Transformations of Gardens – places of delight, fertility, and contemplation since ancient times

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Petra Bjelica
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Gardens are the places that in silence unmistakably and truthfully reflect people’s behavior. Our relationship with plants is as old as time and we often tend to overlook that our culture is much more closely related to gardening than we may be aware. Since prehistoric times, gardening was essential for the survival of humankind because it provided food.

The first form of gardening was forest gardening which included identification, protection, and amelioration of useful plant species and elimination of the unsuitable ones. Domesticating the harshness of nature was pivotal. Our oldest mythologies and religions were connected with agriculture and illuminated human’s dependence on plants through legends of paradise on earth – whether it is the Garden of Eden, the Homeric garden of Alkinoos or Islamic Eram. Gardens, as enclosed and cultivated outdoor spaces, have been regarded as sacred from ancient times. As life-giving and privileged areas they often symbolized Heaven.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon, author: Ferdinand Knab

Through the long history of literature, it is a common place to represent gardens as a locus amoenus. It depicts an idealized and pleasant area of safety and comfort, a place of a refuge from time and mortality with the regenerative power of sexuality, and a place for relaxation and contemplation.

Gardening as a practice of enhancing the surroundings and beautifying the landscape has been seen both as art and science. With the emergence of civilization, people started displaying their taste, style, status or national pride, and the use and cultivation of plants were considered as expressions of individual’s or culture’s philosophies.

Some of the oldest civilizations such as Egypt (16th century BC) and Persia were famous for their magnificent and abundant horticulture reserved only for the higher court and classes. Egyptian gardens were famous for their rigidly symmetrical and highly developed ornamental patterns unapparent to viewers because of many lotus ponds, palms or acacias. Assyrian, Babylonian or Persian had three different types of gardens – private gardens for pleasure, large game reserves, and sacred spaces such as the Hanging gardens of Babylon or the paradise garden of Darius the Great. Roman author Vitruvius wrote the first manual for designing the gardens which highlighted three most important characteristics: strength, utility, and beauty. All these rules can be seen in ancient concepts of Zen gardens of China and Japan that are still followed today.

In the Middle Ages, gardens were connected with monasteries and their practices and were reduced to a function of providing food and medicine for the priests and their community. The main characteristic of monastic gardens was that they were enclosed by a fence or wall. They were very important areas where manual labor was seen as a way of battling the sin of idleness but also seen as places where the divine unites with the earth. Cloisters were used for meditation and were sometimes designed with wonder provoking apparatuses.

Castel Pieskowa Skała, Poland, Author: Jan Jerszyński, CC BY 2.5

In the Renaissance period, especially in Rome and Florence in Italy in the 15th-century, classical ideas of order and beauty were inherited. The main purpose of the garden was to provide a place for otium – a Roman concept for leisure time, where noblemen could contemplate, relax and enjoy in all their senses, thus gardens were mainly constructed for giving pleasure. They revived many ideas from the ancient Greeks and Romans and again started incorporating a lot of mythological figures. One of the most famous and intriguing gardens even today is the Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo – with larger-than-life grotesque sculptures of mythological creatures made to astonish.

In 17th and 18th century Europe, French gardens made in the manner and style of Versaille were dominant. Basic aesthetic ideas completely resonate with classicism which wanted to impose order on nature. Those are one of the most influential types in the history of gardening. Plants were constrained, trimmed and planted in straight lines and forms. In Versaille, everything was about mirrors of water, perspective and optical manipulations with a lot of sculptures from mythology. On the other hand, it was also the time when English and French landscape gardens were created. Completely opposite, they represented the idealized view of nature with idyllic pastoral landscapes derived from paintings of Claude Lorrain or Nicolas Poussin. The idea of a noble savage, created by Jean-Jacques Rousseau was crucial for the understanding of gardens and the effort to respect wildlife as it is. English Cottage gardens, for example, were based on the idea that the gardener is supposed to create a sustainable place for wildlife and its growth. It was a period when a lot of exotic plants were discovered and brought to Europe which changed and diversified the usual looks of gardens.

Aerial view of the Domain of Versailles, author: Toucan Wings, CC BY 3.0

In the 19th century, with heightened conscience about the urban public sphere, Central Park in New York was designed as one of the first public parks, and many others followed. Before, parks and private ornamental gardens were usually reserved for the higher classes and showed a specific social, physical or economic line of seclusion.

Central Park, author: Ad Meskens, CC BY 3.0

In the 20th century, modernist aesthetics had a great influence on the design of gardens. The leading motto of modern architecture, the idea that form follows function, shaped the removing of all unnecessary embellishments in garden designs. As well, domestic lives were starting to be more outdoor oriented, and backyards were becoming more and more popular. For the first time, houses were designed to be in an organic harmony with their surroundings, completely integrated with the landscape. With the rise of interest in ecology and the ways of functioning of various ecosystems, contemporary gardening started being mostly oriented to the nurturing of naturalistic habitats. But, however we understand their role in our lives today, gardens have remained a constant delight from ancient times until today and places that, in silence, unmistakably and truthfully reflect people’s behavior.