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Pergolas and Pavilions in Italian Renaissance Gardens: A Study of the Printed Primary Sources

Natsumi Nonaka, School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin, Summer Fellow 2010

The project is intended as a chapter of my PhD dissertation, “The Illusionistic Pergola in Italian Renaissance Architecture.” The proliferation of trompe-l'œil decorations of fictive pergolas in Rome and its environs from the early 1500s onwards leads us to suppose that the illusionistic pergola was a distinctive cultural current that originated in Renaissance Rome. The dissertation is planned to be the first systematic study of these ornamentations. After tracing the origins and the development of the pergola in the pictorial arts from antiquity to the Renaissance, the dissertation will interpret its space, form, and meaning in the social and cultural context of Renaissance Rome; it will seek to understand the illusionistic pergolas as a nexus of interactions and interrelationships between built structure, ornamented surface, garden, and landscape.

The study of the early printed sources covers both textual descriptions of real pergolas and their visual depictions. Three early illustrated books are particularly important in this regard: Boccaccio's Decamerone (Venice, 1492), Pietro de' Crescenzi's Liber Ruralium Commodorum (Venice, 1495) and Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice, 1499; Paris, 1546). The illustrations and the verbal descriptions from these books suggest that the pergola was a typical garden structure that combined both utilitarian and aesthetic functions: support for climbing plants, shelter from the sun, visual focus, and a way-finding marker. The Hypnerotomachia's pergola images resonate with an important strand in northern Italian painting, the Madonna of the arbor. The significance of the pergola lies especially in its space-making quality, a semi-indoor space in the midst of the garden. The subsequent appearance of the illusionistic pergolas denotes the ambiguity and ambivalence of the interpenetration of indoors and outdoors, and reveals an interest in a more sensuous experience of nature and a scientific understanding of the natural world.