You are here:Home/News/ Time and the Garden

Time and the Garden

Posted On January 26, 2018 | 14:45 pm | by baileyt | Permalink
Denis Ribouillault studies the secrets of Renaissance sundials

Denis Ribouillault, an associate professor in early modern art history at the University of Montreal, is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. On November 20, he delivered his research report, “Sundials, the Cosmos and the Poetics of Time in the Gardens of the Renaissance,” which examined the role the instruments played in early modern garden design.


Q&A with Denis Ribouillault

How do you see this sundial phenomenon fitting in with the larger trend of blending science and occultism in the Renaissance? Is it a natural outgrowth, or does it offer a unique perspective on that trend?

It’s a broad question, but an important one. Historians of science have stopped talking about the scientific revolution as this big upheaval, and increasingly we recognize that questions asked about nature in general, what was called natural philosophy, had run parallel to explanations of how nature works, and the study of powers that were believed to exist at a macrocosmic level—celestial powers, solar powers, the powers of the planets, and so forth. That’s what was called natural magic, and these two fields were really looking at the same things. A lot of natural magic derives from a philosophical conception of the cosmos, specifically readings of Plato’s Timaeus, and this understanding that all elements of the universe are connected, that everything is harmonious, organized by numbers.

Looking at sundials is a great reminder of these connections. The sundial is a beautifully crafted piece of machinery, a scientific instrument, but at the same time it’s also a symbol and an object of contemplation. It has a multilayered aspect that I’ve called compendiousness, meaning it has several levels of access—the symbolic, the scientific, and even in certain contexts the magic—that can’t really be taken apart. In garden history, there’s not been much work done on astronomical/astrological practice and iconography, so I’m trying to show that this dimension is important in a great number of early modern gardens.


How do you find a sundial? What’s the method? What sources are you working with?

Most of the great Renaissance and Baroque gardens had sundials. But most of them are now gone. Basically I use every kind of evidence available. I search through old maps and engravings, archival records, and then read accounts written by visitors to some of these sites. But the most interesting thing is that some of these sundials are still there, they’ve just been completely forgotten, treated, for instance, as a piece of broken column. I’ve actually stumbled upon several of these pieces. The most exciting find was the oldest (at least to my knowledge) Renaissance polyhedral sundial in Italy, dated around 1550, which I found by climbing over a fence in a park in the middle of Rome.

I was doing a topographical survey of an area that was once the garden of Pope Julius III, and then I noticed something odd in this space where I wasn’t allowed to go. I knew through a description that there was a quite amazing spherical sundial that had been in the park, and when I got closer I immediately recognized it, and then careful inspection and study confirmed that this was indeed the original sundial. I sort of call that my Indiana Jones moment.


Could you offer a brief case study of one particular sundial and its role in its garden?

Well, the sundial I found in Rome, for example, was placed on top of a very high building, and so it functioned as a sort of tower of the wind. It allowed you to tell time, and because it was a polyhedral it probably could tell the times of different places. It was placed in a panoramic position, so it could tell you the cardinal directions as well—it actually transformed the landscape into a sort of map. This is an important function if you think about the space of the garden itself; it shows you that these sundials shaped the design of the garden, or responded to it. It’s an instrument that makes connections.

This one had twenty-six faces, which means it has some deep mathematical and philosophical underpinnings. It’s one of the Archimedean solids, and if you go back to Platonic philosophy, the contemplation of specific mathematical solids is supposed to give one access to a visual understanding of invisible ideas—that is, the structure of the cosmos. And of course, the garden owners, mostly cardinals and popes, almost always added their own heraldry to this symbolism, which is a not-very-modest way of saying, “I’m at the center of things.”