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The Medici Gardens of Fifteenth-Century Florence: Conceptualization and Tradition

Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto, University of Pennsylvania, Fellow 2004–2005

The Italian garden of the Renaissance is usually defined as an enclosed pleasance with flowerbeds designed according to a geometric pattern, and trees planted along regularly spaced rows. It often includes a bosquet of evergreens in the background, and terraces connected by symmetrical staircases and ramps. This definition, so often reiterated through the pages of books addressing the history of the Italian garden, is as rigid as is the geometry informing the layout of these verdant places. For not only does it ignore the fact that the notion of an Italian-style garden would have been foreign to anyone living in the Renaissance, but it also takes the very concept of design as self-evident, as if all the gardens of the Italian Renaissance had been conceived as works of art or, more specifically, architecture. In an effort to trace the origin of this style the Medici villas of the Florentine countryside have often been identified as the prototype of the giardino all'italiana, although the evidence to support a reconstruction of their original physical appearance is scanty.

In my doctoral dissertation I offered a different approach to the study of Italian gardens. My research focused on the early Renaissance villas of Trebbio, Cafaggiolo, Careggi, and Fiesole on the outskirts of Florence. The fellowship in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks has allowed me to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript. Instead of classifying the Medici gardens under specific typological and stylistic headings, which is one of the most common scholarly approaches, and bears the risk of attributing names to places that do not deserve them, my book is an enquiry into the human intentions and motivations that guided the construction and cultivation of gardens, orchards, and kitchen gardens within the early Medici properties. By commenting on the primary and archival sources, I traced the evolution of the relationship between man and the natural environment from the implementation of kitchen gardens and orchards to the design of gardens; that is, from the cultivation of grounds set aside for the growing of vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees for household use or for sale, to the design of outdoor verdant places meant to host pleasurable activities. Also, by taking into account the humanists' own representation of the relationship between man and his environment in their works of literature, i.e. the writings of Petrarch and Boccaccio, I showed how the transition from making to design occurred in literature much earlier than it did in actual reality, and how the Italian language adapted itself, through the introduction of terms often borrowed from other languages, to the evolution of culture, i.e. the creation of gardens.

Finally, the resources of Dumbarton Oaks' garden library, such as Lee Vernon's In Praise of Old Gardens, allowed me to trace the origin of the Italianate garden notion back to the end of the nineteenth century, when members of the Anglo-American colony in Florence started to write about the formal gardens of Italy, with the intent of outlining the principles of design, and to make them available to the new generation of garden designers.