Mediterranean Landscapes

Cammy Brothers, University of Virginia, Fellow 2006/07

The categories of the Italian Renaissance garden and the Islamic garden have proven remarkably resilient, despite widespread evidence of contact and interchange among various regions of the Mediterranean in the early modern period. My focus this year has been on one figure whose letters suggest the shared heritage of Mediterranean landscapes: Andrea Navagero, Venetian ambassador to the court of Charles Ⅴ in Granada in 1525–27. A student of ancient architecture, a writer of pastoral poetry, and a passionate gardener, Navagero’s letters from Granada reflect the classical literary paradigm demonstrated by Pliny the Younger. They intersperse accounts of the gardens of Spain with instructions about what to do with his own gardens, and even include samples of seeds. The precision with which Navagero described certain features of the Generalife gardens may have allowed them to be imitated by readers of the letters who had not actually seen the gardens.

My research on Navagero has developed in two directions, concerning literary reception and the diffusion of forms; these will be explored in two scholarly articles. One aspect, enriched by the resources and intellectual environment of Dumbarton Oaks, involves a comparison between Navagero’s writings and those of sixteenth century Spanish visitors to the New World, such as Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo and Francisco Hernandez, both of whom took a special interest in the natural world. While Navagero’s writings tend to idealize Moorish culture, architecture and gardens, Oviedo and Hernandez view the New World with detachment driven by self-interest; but like Navagero they make obsessive comparisons between what they see and what they have read about in ancient Roman texts. Considering the accounts of plants and landscapes of these three writers together reveals how their perceptions were shaped by their ideological agendas on the one hand, and classical educations on the other.

A second avenue of research concerns the transfer of the specific form of the water stairs from the gardens of the Generalife to the gardens of the Villa d’Este outside of Rome, considering Navagero as the agent of this importation. Why would such a feature be of particular interest to Italian garden designers and their patrons? Free of iconographical associations, it recalled descriptions of playful fountains known from ancient literature. Furthermore, the water stair heightened a visitor’s sensual delight in the garden, a consideration still undervalued by scholars but much noted by sixteenth century writers.

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