eighteenth century).
Italian, French, German, and British formal gardens were used for theatrical entertainments and masques, sometimes in pavilions designed for the purpose (later gardens included shallow amphitheaters), while masques, operas, and other forms of early modern theater often had scenes set in a garden. Architecturally, gardens encompass—or are encompassed by—a house, palace, or temple. But formal gardens, English “natural” landscape gardens, European-American romantic gardens, and large Chinese gardens also incorporated small pavilions or “follies”; Japanese gardens often feature small rustic tea houses, or halls (later donated to temples). All have bridges both decorative and useful.
Garden as Microcosm of Nature
East Asian thinking in many cases centered on the nature of the cosmos, the relation of yin and yang, the place of human beings in nature, and so on. These ideas were at once conceptual/intellectual, artistic, spiritual, and experiential/imaginative, designed to provide the scholar with an opportunity for contemplation of nature like that provided within the landscape itself. Miniature gardens assembled on trays (bonsai) presented the macrocosm in microcosm for the viewer to use to immerse himself in nature or contemplate the Dao.
Sixteenth-century European explorers returned home with exotic plants that were featured in the new scientific botanical gardens. The first botanic gardens were quartered geometric arrangements simulating the “four quarters of the world” with plants in the area allotted to their continent of origin. Twentieth-century botanic gardens specialized in the creation of miniature systems representing whole environments, either cultural (Japanese gardens) or biological, recreating specific biomes (tropical, desert) and capable of sustaining the plants (and sometimes animals) native to them. (The Denver and Brooklyn Botanic Gardens have both types.) In the twenty-first century zoos (formally known as “zoological gardens”) have started re-creating the topography and native vegetation of the animals in their collections, thus becoming more like gardens.
Garden as Microcosm of the State
In Han China (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) gardens such as Tu Yuan (Rabbit Park) were used to “extend the grandeur of the princely dwelling, to be a site for ceremonies and magic, and to continue the time-honored mold of a game park” (Morris, p. 13). The contemporary Chinese imperial garden described by Pere Attiret (1757) was designed to represent the country for the emperor, whose status forbade traveling freely.
From the sixteenth century, French gardens were used politically in myriad ways: “to impress foreigners with the power of the court, to stir the loyalty of Frenchmen and, after the political and religious crisis deepened in the second half of the sixteenth century, to subtly express the political policy of the state. The court festival, especially as it was masterminded by Catherine de Médicis, often provided an opportunity to bring together opposed factions, turning their ‘real conflicts into a chivalrous pastime'” (Adams, p. 33). Versailles has been shown to be an elaborate four-dimensional demonstration of the power of Louis XIV; decision-making that went into the planning of its park was explicitly political (Berger). The British designed and interpreted gardens that were symbolic of the state and of political power. Such a connection was first drawn in Britain by Shakespeare in the gardener’s speech in Richard II (act 3, scene 4).
The propensity to use gardens to express political arguments and commitments, and to understand garden design in political terms, permitted the garden historian Walpole to associate French formal gardens with monarchy and tyranny, and “natural” growth and irregularity with the newly emerging opposition government (Chase; Miller, “Gardens as Political Discourse”).
The idea of the garden as a landscape is, in the early 2000s, most familiar as the natural landscape garden, or jardin anglos-chinois, an artistic bequest of the eighteenth-century British.
The garden as natural landscape rejecting artificiality and the symmetric knots of formal gardens is an extrapolation of Eden from Paradise Lost (1667). According to Haorace Walpole, Milton is responsible for popularizing in garden design the idea that “‘only after the Fall did man have to invoke art to shore a damaged nature'” (Hunt and Willis, p. 79).
During the eighteenth century this account inspired new garden design in England. Since formal gardens exemplified monarchies, the specifics of Milton’s description of Eden as a natural landscape rather than as a geometric formal garden (favored by kings) are a function of his intense interest in Puritan antimonarchical politics, adding to their persuasive force.
In 1692 William Temple introduced the Chinese term sharawadgi, of which the origin is undertermined (although he thought Chinese), to refer to beauty that imitated nature rather than relying on geometric pruning and symmetrical designes. Temple defined sharawadgi as that sort of oder “where Beauty shall be great, and strike the Eye, but without any Order or Disposition of Parts, that shall be commonly or easily observ’d” (Hunt and Willis, p. 98). For half a century Chinese “irregular” gardening principles, known also from Matteo Ripa’s illustrations of Chinese gardens, were associated with anti-monarchical (even Whig) politics, until Walpole reversed that association by comparing the Chinese gardens described by the French missionary to China Pere Attiret to French formal monarchical gardens.
In addition, visual appropriation of adjacent landscape was integral to gardens in Renaissance Italy, eighteenth-century Britain, and Muromachi, Momoyama, and Edo, Japan, where the term shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” was coined to describe it (Nitschke). In Japan, gardens have been imitating nature for nearly one thousand years, and the rules for such gardens were transmitted both orally and in writing (Slawson).
Garden as Picture
One variant of the garden as a landscape is the garden based on landscape painting (Ut pictura hortus). Christopher Hussey’s landmark study The Picturesque demonstrated the power of the garden, once it was modeled on painting, to make the “picturesque” a category that could be applied to all landscape—the principle upon which highway scenic overlooks are based. According to Walpole, the early English landscape gardens by William Kent were also designed based upon pictorial compositions. The idea of modeling a garden on a landscape painting has a lively history in East Asia as well, where it can be seen in the dry rock gardens of Daitoku-ji Temple in Kyoto, based on Song Chinese landscape paintings.
Artists have created many highly influential gardens, among them Wang Wei (690-c. 760), William Kent (1685-1748), and Claude Monet (1840-1926). Gardens such as those by Manet and Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) utilized an artist’s sense of color. In all cultures with gardens, gardens present themselves as pictures, providing subject matter for painters; in East Asia they are particularly important philosophically.
Contemporary gardens continue to express many of these ancient ideas. In the early twenty-first century, as throughout history, when gardeners adopt and adapt the designs and practices and materials of new technologies or foreign garden traditions, they also adopt—and perhaps change—the underlying ideas. When they use the large rocks of Japanese landscape gardens in a front yard in Colorado or a University grounds in Montreal, they usher in a different way of understanding nature, the relationship of the building to its environment, the meaning of being at home. When they cultivate domestic and public lands with native grasses or wildflowers, they visualize specific ideas of the meaning of that place and its place in the natural environment. When they plant the tops of their buildings with a “green roof,” they present a new perception of the role of the building in its environment and of humanity’s responsibility for that environment.