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A History of the Garden

“…a garden (is)… the purest of human pleasures”

- Francis Bacon

Throughout the course of history, and perhaps pre-history, humans have influenced the landscape to suit their own needs and values, as well as to fit in with their connection, or lack therewith, with nature.

Creating a boundary and the act of cultivation are common elements in garden design, but one could argue that it is the ruling civilization of the times that is the most important influence on historical gardens.

First perhaps it is wise to start with describing the difference between a garden and a landscape. In this situation, a garden is associated with a dwelling or some sort of building, whereas a landscape often is not, and not necessarily required to. Similarly, gardens have boundaries and landscapes most often do not.

When one reviews the history of the garden, an unpredictable comparison can be made between the first simple domestic garden, evident from Egyptian tomb paintings such as of Sennufer’s garden adorning the walls of his tomb or that of Nebamun’s garden filled with ponds, fowl and marsh plantings (see images below), and the modern permaculture movement where both seek to fit beauty and design with multi-functional, useful ornamental and edible plantings.

What is most unusual about this turn of events is that Sennufer was the royal groundskeeper for the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III during a ‘period of unprecedented prosperity and splendour, when Egypt reached the peak of its artistic and international power’, and the edible garden design is having a major resurgence today in the useful domestic garden of the average person of post-Covid 2020.

Secondly, as you progress through history, it is not accidental that gardens increase in their formality and extravagance parallel to that of almost everything from fashion to architecture to cuisine to objet d’art. As humans advanced from a position of survival to that of enlightenment and beyond, their surroundings, which included the garden, match the level of separation, or control, they wish over nature.

On the same thread, reviewing the timeline of gardening, one sees across the globe that the extravagant and massive gardening styles sees a relaxing from the 1800s onward, culminating with Thomas Church-styled garden suiting the increasing middle-class of the 1940s onwards until today, where everyone has a ‘domestic garden’, if only a balcony.

Many of the historical gardens seen today were initially created to prevent invasion, such as the Spanish courtyard garden Generalife and the Alhambra fortress.

Often times, gardens were protective enclosures from severe weather/conditions such as the oasis Agdal Gardens in Marrakesh, Morocco c.1100 CE.

Others that focused on bringing water to

the inhabitants with wells foggara in North Africa and qanats in Iran, and the network of underground channels and ditches, known as khettera that collect drops of water from distant mountain flows such as wadis in south Morocco.

The third factor influencing gardens through history, and probably the remaining influence in today’s gardens, is that civilization’s need to recreate/control the garden to create paradises or sanctuaries that their owners could retreat to, or to preserve wild spaces for spiritual enlightenment/access to the beauty of nature.

Such gardens as Cyrus the Great's palace garden at Pasargadae were walled, and the old Persian word paradeisoi meant ‘wall around’. The classic Persian paradise garden, was also known as charbagh, another Persian word meaning ‘four gardens’, as it is typically divided into four parts, or quadripartites, by canals. This garden design was refined and expanded the Babylonian-Assyrian concept of the garden, and built with mathematically-based geometric designs, and could be argued influenced the rest of garden history.

During these times, the garden was meant to be a ‘retreat from the desert’. The word 'paradise' eventually took on its present meaning ('heaven') by the Greeks, and gardens thus became a symbol of heaven in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Early gardens also protected the inhabitants from the vulgarities of the commoner, creating sweet-scented places to perhaps mask the stench of the villagers, such as the oppidum or fortified settlement at Chateau Royal d’Amboise when owned by Louis d’Amboise, Viscount of Thours.

Being able to irrigate gardens from nearby water sources was a major influence on French garden design. This continued on when Charles VIII seized the castle from Amboise and employed Pacello da Mercogliano, who previously assisted architect-engineer Fra Giocondo, who himself translated Frontinus’ essay on the ancient aqueducts of Rome, enabling him to creating the hydraulics of bringing water from the Loire up to the garden parterres.

The Moorish control of Spain led to the continuation of the classical layout of quadrants, rills, fountains, trees and parterres north until they are incorporated into what is considered primary elements of the formal jardin a la francaise, culminating in the clear definition of the main east–west and north–south axis that anchors the layout of the Jardins du Chateau de Versailles of 1600s.

Asian gardens were also inspired by the Persian model of paradise on earth, and they in turn influenced later European gardens, especially with their jiejing (Chinese), shakkei (Japanese) or ‘borrowed scenery’.

The Japanese gardens we all are familiar with actually originated from China during the Han Dynasty, where the emperor Wu Di established a garden containing three small islands to represent the principle Taoists deities. During these times, the country was divided and society was in chaos. When in 607 BCE, Emperor Yang Di welcomed the first Japanese envoy to his sumptuous gardens, the envoy returned to Japan with many ideas and the first hill and pond garden was created in Japan.

Horaisan is a Japanese term used to refer to an inaccessible island, to suggest an ancient but distant natural landscape, and to express one’s fleeting existence as well as time’s endless advance. Plants and aged materials are generally used in Japanese gardens, as are designs that align Japanese aesthetics and philosophical ideas such as avoiding artificial ornaments and highlighting the natural landscape, such as rock, zen gardens karesansui or ‘dry landscape’ garden.

Just as with landscapes and gardens in other civilizations, each culture develops their own style to reflect their own values and preferences. While Chinese gardens were inspired by Chinese inland landscapes, such as lakes and mountains, Japanese gardens often used miniaturized representations of Japanese coastal scenery. Other differences from the traditional Chinese garden are that Japanese gardens lack the very elaborate architectural decoration found in Chinese gardens, opting for simple buildings, with little ornament, where the architecture is concealed to facilitate meditation.

Art and gardens have often influenced each other. Japanese painters tied the essence of Zen artworks with the idea of naturalism and spontaneous enlightenment, often including the six attributes of a perfect landscape: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, waterways, and panoramas. This idea provided a relief from the strife affecting Japan at that time: civil unrest, disease and the threat of invasion.

The arrival of green tea from China, originally to keep monks awake during long meditations, lead to the introduction of the Japanese tea garden. The realm of sadō, the tea ceremony, and the culture associated with this elaborate ritual, had a significant effect on Japanese garden design.

Another attribute originating in China, and later introduced to Japan, that made its way to gardens in other cultures was the moon bridge, a highly-rounded, arched pedestrian bridge. Constructed using a steep, climbing ascent and descent, it has the advantage of not using space from the adjoining fields for approaches to the bridge, designed to allow pedestrians to cross canals while allowing the passage of barges beneath.

Looks very similar to one of the ‘devil’ bridges, so-called in medieval Europe, found scattered throughout Europe.

Once the instability of the Medieval times advanced into the relative safety of the Renaissance period, post 1450 CE, the previously inward-looking gardens became increasingly extroverted, outwardly looking, literally and metaphorically. When Charles VIII led his army to Italy and conquered Naples in 1494, Frenchmen saw for the first times the glories of Italian Renaissance civilization, and elsewhere at the time, and within a generation had transitioned to the Baroque era.

The garden devoted to ornamentals, exotics and luxury, expanding upon the ancient use of paradise gardens. By the mid sixteenth century, these highly stylized gardens became even more contrived during the Mannerism period. Gardens altered nature to extreme distortions, matching the art and architecture, literature and music of the time that was ‘characterized by visual trickery and unexpected elements that challenged the Renaissance norms’ that were fascinated with classical motifs and models. The more bizarre elements of the Mannerist garden was in large part a response to the social and political upheavals occurring in Italian society.

Baroque style is obviously about showing off, with a leading principle of imposing order on nature, accurately reflecting the attitudes of Italian and French society of the time, with Princes, Priests and Popes trying to regain, and ultimately display control, of the Catholic church.

André Le Nôtre’s work on the Gardens of Versailles exemplifies the period and set the style for European gardens, with parades and stately progressions led by Louis XIV through the many radially-geometric avenues that characterized the Baroque garden symbols of French ‘grandeur and rationality’.

Symbolic of order in the tamed gardens of the French Renaissance and Baroque garden à la française landscape, the bosquet is an analogue of the orderly orchard, associated with pleasure gardening from the earliest Persian gardens of the Achaemenid Empire. The shade of paired bosquets flanking a parterre provides relief from the sunny glare and the pleasure of surveying sunlit space from shade.

As power and wealth shifted ‘across the pond’ to England due to France’s war debts and increasing civil unrest, Le Nôtre’s radial geometry followed creating the English Baroque, or Forest, Style.

The re-emergence of the ancient park and hunting grounds, with the arrival of the idealized versions of nature in the English landscape park of the 18th century, were designed to impress visitors with their size and grandeur.

In the late 17th century, Sir William Temple, influenced by Chinese style through contacts with Dutch travellers, first used the word sharawaggi to describe an irregular, organic, naturalistic style of landscape gardening in which straight, rigid lines and symmetry are avoided.  However, the original word for sharawadgi has been a matter of debate, some say it is a corruption of a Persian word, while a number of other scholars proposed a Japanese origin.

The novelty and exoticism of Chinese art and architecture in Europe led in 1738 to the construction of the first Chinese house in an English garden, in the garden of Stowe House. In 1761, William Chambers built a Chinese pagoda, house and garden in Kew, London, as part of Kew Gardens, a park with gardens and architecture symbolizing all parts of the world and all architectural styles. Thereafter, Chinese pagodas began to appear in other English gardens, or rather jardin anglo-chinois, then in France and elsewhere on the continent.

While revolutionaries were confiscating or demolishing chateaux in France during the agrarian insurrection known as the ‘Great Fear’ or La Grande Peur, English aristocrats and statesmen were relishing in their new found wealth from the New World, West Indies and other colonies, and their gardens, or rather landscapes, attested to their wealth.

These men travelled the world, known as the Grand Tour and were intellects and collectors of ideas and things, and wanted their gardens to showcase their achievements, collections and knowledge. Augustan, Picturesque and Gardenesque landscapes served as a reminder and as a place to display souvenirs of ancient urns and statues, collections of exotic plants and often included follies, replicates of Roman ruins and Italian landscapes in their gardens.

The English ‘landscape’ garden emerged in the early 18th century and spread across Europe, replacing the more formal, symmetrical jardin a la francaise of the 17th century. Picturesque ruins that became widespread with the rise of the Romantic movement soon after the middle of the 18th century symbolized both the ‘decline of once great powers and the preservation of the remains of a heroic past’.

Back in France, in the late 18th century, revolts lead to the abolishment of feudalism, personal serfdom and other privileges of the nobility such as exclusive hunting rights, further drastically changed the French garden into something similar to the ‘market gardens’ famous in Paris today.

By the early 20th century, the landowners were taking pleasure and pride in creating their own gardens, as seen in the Arts and Crafts style, such as Sissinghurst Gardens and this continued into the Modern and Post-Modern garden style with pared features and the rise of machinery allowing average people to manicure their gardens without a team of gardeners as in gardens of the past.


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