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Mirka Benes and Dianne Harris, eds. Villas and Gardens in Early Modern Italy and France.

(Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism.) Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xx + 428 pp. + 167 b/w illus, index. $90. ISBN: 0-521-78225-2.

The study of gardens and designed landscapes has undergone rapid transformation since the 1960s, changing from a marginal and often unregarded field of study, characterized largely by antiquarian and somewhat dilettante enquiries, to one that commands the attention of rigorous and enterprising scholars. These changes have occurred in the working lifetime of Elisabeth Blair MacDougall, formerly Director of Studies in Landscape Architecture at Dumbarton Oaks, where much of the research in the field has been carried out and communicated. This volume took its inspiration from a symposium celebrating the work of Professor MacDougall and, fittingly, it contains the fruits of perceptive and tenacious scholarship matched with inventive curiosity and intellectual ambition. The principal ambition is to demonstrate how, after the advances made in the last few decades, scholarship in the field could benefit from reorientation towards approaches that integrate traditional art historical scholarship with those emphasizing the sociological and intellectual context and the material culture of, among other sources, books, prints, costume, and flowers.

The volume is in three parts: introductory essays by each of the editors followed by part 1, "The Italian States," a series of essays on early modern Italian gardens, and part 2, "The French Court," on French garden culture from roughly 1550 to 1790. The necessity of the volume's inclusions and exclusions is somewhat questionable, despite Mirka Benes' valiant introductory attempts to provide a rationale. Benes' account of Italian and French garden historiography credibly asserts differences, and she deftly describes the different ways in which social and cultural histories have affected the two national fields. The volume is intended to exemplify new cross-fertilizations between them, perhaps with the emphasis on the "appropriation of [Italian] gardens as a subject by social and cultural historians and theorists," a strategy seen as hitherto characteristic of French scholarship, particularly as influenced by Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, and Bourdieu. Benes argues that writing on Italian gardens has been characterized by "the turn towards major interpretative syntheses of Renaissance gardens as part of larger cultural histories.... Such a cultural synthesis is now in order for French gardens." Benes' introductory essay is typically well-organized and carefully argued. However, not all the essays in the volume quite conform to her ambitions.

The first, Claudia Lazzaro's "Italy is a Garden: The Idea of Italy and the Italian Garden Tradition," is a disappointment. Given the importance of her monograph, The Italian Renaissance Garden (1990), Lazzaro's presence in the volume was perhaps inevitable, as is the topic she addresses. Unfortunately, the essay lacks consistent focus and argument, and seems both centrifugal and oddly energy-less. Not so the following contribution: Suzanne B. Butters writes tautly, resourcefully, and sometimes wittily on "Pressed Labor and Pratolino: Social Imagery and Social Reality at a Medici Garden," achieving an admirable interweaving of the study of garden iconography with that of social history. Even better is Mirka Benes' exemplary "Pastoralism in the Roman Baroque Villa and in Claude Lorrain: Myths and Realities of the Roman Campagna." In a finely-argued, beautifully-written contribution, Benes deploys materials from direct study of the landscape and gardens of the region, painted and drawn representations, maps, archival sources, and the literary tradition, exploring the social geography of the Campagna, the manipulation of the iconography of landscape by different social and political constituencies, the place of the new genre of landscape painting within such discourses, and the ways in which these discourses were read and understood. Part 1 is rounded out by Tracy Ehrlich's "... dall' Agricultura venne la Nobilita ...": The Rural Landscape of the Villa Mondragone near Frascati," which is somewhat weakened by resort to assertion rather than evidence; Elisabeth Blair MacDougall's own "Venetia Reale: Ambition and Imitation in a Seventeenth-Century Villa," a tour-de-force disentangling of the highly complex building history and cultural significance of this perplexing Piedmontese villa; and Dianne Harris' "Landscape and Representation: The Printed View and Marc' Antonio Dal Re's Ville di delizie." Harris' essay is bursting with fascinating materials derived from studies of individual prints and printed volumes, but this very abundance perhaps proves an argumentative weakness, in that she seems finally unable to achieve a synthesized reading.

The essays of the second section share a number of the same concerns, linking garden design with material culture in fascinating, if not always totally convincing ways. Sheila ffolliott's "Women in the Garden of Allegory: Catherine de Medicis and the Locus of Female Rule" tends to assume its conclusions at the outset and Hilary Ballon's careful and interesting analysis of "Vaux-le-Vicomte: Le Vau's Ambition" concludes with an odd leap to an attractive, but essentially unargued conclusion concerning the "search for a classical French idiom." Margaret Hyde ("Gender, Flowers, and the Baroque Nature of Kingship") and Chandra Mukerji ("Dress and Address: Garden Design and Material Identity in Seventeenth-Century France") both achieve their stated ends, carefully guiding the reader through their material and their methodologies. The most impressive essay in this part, however, is one that seems oddly separate from the rest of the volume: David L. Hays' "'This is not a Jardin Anglais': Carmontelle, the Jardin de Monceau, and Irregular Garden Design in Late-Eighteenth-Century France." Hays' argument is strenuous and sineW but also lively and provocative, making a strong case for a French irregular garden style distinct from imitation of the English gardens of the period. Though the essay scarcely seems either to share the qualities and characteristics of the other contributions or to exemplify the approaches identified in the introduction, it nonetheless expresses the vitality of contemporary studies in garden history and the immense range of approaches now available.


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Author:Leslie, Michael
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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