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Villas and Gardens in early Modern Italy and France. (Books: Looking Back at Landscape).

By Mirka Benes and Dianne Harris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001. [pounds sterling]55

These days when university publishers have to make a buck like everybody else you don't often come across the Festsckrift, the collection of essays by disciples in honour of an academic lieber meister. So it's a surprise to come across Cambridge University Press's Villas and Gardens in early Modem Italy and France dedicated to the distinguished US landscape historian Elizabeth Blair MacDougall, one of whose detailed research studies on the seventeenth century Piedmontese villa, Venaria Reale, is included.

That, I guess, makes it a quasi-Festschrift. It has to be said that this collection of 13 papers, all by American-trained scholars, has the predictable characteristics of academic publication: sententiousness, obsessive concern with minutiae of importance, the use of pretentious and/or possibly non-existent words, political correctness, terrible photos and amateur layouts. Quark Xpress is a wonderful computer layout tool which allows designers quite easily to put the footnotes on the same page and do clever things like having the illustrations next to the relevant text. But it doesn't do this by itself as CUP seems to believe.

For all that, there are some goodies here. Perhaps the most important piece is Mirka Benes' detailed historiography of the subject--French and Italian landscape design from around 1550 to the end of the eighteenth century. Benes also has a fascinating, though not quite conclusive piece on the psychogeography of the seventeenth-century Roman campagne and possible affects on that by popular depictions of it by Claude Lorrain. Betty MacDougall's study of Venaria Reale near Turin follows the detailed building history of this vast landscape enterprise, its borrowings from the contemporaneous Versailles and the iconography of elements of its design.

A bit of this collection covers French landscape, you are just waiting for the bit from the US scholar who has gone native. There it is: the paper titled 'This is NOT a Jardin Anglais'. This is a piece by David L. Hays about the late eighteenth-century Paris landscape park of the duc de Chartres, the jardin de Monceau, designed by Louis de Carmontelle, master of entertainments to the Orleans household. He is supposed to have posted the aforesaid denial on a wall in this irregular garden which was overcrowded, if his various picture books about it are to be credited, with theatrical visual incidents. Still, with Dianne Harris's warning in mind about believing everything to be seen in published landscape views, maybe we shouldn't be quite so meekly accepting as Hays seems to be about his hero's design. Within a few years the duc had, to Hays' evident regret, hired a bunch of thuggish Brits to manage the place and tone it down a bit. Seriously, Hays' piece raises the issues of how far scholars can legitimately t ake their personal enthusiasms, and to what extent it is permissible to make contemporary value judgements about the design of the past.

Hays, for example, uses words such as 'the genius of Carmonte'le's design', 'practical and completely appropriate', and so on. On the other hand you might, with equal legitimacy, prefer the use of 'lightweight illusionism' and 'tricksy and inappropriate'. Certainly, as Hays tells us, the contemporary Jean-Marie Morel, probable designer of the marquis de Giradin's stately jardin anglais, Ermenonville, is supposed to have regarded Monceau 'with the most supreme contempt'. Part of you wants to join in that judgement but another part reminds you of what that great historian of French landscape, Kenneth Woodbridge, used to say about eighteenth-century English landscape designs. He would point out that what we admire in them is far, far more densely planted and overgrown than their creators would ever have wanted and that aesthetic judgements we might make about the past are strictly of our own age--and therefore illegitimate for the historian.
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Author:Lyall, Sutherland
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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