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Play in the Garden in Early Modern Venice

Sally Ann Grant, University of Sydney, Summer Fellow 2006

Early modern Venice and the villa retreats of the nobility on the Venetian terraferma have proved a fascinating allure for the scholar. The culture of villa life, their gardens, sculpture and interior fresco decoration have all been studied to a certain extent. Likewise, the ancient genre of the pastoral, which re-emerged in early Renaissance texts such as Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadiaand in the evocative paintings of the Venetians, has been widely discussed. While the inflections and permutations in meaning may vary, this harkening for the bowers and groves of Arcadia remained constant in Venice throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

To date the differing disciplines concerned with understanding the appeal of the pastoral landscape for the Venetian nobility have tended to restrict their scope of study—often of necessity—to one or two aspects of the phenomena. Drawing upon these important monographic works and such fundamental survey texts as Giuseppe Mazzotti's Ville venete and Michelangelo Muraro's Civiltà delle ville venete, my doctoral dissertation brings together these manifestations of pastoral longing in order to gain a greater understanding of what the idea of the garden meant to the nobility in eighteenth-century Venice. It begins with the premise that the garden was a necessary space of play for the aristocracy, one that demanded their participation but also one where revelry and intellectual pursuit met.

I have been able to distinguish and initiate research on a number of villa estates that encapsulate the playful mood of country life in the Veneto. These include such villas as that of the Trissino at Trissino, where its important eighteenth-century garden is animated by whimsical and exotic garden ornamentation and the interior of the property is decorated with Arcadian scenes, and the Villa Widmann at Bagnoli di Sopra, where the "rooms" of the garden are peopled with statues, not just of gods but of mortals—noblemen and women, hunters, fishermen, musicians, witches, Moors and Orientals—characters who appear to have stepped from the eighteenth-century Goldonian stage to the theatre of the garden.

For a study that seeks to understand the way in which the nobility responded to the garden setting, it is particularly valuable, in the case of the Villa Widmann, to have Carlo Goldoni's own account of life at the villa and of the plays in which not only he, but the owner, Conte Widmann (as Arlecchino!), took part. Similar reports exist of the lavish entertainments staged to entertain guests of the Villa Pisani at Stra, while at the Villa Cordellina at Montecchio Maggiore in 1743, as he painted such grand historical narratives as the Family of Darius, Giambattista Tiepolo complained that he could not work for all the visitors and the many amusements that took place there.

It has also been rewarding to read current scholars' research (often in Dumbarton Oaks publications) on ritual experience and reception in relation to garden history. This method of approach makes a significant contribution to an understanding of what a garden may have meant to its visitors at a certain point in time; in the Veneto villas of the eighteenth-century the garden was inextricably linked with play.