Listen to part of a lecture in an art history class.
OK, we've been talking about the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance … from around A.D. 1400 to around A.D. 1600 …
Last class we had a look at some of the magnificent palaces and villas built during this time period …
And just as class was ending, someone asked about the gardens associated with these palaces and villas …
And so I'd like to say a few things about them before we move on …
Now, when I say "gardens," I don't mean vegetable gardens,or simple flower gardens.
These were lavishly constructed, finely detailed gardens that covered hundreds of acres,with exotic plants and ornamental statues.
And they were just as much a symbol of their owner's social position as their palaces and villas were.
[a quick review] Again, what was the inspiration for the Renaissance? [pause] Rebecca?
The Classical art and architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
That's right. As we've said before,the main point of the Renaissance was to revive the genius of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Which is why designers of Renaissance gardens designed them as the ancient Romans would have designed them- or at least, as they imagined the ancient Romans would have designed them.
How did they know what ancient Roman gardens looked like?
Well, they didn't have any pictures, but they did have some very detailed descriptions of ancient Roman villas and their gardens that had been written by famous Roman authors who lived during the height of the Roman Empire.
And at least three of those authors-one was a scholar, one was a poet, and one was a lawyer-were very authoritative, very reliable sources …
Uh, and interestingly enough, there was another source, that didn't describe Classical gardens,but still became a great influence on Renaissance gardens.
It was also written back during the height of the Roman Empire,by a mathematician known as Hero of Alexandria.
Hero was a Greek …but he lived in Alexandria, Egypt, which was at the time part of the Roman Empire.
Hero compiled descriptions and sketches of seventy-some clever little mechanical devices,most of which utilized compressed air to cause water- or in some cases, wine-to flow from one place to another … or sometimes to squirt, or to make some kind of noise …
[sees hand raised] Yes, John.
Could you give an example?
Well, one of the devices was a sacrificial vessel-that was obviously designed for a temple, not for a garden.
Anyway, if you dropped money into this vessel, water would flow out of it.
Well, creative minds in the Renaissance realized that this little device could be nicely repurposed as a nifty little fountain.
Designers of Renaissance gardens loved this sort of thing-they loved to incorporate novelties and tricks, things to amuse and impress guests.
And that was the purpose, to impress people?
Sure. As a nobleman or wealthy landowner, one purpose of having a fabulous villa with a fantastic garden was to impress people.
It was a way of proving your social position.
Oh, OK. [requesting example] You also mentioned tricks?
Well, for example, some gardens had plaster or marble birds that sang when water flowed through them...
Some fountains were designed to squirt people with water.
And these things were popular?
Yes, they may have been the most popular features of the gardens- I mean, flowers and statues can be nice to look at, but these things were a lot more fun.
And the more clever the devices,the more famous the garden, and the greater prestige the landowner enjoyed.
[sees hand raised] Yes, Rebecca.
What about mazes? I read that they were a major part of the Renaissance gardens.
Oh yes, they certainly were. Mazes-or labyrinths, as they're also called-were very common in Renaissance gardens.
How that came to be, though, is a bit of a mystery.
Mazes have a long history, going back to the ancient Egyptians, but they started appearing in gardens only during the Renaissance, or perhaps just a little bit prior to that.
According to one source,what happened was,in the late 1400s, a highly respected expert published a book on architecture, and readers somehow mistakenly inferred from that book that ancient Romans had mazes in their gardens.
So then, designers of Renaissance gardens, thinking they were following in the footsteps of the ancient Romans … well, guess what they did?