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Visiting Scholar Interview: Pierre du Prey

Posted On April 16, 2015 | 11:20 am | by meredithb | Permalink

Pierre du Prey, professor emeritus of art history at Queen’s University, joined Dumbarton Oaks as the Garden and Landscape Studies Visiting Scholar for the month of March. Professor du Prey, who specializes in the relationship of architects works and their biographies, dedicated the majority of his stay at Dumbarton Oaks to continuing his work on the seventeenth-century architect and playwright Francesco Ignazio Lazzari, and on Beatrix Farrand’s Chinese Garden at Applegreen, in Old Westbury, New York.

Here, you’re working on documents about the villas of Pliny.

Yes, one in particular—one in central Italy, in Umbria, we think. Pliny refers to it in his ancient Latin letters, published sometime around 100 CE. He dies a little bit after that, on the Black Sea. In the meantime, he writes ten books of letters that survive, written to various correspondents who may or may not be real people. It may be a literary effort.

To come to the manuscript that’s here at Dumbarton Oaks: in the late seventeenth century in Umbria, in a charming little town called Città di Castello, a local priest and member of the minor aristocracy, Francesco Ignazio Lazzari, writes a twenty-six-folio-long description of where he thinks the villa of Pliny the Younger is located. This is before the age of archaeology, so what does Lazzari have to go on? His hunches, local stories, just eyeballing it, and saying, “Hmmm, this looks like what Pliny the Younger described in his letter to a man called Apolloniarus.” Whether Apolloniarus existed or not, we don’t know.

This manuscript goes on and on. It’s related to a very large (for the period) drawing by Lazzari, who is, among other things, an artist and architect. He draws this purporting to show what this place is like. The fact of the matter is that archaeologists have been excavating in this area recently, back in the 1980s and 1990s, and they actually found some bricks with the stamps of Pliny the Younger’s initials on them. It’s clear that Lazzari was not that far off base, and eventually maybe the archaeologists will find that spot and will find the remains of this country villa that Pliny describes beautifully: he says it’s in an amphitheater of hills. You look down and there’s water, wonderful gardens, and topiary—he uses line after line of Latin prose to describe this place.

Lazzari comes up with the idea that he’s found it, and archaeology seems to bear him out. But what’s really interesting about this manuscript is not so much that it connects to archaeology, but that it connects to the love of one’s own country, the pride in Città di Castello, and the local antiquarianism of the intellectuals in this small little town. It’s not Florence, it’s not Rome, yet it’s sort of a boosterism. They’re pushing their hometown and the country that they love, long before Italy is a unified country. Lazarri is one of the intellectuals in this circle in Città di Castello.

So we have at Dumbarton Oaks one of two manuscripts. We don’t have the drawing, unfortunately, but [Anatole Tchikine] and I are hoping that, in this book [forthcoming in the Ex horto series], we can illustrate the town of Città di Castello, where Lazzari built some things, and the countryside where these excavations have gone on, and maybe, if we get permission, the drawing, too.

Where is the drawing?

The drawing was in a private collection in New York, and at the moment we are trying to trace its whereabouts. These things are never easy. Twenty years have gone by since I first published it in my book [The Villas of Pliny from Antiquity to Posterity]. The drawing is not signed, while the one we have at Dumbarton Oaks is signed—that’s how we know that they’re done by the same hand. These drawings are very important to people like Anatole and John Beardsley because they present a very unusual representation of gardens of that period—in plan, also in aerial view. They say more about gardening in the seventeenth century than they do about Pliny—he never would have recognized any of that. But in seventeenth-century terms, the drawing reveals quite a lot about garden art in Umbria, about which not a lot is known. We presume that Lazarri is looking around his environment, and indeed the manuscript at DO is very nicely illustrated with some sketches of local houses in pen and ink. He’s sort of putting two and two together, as if time has stood still. Gardening in his day and gardening in Pliny’s era haven’t changed that much, according to him.

In our book, John will be dealing with how the manuscript came to Dumbarton Oaks, how and when Mildred Bliss bought it; those things are very interesting for the provenance. Anatole will be primarily dealing with the gardening in Umbria, and Lazzari’s role in it as an artist and architect. I’m focusing on the fact that this drawing at DO is the first one to focus on this villa in the hill country.

Earlier, people had been attracted to another, slightly shorter letter of Pliny’s, written to Gallas, in which he talks about a villa on the seaside. It was close to Rome, possibly on the sea coast of Ostia. Again, did it really exist? One doesn’t know—there’s no conclusive archaeological proof. Other people had speculated, earlier in the sixteenth century, as to what that place looked like. But Lazzari’s manuscript is the first to tackle the place in the foothills of the Apennines, in Umbria.

When you go to Umbria today, there’s a waterfall where this place is supposed to have been located. There are hills in the background. You can see where Lazzari got his inspiration. I will be placing the Lazzari manuscript and drawings that go along with it in the context of my earlier book Villas of Pliny from Antiquity to Posterity.

You mentioned the group of local authors who worked to promote their local setting. Does that tie into a broader tradition of Italy at the time?

Absolutely. Every little place, and big places, too, had these so called academies. There were lots of them all over the place. Rome had a number—the famous Accademia di San Lucca, which was the academy of the artists. Also the Virtuosi al Pantheon, a similar group. Florence had them, Rome had them, Bologna had them, and Città di Castello had a little version, the Accademia degli Illuminati.

Thanks to Anatole’s research, we know of plays put on in the Accademia Illuminato di Città di Castello, and one play by Lazzari put on in 1666 to inaugurate the theater for his fellow academicians. It’s clear that he was active, he was publishing, he was a priest-architect in a very minor way, but his claim to fame, really, in the bigger picture, is this attempt; he was the very first to try to visualize on paper, and to try to localize, what this place was like. The beauty of things on paper is that they give you so much scope for imagination. He has tapped into the life of the imagination here, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. What it has to do with Roman antiquity, I don’t know—but what it has to do with him, with his locality, with his pride in his native region, his attempt to establish a position for himself among the intellectuals of the community—all of that is without doubt.

So it’s been a long path since I discovered this in 1990 and lectured here at Dumbarton Oaks. I came down, and this manuscript was just sitting there. By sheer good luck, I knew of the drawing beforehand and was able to put two little pieces of the puzzle together.

We think that this volume, with the full transcription of the Dumbarton Oaks text and a translation of it, and these various introductions by Anatole, myself, and John, will bring this manuscript to wider public knowledge, and will shed a very credible light on Dumbarton Oaks and Lazzari. I think it’s great that this is going to happen in the near future—it’s a hidden gem here that we’re now at the point of bringing into a broader public arena.

You’ve been working on the villas for over thirty years. What originally led to your interest in the topic?

Someone who had a lot to do with Dumbarton Oaks—David Coffin, whose archive is here. He was one of my mentors, and he put me onto this topic while I was at Princeton. David Coffin is, in many respects, one might say the father of modern landscape architecture history and the history of the garden, especially the Italian. He sort of got me started on thinking about it. Then, in 1982, I went to spend two years at the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA), which was founded by Phyllis Lambert, a famous architect, author, and preservationist from Montreal. She was setting up the CCA in 1982 without a building of its own—which it now has—and she needed exhibitions to try to launch this new center. It so happened that, in Paris, there was an exhibition that she had seen, on Pliny’s Laurentine villa, the one by the seacoast. It was a whole exhibition devoted not just to the older, imaginary reconstructions of what that villa might have looked like, but to reimaginations by modern architects, as well. It was a “suitcase show,” and Phyllis wanted to get it to the CCA, which has one of the great libraries and archival collections dedicated to architecture. I said, “We have resources of our own, and I will do an exhibition that draws on both the Tuscan and Laurentine villas. I will work on that.”

We had a great designer, Melvin Charney, who worked on the installation, and I worked on the scholarly end of it. In 1983, we had an exhibition in Montreal in the summer and in autumn. In those days, for a variety of reasons, the CCA did not publish catalogs. Charney and I thought this had been a big effort on both our parts and ought to have some presence other than photographs. We thought it should be an exhibition of record. I went out on my own, on a limb, and decided to publish the book with the University of Chicago Press, in 1996. I was at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, preparing the final versions of that manuscript when I found out about the existence of Dumbarton Oaks’ manuscript.

You have been researching Beatrix Farrand’s Chinese Garden at Applegreen, which has been mostly destroyed. Does being at Dumbarton Oaks inform that work?

Being here is an inspiration—it brings back lots and lots of childhood memories. Even walking around the outskirts of the property, we can see the same kind of garden wall that she used at Applegreen. I used to go to the Chinese Garden as a child—I’m leaving my photographs of it here at Dumbarton Oaks.

The reason why it was so unusual, and why she never did anything else like it—except a Korean-style garden in Maine—is that the owners behind the Applegreen property, who had commissioned Farrand to do it for them in 1912, had fallen in love in China. Willard Straight and Dorothy Whitney Straight had met in China, you know, under the shadow of the Great Wall and had fallen in love in the Imperial Gardens of Beijing. So they insisted that Farrand modify her normal approach to gardening with their love story in mind, to recreate something of that aura. Obviously, when they were out there, they bought a boatload of original Buddhist statuary.

In the oldest photographs in the archives, it looks like the statuary had not yet arrived. Photos show a pool with little classical column capitals around it. It was then lined at the far end with statuaries, of which there must have been dozens. They were all sold in 1953 and the property was subdivided. Somebody got the swimming pool, somebody got the flower beds. It was all carved up. I can almost not bear to go back. By this time, Willard Straight had long since passed away, in the First World War, and Dorothy Whitney Elmhurst, as she was then known, decided with her second husband that they could no longer maintain it. I just happened to be living in one of the cottages on the property with my mother and father after the Second World War. I was there from 1943, when I was born, until 1953. I had ten very happy years there. I have very clear memories of the senses of the garden. I smell it to this day. I can see it in my imagination, which, from the point of view of Farrand experts, is interesting—who do they know who experienced it before it was broken up and destroyed? Just for my own interest, I’m hoping to explore the subject and to have my own old photographs scanned for the benefit of Dumbarton Oaks.