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Echoes of Empire: Redefining the Botanical Garden in Eighteenth-Century Tuscany

Anatole Tchikine, Dumbarton Oaks

In 1783, the Giardino dei Semplici in Florence—one of the oldest and largest botanical gardens in Tuscany—was closed down by order of Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorraine (ruled 1765–90). During the following year, its plants were removed, the layout was radically altered, and the whole property was transformed into an agrarian garden, the Orto Agrario Sperimentale. Scholars suggested various reasons for this changeover. They emphasized the mismanagement of the Società Botanica Fiorentina, which had been in charge of the Giardino dei Semplici from 1718 to 1783; the grand duke’s patronage of the Accademia dei Georgofili, associated with the Orto Agrario Sperimentale; Pietro Leopoldo’s fascination with agriculture; and the competition from other botanical gardens that existed in Florence, notably those attached to the hospital of S. Maria Nuova and the Natural History Museum (La Specola), founded in 1775. None of these explanations, however, seem to address the real problem that the Giardino dei Semplici faced, namely, the fact that, by the time of its closure, it represented an outdated model of the botanical garden, which could no longer meet the challenges posed by the world of rapid imperial expansion and colonial exchange. In fact, rather than maintaining the traditional focus on the acquisition, study, and preservation of various kinds of plants, the purpose of the new Orto Agrario Sperimentale was to provide more efficient methods of exploiting the productive potential of the selected varieties. Abstract scholarship had to give way to a more practice-oriented approach advocated by the Accademia dei Georgofili, as a crucial means of economic revival and growth for rural Tuscany.

The paper aims to demonstrate that the emergence of orti agrari, which scholars still generally view as a rather specific agrarian phenomenon, was yet another stage in a centuries-long evolution of the botanical garden. By placing the creation of this garden in a broad historical and cultural context—such as the progression of botanical gardens from medical to scholarly to economic objectives, the increasingly dominant role of learned societies in botanical exchange, and the growing political and economic significance attached to the cultivation of specific types of plants—this paper argues that eighteenth-century Tuscany, although increasingly marginalized in terms of its political importance, was still part of the global picture. It responded to the same trends that brought about the rise of colonial botany and tried to adapt its scholarly resources to the pursuit of new, practical and economic rather than purely theoretical, goals.

Anatole Tchikine is Postdoctoral Associate in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. He received his BA Honors (1997) and PhD (2004) from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, where he taught in the Department of History of Art and Architecture in 2001–2 and again in 2005–9. In 2002–5, he was Fellow at the Medici Archive Project in Florence and, in 2010–11, Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. His research focuses on fountain design and hydraulics in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, gardens in fourteenth- through eighteenth-century Tuscany, and art and architecture at the Medici court. His publications include "'Giochi d’acqua’: Water Effects in Renaissance and Baroque Italy” (2010) and “Gardens of Mistaken Identity: The Giardino delle Stalle in Florence and the Giardino dell’Arsenale in Pisa” (2013), both of which appeared in Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes.

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