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Volcanic Stone, Renaissance Fun Houses

Posted On July 17, 2020 | 09:44 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Katherine Coty reimagines Italian villa gardens as experiments with the local landscape

Katherine Coty, a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Washington, was a recent junior fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her research report, “Nel Cuore di Tufo: Landscape, Stone, and Regional Identity in Sixteenth-Century Tuscia,” proposed recontextualizing designed Tuscian landscapes through the lens of regional architectural traditions and terrain.


Q&A with Katherine Coty 

What is the Sacro Bosco, one of the gardens you study?

The Sacro Bosco is a mid to late sixteenth-century garden worked on during the life of its patron, Vicino Orsini, who lived in the nearby Palazzo Orsini. Sacro Bosco means “holy woods,” and it’s more of a park or refined forest than what we think of as a garden, with flowers or box hedges. There are trees and meandering paths, and then suddenly you come across a strange sculpture carved from tufo, tuff. 

Tuff is a rough, nubbly, porous stone composed of volcanic ash and found throughout the world, with a great concentration in Tuscia, the region north of Rome where the Sacro Bosco sits. Tuff was used in architecture across time and at all levels of social hierarchy. It was used by the Etruscans, by Romans in the area, by medieval, Renaissance, and early modern people, and it’s still used today. It was used by peasants in their homes and by cardinals in their palaces. It’s used in the garden architecture and sculptures of the sites I study. It’s ubiquitous.

The architecture, sculpture, benches—everything in the Sacro Bosco is entirely carved from tuff. This area of Tuscia is strewn with big tuff boulders. Some carvings in the Sacro Bosco were moved around, but mostly the sculptors worked on the boulders just where they were. They carved out of the living rock as it was coming up out of the ground.

The sculptures are wild. There’s a war elephant with a turret on its back. There’s a dragon fighting with lions. There are several monster mouths, the most famous of which you can go inside and have a picnic or something in a little grotto with rock-cut benches and a table—and it’s an echo chamber, so all the laughter and noise you make inside comes out the monster’s mouth. There’s an enormous turtle. There are two giants wrestling each other. There is a female figure with a vase perched on her head. One building tilted to the side is called the Casa Pendente, the leaning house. It’s supposed to be like a Renaissance fun house. You go inside and you’re off-kilter because the floor is at a slant, the windows are at a slant.


Why consider the local landscape when studying formal sixteenth-century gardens?

A lot of scholars have talked about the Etruscan air of this region, but they never really quantify what they mean by the whole place feeling Etruscan. Part of my work has been going out into the woods and looking at Etruscan monuments and ruins, getting a sense of the larger cultural, historic, and archaeological landscape. We know Renaissance people knew about this legacy because we have some drawings by Baldassare Peruzzi (who worked on Palazzo Orsini) of Etruscan ruins in the local woods. 

Beyond that, it's important to notice that these gardens are recreating the landscape of Tuscia. They use tuff so much, they use native plants, they emphasize the bosco form of wooded, less formal garden area. I’m interested in how these sites essentially reenact the experience of going through the woods in Tuscia. In the case of the Sacro Bosco, it’s a more fantastical experience. In the other gardens I study, like Villa Lante and Villa Farnese, it’s much more about taming the landscape, manicuring it, and presenting it for the cardinals’ delectation. But these gardens are still in dialogue with the landscape directly surrounding them.

We’ve been trained to think of gardens as discrete units and not look beyond the garden wall, instead of looking at how the garden blends and bleeds into the world around it. That’s what really interests me.


How else does the Sacro Bosco bleed into the world around it? 

The Sacro Bosco is a kind of amorphous park, not geometric in shape, not axial, just wandering paths through a hilly environment. It has one wall, but on many sides the park just turns into woods. You’re not really sure: am I still in the Sacro Bosco, or am I in the woods now? In the last decade, some scholars have found pieces of minor Sacro Bosco sculptures farther out in the woods surrounding the park—so work had been done there. There are no walls or architectural embellishments that let you know, this is where the garden stops. Here you’re inside, and that is outside. Today, when you stand at the window in Palazzo Orsini looking out to the Sacro Bosco, unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s impossible to distinguish the garden. You just see a nebulous green shape, a sea of trees.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.